by Linda Woolf, 2022 STP President
Early in my career, I began attending teaching conferences. As a confirmed introvert, I was really nervous—these conferences tend to be small and include some big names in the teaching of psychology (STP’s Annual Conference on Teaching is an excellent example and opportunity). Nonetheless, I knew I needed to learn more about the fundamentals of teaching and I wanted an opportunity to share my own professional scholarship. One year, I put together a poster about teaching the Holocaust to psychology students and a year later, another poster entitled, “Genocide, mass violence, and human rights.” These posters sparked a lot of interest and conversation. However, I also got the occasional comment: “What does this have to do with psychology?” and “This is too political!”
Such comments are still present today and pop up in many forums. Someone will raise an issue concerning a current event on Facebook and someone else will chime in with comments that this page is about teaching and not politics. At conferences when policies are being debated or presentations involve current world events, someone will invariably state that the pendulum has moved too far towards the political spectrum and we need to move back to the science. Those statements, generally very well-meaning, are grounded in assumptions about our discipline and science.
When I was first faced with such comments, I responded with a nervous, “We study all kinds of human behavior. Why not study people killing other people in large numbers?” Today my responses are more nuanced and specific. For example, I have a passion for human rights, particularly for those persons and peoples who have been routinely denied such rights in the United States and around the globe. A political topic? Absolutely. Unrelated to science? Absolutely not. Science and human rights do not exist as opposite ends of the spectrum but rather respect for human rights is a fundamental ethical principle underlying science. Indeed, when human rights have been ignored, we have examples of bad science (e.g., Tuskegee, Tearoom Trade, Fernald School radiation studies). We can make the same case about the interrelatedness of issues such as social justice and diversity to science and discuss the historic use of science as a tool for political oppression when justice/diversity concerns and populations are ignored.
Sadly, today the reality of science itself has become designated as a political topic Science is being uniformly dismissed, denied, and devalued—essentially equated with political opinion. I doubt that many of us would challenge the importance of critical thinking and skepticism when reviewing scientific findings. Indeed, those are fundamental components of the scientific process. However, the current trend of anti-science or scientific denial is a completely different creature. Lewandowsky and colleagues (2016) document that those who deny scientific research often rely on conspiracy theories and engage in personal attacks on researchers. Of course, it is important to note that such scientific denialism can come from all ends of the political spectrum (Lobato & Zimmerman, 2018). Regardless, if used ethically, science, inclusive of both qualitative and quantitative research, can help to provide answers to issues, which impact us personally, locally, and globally.
So can we as teachers ignore events in the world around us today because the issue may be deemed “political”? Over the past two years, our students have been exposed to and are concerned about a host of world events, which are increasingly being defined as largely political: COVID, the attack on Ukraine, Supreme Court cases related to the rights of LGBTQ+ individuals and Indigenous rights, #Me Too movement, challenged elections, and the death of George Floyd and countless others translating into the Black Lives Matter movement, the impact climate change, and the list goes on. Psychology has a lot to say and offer about all of these topics and more. For some of these topics (e.g., diversity), you can find teaching resources on the STP webpage –just explore!
Regardless, in some states within the US, laws are being passed prohibiting the teaching of topics deemed too political. For example, laws against teaching critical race theory could severally impact the ability of psychology teachers to address not only topics of prejudice and discrimination but most importantly, systemic and structural foundations of oppression based on race and ethnicity, as defined in the US. Or how can teachers, particularly our amazing colleagues who teach high school psychology address topics of human sexuality and gender diversity if such topics are prohibited in the classroom? Indeed, the College Board has issued a set of principles, which includes the following:
AP opposes censorship. AP is animated by a deep respect for the intellectual freedom of teachers and students alike. If a school bans required topics from their AP courses, the AP Program removes the AP designation from that course and its inclusion in the AP Course Ledger provided to colleges and universities. For example, the concepts of evolution are at the heart of college biology, and a course that neglects such concepts does not pass muster as AP Biology.
At first glance, it might seem “easier” to just avoid topics, which might be deemed “too political” or lead to difficult dialogues in the classroom. And, I should note that the risks are real for teachers in some educational contexts. Regardless, I would encourage you not to avoid these topics, if you can. Such avoidance may lead students to see psychology as irrelevant or out of touch with the world they face every day. Moreover, we want our students to come to understand our science, the contributions it can make to the world, and for them to learn the skills and knowledge needed to be effective citizens in a rapidly changing global environment. Additionally, these topics affect many of our students in a personal way. For example, to ignore current issues related to the rights of LGBTQ+ students, the rights of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian-Pacific Islander, and other students of color, the reproductive rights of women, etc. sends a message that somehow our students may be unworthy because of who they are—they should be ignored. Of course, that is not true and we need to recognize that our science is not only political but it is also personal.
I would be remiss if I didn’t provide a few suggestions so you can keep yourself out of trouble.
Stay grounded in research and scholarship. Use the resources provided by United Nations, APA, the research literature, etc., and when in class, always come back to a critical evaluation of these sources. There are a significant number of materials on the APA website, particularly the Public Interest website. There you will find a host of policies, resources, and publications, all extensively referenced. You will also find information to help students who may themselves be struggling to survive due to the stresses of marginalization, war, COVID, poverty, and more. For example, just this week, APA published, “How to handle the trauma of war from afar” (Abrams, 2022).
Draw on history for examples. Current topics may spark great discussions but may also lead to emotional thinking and arguments. Have students search for and draw connections to the past and review the research on those topics.
Model respectful dialogue. Establish and model what you expect of your students and the critical thinking skills necessary for evaluating psychological research on “political” topics. It is both what you say and how you say it that can either promote or inhibit respectful dialogue. Note that there are numerous resources online about effectively navigating controversial conversations (e.g., DifficultDialogues.org).
Reach out for support. When in doubt, reach out to your colleagues, your administration, and your STP friends. STP is active on social media, so drop by and have a conversation.
Throughout my career, I have often reflected on the words of Dr. Carolyn Payton, a psychologist who was also the first woman and first African-American to serve as Director of the United States Peace Corps. In her address to the APA Convention, upon receiving a life-time achievement award, she asked, “Who must do the hard things?” She then gave the answer, “Those who can.” She further referenced a colleague who expanded the query with, “Who must do the impossible things? Those who care” (Payton, 1984, p. 397). As teachers of psychology, we not only can do the hard things because we care, we can teach our students to follow a similar path. We can highlight that what they learn matters and they too can go out, exhibit care, and make a difference in the world.
Abrams, Z. (2022, February 28). How to handle the trauma of war from afar. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/news/apa/2022/trauma-war-afar
Lewandowsky, S., Mann, M. E., Brown, N. J. L., & Friedman H. (2016). Science and the public: Debate, denial, and skepticism. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 4, 537–553. doi:10.5964/jspp.v4i2.604
Lobato, E. J. C., & Zimmerman, C. (2018). The Psychology of (pseudo)science: Cognitive, social, and cultural factors. In A. B. Kaufman & J. C. Kaufman (Eds.) Pseudoscience: The conspiracy against science (pp. 21-44). MIT Press.
Payton, C. R. (1984). Who must do the hard things? American Psychologist, 39, 391-397. doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.39.4.391