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Lessons in Today's Politics for Tomorrow's Leaders

Greg Kwasnik
It’s election season, and most Americans are digging out from a blizzard of television ads, bulk mailers, and social media clickbait. It can be especially tough for students to discern fact from fiction in today’s oversaturated media landscape, which is why this fall’s Political Media class has become more important than ever.
Today’s students are growing up in an era with no shortage of ways to get their political news, from MSNBC and Fox News to TikTok and Snapchat. Whether they’re watching a video on YouTube or scrolling through Instagram, teenagers are constantly bombarded with political ads and messages. According to tracking firm Advertising Analytics, an estimated $6.7 billion will be spent in the political arena in the 2020 election cycle. For teenagers who are still developing their own political identities, this tsunami of political messages can be overwhelming. 

That’s where this fall’s Political Media class comes in. Led by Associate Dean of Students Tyler Cabot, the course examines how different forms of media have influenced politics throughout United States history, from newspaper opinion pieces and Nixon-era television ads to landmark Supreme Court rulings on First Amendment issues. And while learning about the history of political media is a centerpiece of the class, students are also taught valuable media literacy skills. Throughout the semester, students are regularly challenged to go beyond the partisan clickbait they might see online and examine hot-button political issues from numerous different viewpoints. Students are then encouraged to form their own conclusions. 

“The opinions that they have now are more or less based on their life experience, whether that’s political or just the general way they are,” Tyler says. “As high school kids, their job is to push back on that. This is when they really start to develop their own opinions. From a political standpoint, this is when our kids start to really understand, and can understand the scope of various decisions.”

Tyler first taught the Political Media class during the runup to the 2016 election, and a similar class was taught during the 2008 and 2012 elections. The 2016 class ended up being so successful that he decided to teach it again for the 2020 presidential contest. This year’s campaign has proven to be an invaluable teaching opportunity for Tyler, who ties his daily lessons to current events transpiring on the national political stage. In the weeks preceding the general election, for example, his students compared each presidential candidate’s stance on issues such as climate change, the economy, healthcare, COVID-19, national security, and education. The students then shared their findings with the rest of the school.

For Tyler, a goal of the Political Media class is to help students become well-rounded media consumers who can step back from today’s hyper-partisan political culture and engage in substantive debates on the issues. So far, it seems to be working. Although only a small percentage of Holderness students will be old enough to vote in the 2020 election, Tyler says his students are tuned in, engaged, and ready to participate in the democratic process when their time comes. 

“It’s a fun group. I enjoy this class,” Tyler says. “Every day they get a little bit more rounded and more of a sense of what’s going on. I think they’re beginning to engage in some good conversations.”
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