As an Ohio educator, PhD student, and young person, I have many reasons for opposing Ohio House Bills 322 and 327. Many of the arguments I would make have already been made in excellent op-eds and articles published across the state, so I will present a simple one that I haven’t read yet: we don’t want to end up like our parents.

We are embarrassed and alarmed by the utter incivility that has gripped this nation of co-citizens. To ban teacher-facilitated discussion of potentially “divisive topics”— limiting free speech in a country that claims to be the freest in the world — would condemn us to civil unrest for the rest of our lives.

We have an opportunity to learn how to communicate with one another better than those who sow division among us currently do. We have the great privilege to attend integrated schools, where we all wear the same mascots on our shirts and cheer for the same teams. We have the great privilege to bring to shared classrooms a range of varying viewpoints, and we want to exchange them. If you forbid us this opportunity, we could end up using weapons against one another instead of words that increase our understanding of one another. We could end up obnoxiously talking over our co-citizens in internationally televised debates that make Putin roll with laughter and make our children bury their heads in shame.

Stop playing political games. Start thinking about the fact that we cannot afford college and cannot afford to not have college degrees. We are facing real problems, and all you politicians care about is keeping your seats by fanning the flames of culture wars that we didn’t start but would like to end. We can’t end them if you won’t let us talk about them or think critically (i.e. from many angles) about how in the world we got here.

I teach bright, engaged students from all over Ohio. In each of my classrooms of twenty-two voters, we don’t agree on everything (and we intend to protect our right to disagree), but one thing we do agree on is that we feel like we are caught in the crossfires of bitterly divorcing parents who are more interested in their drama than our very real needs. Discourse in the US is becoming unbearably ugly, and that’s something we are trying to understand with the help of many perspectives shared in a safe environment, where we can trace our problems back to their historical roots to try to learn information and skills your generation didn’t get to learn. Don’t censor us or our education. We aren’t being indoctrinated; we are being exposed to many different perspectives so that we can have more freedom, more options, more context, more autonomy when it comes to choosing what we think and how we conduct ourselves in this complex world full of people who are at least as similar as different. That’s one thing we discover when we’re allowed to discuss potentially “divisive topics” in civil ways facilitated by trained and compassionate teachers who care about us as individuals and care about our collective future.

The course I teach is called Writing and Rhetoric, and I love the fact that I get to teach it in Athens, a town named after the birthplace of both democracy and rhetoric. When we say “rhetoric” in English 1510, we don’t mean it in the derogatory way it often gets used nowadays; we mean it in the way Aristotle meant it, understanding that persuasive speaking and writing is an art that involves considering all the factors relevant to making productive contact with whomever you’re addressing: understanding who your diverse audience members are, what the situation and historical context is, what you’re trying to accomplish together, etc. According to a many-authored textbook called Understanding Rhetoric,

The ancients developed the concept of rhetoric to facilitate discussion. They thought that rhetoric provided a set of skills that helped people foreground ideas—discuss and debate their thoughts with others, and potentially reach common goals or make difficult decisions . . . If a society is to thrive democratically, a number of viewpoints and opinions need to be aired, discussed, debated, and eventually voted on.

So, we urge you public servants of this democracy to protect our freedom to discuss and debate various viewpoints freely in the forums of Ohio classrooms. If you continue to think of us as naïve children rather than critically thinking citizens who are also voters (or voters-to-be), we won’t forget the First Amendment liberties you tried to curtail via HB 322 and 327. We will give your seats to those who better understand their multifaceted audience members.

You do your job. Let teachers do theirs.

Louise Stewart is a doctoral candidate and instructor in English and creative writing at Ohio University. She lives in The Plains.

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