The conservative minority

Exploring the extent to which education imposes the stigma surrounding conservative minorities at MVHS

Rachel Jiang

When you think of Monta Vista High School, what do you envision? Progressive students? Politically aware? A place where we delve into capitalist critiques and social justice issues?

How about the conservative minority?

Though MVHS is a highly progressive school, it has its fair share of conservative and libertarian students and faculty, though not as large as the progressive population.

MVHS’s humanities and social science departments often cover social, economic, and political topics through lectures, class discussions, and projects. With a large portion of the faculty being democratic or progressive individuals, it begs the question, do a faculty member’s social, political, and economic opinions influence their curriculum and facilitate class discussions? And if so, how does it affect students who don’t have the same beliefs? Today, we’ll be digging into the hidden voices of MVHS.

First, I approached English and British Literature teacher Randall Holaday to understand what MVHS’s liberal education is defined as. According to Holaday, our school ensures students develop a well-rounded education, creating a system that allows for studying our world through multiple perspectives.

“I would go back to like the kind of historical definition, where it’s kind of, the idea that you should be developing the whole person instead of just one, um, particular subject matter, that there’s some basics in all subjects that everyone in the world should be developing in,” Holaday said. “So the goal of liberal arts is to provide that variety in that kind of base for then people once they reach adulthood, they can decide the specialty or that direction that they want to go to.”

With a liberal education that emphasizes diversity in knowledge, from the outside, MVHS students seem like Renaissance men and women who are open to new concepts and talented in multiple subjects. But are our mindsets as well-rounded as our abilities? Let’s take a look.

Weeks before the 2020 presidential elections, an El Estoque staff and I conducted a survey about the elections, with one question being, “Which presidential candidate would you vote for?” Out of 248 responses, 75% would vote for Joe Biden and 13% would vote for Donald Trump. The other 12% voted for other parties’ candidates. These statistics piqued my curiosity because I wondered whether MVHS’s progressive education had any correlation with the 75% majority who voted for the Democratic side. So, I decided to consult some teachers about my findings.

First up was Holaday. I asked whether he believes school education directly influences students’ social and political viewpoints. Here’s what he said.

“Oh, that’s a hard one… There’s a lot of layers to why people think the way that they do, I guess it’s my way, it’s like the big way, which isn’t saying too much,” Holaday said. “And so, I think, in order to, I think, thinking like, ‘Oh, it’s just because of something that’s happening with the MVHS curriculum,’ I think that’s too reductive of an argument. At the same time, I think not factoring it in is incorrect too. I do think geographically being in the Bay Area, where it’s just, yeah, MVHS might be higher in the percentage of voting liberal or voting democratic, geographically that is the context that we’re in. And if that bleeds into the people that are getting hired right they probably are fitting that mostly too.”

Next up is social science teacher Peter Pelkey, who agrees with Holaday. He points to an example of an instance, a few years ago, where he witnessed the impacts of MVHS’s progressive education on students during the 2008 presidential elections.

“We had a day, the presidential election was coming up, so one day [the school was] going to [put] Obama posters all over the walls and they did. And then the next day, they were going to put McCain, I think it was McCain who’s running, yes,” Pelkey said. “We put McCain posters up and then kids were ripping these posters down. And I’m thinking, is that really what we’re really professing here? Shouldn’t we allow a lot of different kinds of viewpoints to come up and let the children decide where they fall so they can talk to their parents and they can form their political views? Just imposing a certain philosophy, even if I agree with the philosophy, imposing that philosophy upon children is not our job. We’re not here to indoctrinate, we’re here to enlighten.”

Pelkey claims that MVHS is one of the most progressive schools he’s ever taught at, which brings us to the next question: should teachers and administrations impose their personal social, political and economic viewpoints into their curriculum and classroom discussions?

To Holaday, bringing opinions into lessons and discussions is quite valuable because it provides new perspectives for students to look for, as well as encourages them to also bring in their personal views. However, he also believes this has its drawbacks.

“Well I mean there’s two parts of it,” Holaday said. “One that it’s binary, that it’s either liberal or conservative, when really, it’s a spectrum. It’s actually a political spectrum and that even if you lean towards the conservative side, it doesn’t mean that you’re this awful person. Or there aren’t sides of the liberal platform that you agree with and vice versa. And I think the other issue is how moralism has gotten integrated with a political position, right, where because of identity-based politics, right, we’ve gotten to this place where, if you disagree politically, it’s seen as an attack on your identity. And so that’s just a really awful place to be. And so I think I have heard from very intelligent, empathetic students that are conservative, and it’s sad that those voices are silenced even though there are other radicalized voices, that do so inappropriately and give conservatives the bad rap.”

Holaday says that he’s spoken with various conservative students who felt that their voices were silenced at school because of the current progressive political climate. Senior Maxwell Wu confirms that he does receive awkward exchanges when expressing some of his conservative viewpoints during class discussions. However, that doesn’t stop him from expressing his opinions.

“Do you think the environment MVHS has encourages you to share your opinions, even though they may be different from other people?”

“I mean if you’re brave enough, I guess, I suppose it’s okay, but honestly, yes there is a very much atmosphere that you may not want to share more conservative or opposing views,” Wu said. “But is there going to be massive backlash if you do? I don’t think so. I tried a few times, it wasn’t that bad.”

“In HAmLit specifically, there are many times during periods where we’re supposed to openly share our thoughts,” Wu said. “But, like the moment I share out a slightly opposing view, you know, I’m gonna get a few eye rolls and stuff like that. But everyone will pause to at least acknowledge what I say and try to play off of it or disagree with me, yes.”

While Holaday and Pelkey believe some students may feel silenced, Wu, on the other hand, feels quite comfortable sharing his different perspectives during class discussions because he does not feel that MVHS is pressuring him to think in a certain way. As a result, he still maintains freedom of thought despite there being various disagreeing points from other students circulating around him during class.

“I get the impression that our school doesn’t really like conservative views but, at the very least, we don’t have progressive views forced upon us. We are for the most part told to bother researching about those issues ourselves so we can make our own judgments, but there is a bias towards progressive leanings; there’s definitely that,” Wu said. “But our school does a good enough job of not forcing any views upon us, even if it’s slightly biased towards progressive views, yes.”

To Pelkey, there should be a fine line between political agenda and teaching. As an economics teacher, he finds it crucial to not place his economic beliefs over the curriculum he is teaching, often showing students how to find both ways to critique and support different policies using various economic lenses.

“What are some things you do to ensure that you aren’t trying to push your political ideals too far in front of the students and [are] trying to maintain that status as a teacher who educates the truth?”

“A science, economics is a science and I always tell kids, it’s a science,” Pelkey said. “So, if the data says this is the indicator, then I have to go with the data whether I like the data or not. Again, science doesn’t care what you think, it doesn’t care what your belief is. Global warming is a thing. Why? There’s overwhelming evidence that it happens. My kids say this in the past like, ‘You’re being very conservative today,’ no, the math’s being very conservative and then the next day I’ll be doing something and they go ‘You’re being very liberal today’ and I go, ‘The math is being very liberal.’”

Not only are political differences brewing among MVHS’s student population, Pekley believes teachers are also experiencing it. He opens up about having conservative views among a largely progressive staff at MVHS.

“And how is it; As a teacher who has different political viewpoints from other teachers, how’s the teacher environment for that going?”

“Well, now it’s easy, we have Zoom; I don’t talk to teachers,” Pelkey said. “But you just go to meetings and they just assume that you agree with everything they’re saying and I’m like in the meeting going, ‘What are we doing?’ … These are very liberal people generally. I’ve been at Lynbrook, [which] was actually fairly conservative in fact, mostly, but they were very liberal people and they just think that this is the way and then there’s no other idea. And that’s when you stop having a conversation. See, political debate can only happen if you accept that other people have different views and you listen for those views. And that’s where we get a healthy political climate. And right now in this country, we don’t have a healthy political climate on any side because if you express any view that’s altered somebody else’s it’s like you’re insulting them, but you’re not you’re saying, ‘Man, I just disagree.’”

After listening to Holaday, Pelkey, and Wu, I came to the conclusion that they all agreed on one point: having more perspectives is beneficial, and is something that MVHS educators need to encourage. Each of them had their own ideas of how they would go about uplifting diverse voices at school.

Holaday, on one hand, believes in a direct approach, communicating with his students to understand their perspectives and providing various interpretations so others can get the full picture.

“Increasing the autonomy in the student voice would help a lot with allowing multiple opinions and then I think really explicit sentence frames at starts of years that like, or like models or examples of how to, one, to express your own opinion, and then also how to invite others into the conversation who aren’t speaking,” Holaday said. “I think just being very direct, instead of just saying, ‘Hey we need to be respectful,’ right, like, ‘Here are some examples of what respect and inviting opinions and having a conversation would look like. And here are some sentence frames.””

Pelkey likes to start from person-to-person interactions, recalling a student he had who entered class with a bold and outrageous statement. As they started having more conversations, both of them started to learn and develop their mindsets from each other. Pekley states that it’s quite interesting how much people, who seem to have different opinions, have in common when they engage in respectful discourse. To him, having what’s known as “bad ideas” is just as important as having good ideas.

“I had this kid last year that, he just said weird things, just a weird senior kid,” Pelkey said. “And he’d be like, ‘We should shoot the poor people.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah …’ and then I would just sit there and look at him and I go, ‘Yeah that’s probably not a good idea. Let me tell you why.’ And then we’d have this little discussion. And there’s this girl that sat behind a couple of seats. She raised her hand, and when she comes over here, she’s like, ‘Why don’t you throw him out of class?’ I go, ‘Because I think my job is actually to teach him.’ So, you know, we banter back and forth with all weird stuff that he would say, and then I would counter that, and she finally, at the end of semester, she goes, ‘You know what? He’s changed a lot. He’s not as bad as he [was]’ and I go ‘That’s because we were actually, I’m not jumping on him and going, you’re stupid for saying these things, I’m saying, ‘OK. Where are you coming from?’ You want to change somebody’s opinion? Listen to what they’re about and why they’re saying what they’re saying, and then start to go, ‘Oh, I see what you’re saying here but what about this?’ and then all of a sudden those ideas change. But if you tell them they can’t say anything, you suppress them, they keep their mouth shut, and they’ll just they go, ‘I’m just not gonna listen.’”

As a student, Wu believes it is also important for students to stay proactive in listening to new perspectives, regardless of whether they agree or not. Not only does this affect others, but also himself, as he feels that having clashing stances opens him to different interpretations, ideas and opinions that he would have never thought of before.

“How has speaking out about different viewpoints changed you as a HAmLit student or as just a MVHS student in general?”

“Well I suppose it has at the very least, it taught me that whilst you are entitled to your viewpoints, you’re not entitled to having anyone agree with your viewpoints,” Wu said. “And if you want to think a certain way, you better be prepared to have people disagree with you, and you have to deal with that yourself.”

Pelkey closes our conversation by referring to a professor he greatly admired back when he was in college.

“My favorite professor at San Jose State, when I was there, was a socialist, and we agreed on nothing,” Pelkey said. “But he was brilliant, he could generate an argument; you know, he allows you to have discussions in the classroom that he might not agree with. And then he could, you know bring the logic of his argument out I mean I absolutely worship the guy. He’s, I think, he’s still alive, almost in his 90s because he’s still kicking. And I’m like, ‘That man is the best,’ because that’s what you want. You don’t want just liberal, you don’t want just conservative, you want variety and you want people to go, ‘Oh I don’t think that’s true or this is the problem with that,’ because the world is complex, it’s not simple.”

Just like MVHS’s diverse curriculum, its student body is also filled with multifaceted people. Regardless of what political positions we take, there is no harm in learning new perspectives. Pelkey, Holaday, and Wu all believe that staying open-minded to different political, social, and economic opinions can contribute to effective, deep, and advancing discourse that can bring more insight to certain topics and solutions to the problems we face today.

With that wrap up, my name is Rachel Jiang and thank you for tuning into my audio story about The Conservative Minority at MVHS.