Thomas Worthington High School has offered U.S. Political Thought and Radicalism, or "Poli-Rad," since 1975. That's the year when teacher Tom Molnar, now retired, came up with the idea for the class, got it approved and then realized there was no textbook on the topic. A student suggested Molnar invite guest speakers from across the political spectrum, and that's what he did. (It's notable that back then, the principal not only approved this idea but also called it "brilliant.") Now, the school's newer sister school, Worthington Kilbourne High School, offers the class, too.
Over the years, the speakers have included Bill Ayers of the Weather Underground ("Don't be stupid like me when I was younger," he told the class); white supremacist Richard Spencer; and Ramona Africa, sole survivor of the bomb that police dropped on the headquarters of MOVE, the black (and animal) liberation organization to which she belonged.
Today, about half of all seniors take the class, which involves reading up on the 20 or so speakers before they each arrive and then listening and asking questions. WCMH-TV listed the questions the students are asked to focus on, which include: "Why do people become part of these movements?" "Why do they choose the tactics that they do?" and "What are the goals that they hope to achieve?
Judi Galasso, who co-teaches the class today, told Julie Carr Smyth of the Associated Press that, "in 2019, no school board in America would approve a class like this, but in Worthington, there's no way you could get rid of it." The school's principal, Pete Scully, told Smyth: "In 2019, our teachers generally are like, 'You know what? Let's redirect to a different topic, because that one sounds like it's loaded with land mines.'" Scully says, "The idea of poli-rad is, you know what, let's explore all those land mines and talk about them."
Unlike some college professors, who find themselves unable to discuss a controversial topic without being accused of endorsing it, at Worthington, there seems to be a solid understanding that there is a difference between studying radicalization and actually radicalizing students. In fact, the idea of "Let's explore all those land mines" is probably the most radical idea to which the kids are being exposed.
The students — past and present — seem grateful for this, as well as for their school's trust that they could handle it. As the AP reports:
"Senior Tori Banks, 18, who took the course last semester, said it helped her expand her views and learn tolerance.
"'If I weren't in the class and I saw some of these speakers or people of certain stances walking around, I may feel uncomfortable,' she said. 'But I think the way we do it in poli-rad is a very safe environment.'"
Normally, calling a class a "safe environment" is a ridiculous overstatement. It implies that, somehow, other classes or venues are unsafe, simply because students will be hearing ideas that they disagree with or that make them uncomfortable.
But in Worthington's case, the "safe" term is earned. The students aren't hearing a white supremacist at a rally in Charlottesville, and they aren't bunking with the MOVE folks in Philly.
What they are getting instead is the chance to hear from an array of speakers outside the mainstream, as well as the ever-more-rare chance to be treated as thoughtful humans who can grapple with ideas and people they disagree with — and not be harmed in the process.
As student Jonathan Conrad wrote in the school paper in 2016, the class "not only gives students an opportunity to hear major figures from all sides of the political spectrum, but it also gives students the opportunity to form their own beliefs away from parental influence."
Let's hope he gets some more of that at college.