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Teaching in the time of Trump

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Several days ago, I wrote a quick post highlighting seven ways to survive a divisive election while making your students smarter. That post generated an interesting conversation – many teachers began asking similar kinds of questions. Specifically . . . how can we teach diversity and tolerance when much of the campaign rhetoric directly challenges these very American values while at the same time maintaining a neutral political stance?

A recent article in the National Council for the Social Studies journal Social Education can help us address this concern. Titled Teaching in the Time of Trump by Benjamin Justice and Jason Stanley, the NCSS article provides context, rationale, and specific suggestions for focusing on American democratic values and process.

The article is an incredibly useful teaching tool but it also provides a powerful reminder of our fundamental task. Head over to get the full text but I’ve pasted some snippets below to provide some flavor of what Justice and Stanley have to say.

Teaching in the time of Trump raises a fundamental pedagogical question: is it permissible for a teacher to adopt a non-neutral political stance in the classroom, either through explicitly addressing the problems with Trump’s rhetoric or, conversely, by remaining silent in the face of it? How can teachers balance the much cherished value of political impartiality (protecting the students’ freedom of expression and autonomous political development) against the much cherished American values threatened by Trumpish demagoguery?

Why should we even worry about this?

Democracy has two chief values, liberty and equality. In most conceptions of liberty, demagoguery is allowed in a democracy. Controversial speech is still free speech. The problem of demagoguery lies not in its conflict with freedom, but with the democratic value of equality. Demagoguery causes problems in the absence of equal respect; it feeds off of and strengthens divisions in society.

Public school classrooms are training grounds for liberal democracy, where students learn democratic skills and knowledge.

Students must learn the bounds of reasonableness by interacting with apparently fixed knowledge – such as that in their textbooks – and also by applying knowledge to their engagement with other students in the process of analysis of public issues. In that process, teaching for democracy is not the same as giving free rein to all perspectives so that all are treated as equally reasonable. Rather, teachers lead conversations and set reasonable parameters so that all students can safely participate and learn what is reasonable and what is not reasonable. This is the fundamental political purpose of a public education.

Democratic principles and ideals are not themselves neutral. Neither is teaching students to become citizens in a society that aspires to these ideals. Because of the value of liberty, one should not suppress the speech of those who argue that one religion should have a preference over others, for example. But it is reasonable for a teacher to observe that Trump’s rhetoric is a contemporary example of a violation of the democratic ideal of equal rights for all religions.

Teachers also cannot be neutral about the misrepresentation of facts or the violation of norms of truth in public speech. They should emphasize to students the importance of evaluating the accuracy of statements made by candidates. Some examples of websites that check these are FactCheck, the Washington Post Fact Checker, and PolitiFact.

Why worry about facts?

Trump’s rhetoric exhibits several characteristics of demagogic speech. If political speech ought to be guided, in liberal democracy, not just by reasonableness but also by truth, then Trump’s seeming willful disregard of it is also illiberal, whether it was his efforts as a “birther” to discredit President Obama by demanding his birth certificate or his recent claims about Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the World Trade Center attacks. In another example, Trump tweeted an inaccurate graphic claiming that 81% of whites who were murdered were killed by blacks; the real number in 2014 was 14%. Such disregard for truth is a mark of the rise of history’s worst tyrants. Hannah Arendt in her book Origins of Totalitarianism grimly observed this axiom in action: “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such . . .”

Justice and Stanley suggest three strategies for teaching in the time of Trump:

  • One approach would examine the material conditions leading to a situation in which voters are attracted by undemocratic rhetoric. Perhaps the institutions of democracy have failed them. A state that promised its citizens a raft of goods, but in fact never delivered them, would in so doing lay the groundwork for a protest candidate who proved his or her credentials by violating its norms of respectability
  • A second approach involves a comparison of the current material conditions to those present at other times in U.S. history at which demagogues achieved some measure of success through the politics of division and exclusion based on religion, race, and political belief. In short, one could compare the political environment that gave rise to Trump to the ones that gave rise to Father Coughlin in the 1930s and George Wallace in the 1960s, by examining similarities or differences in the state of the economy, social tensions, and disagreements over controversial government policies. Several of my Twitter PLN suggested a similar approach by asking students to look at other places around the world and in different time periods. Compare current US events to leaders and events in the past and discuss implications and consequences of those actions.
  • A third approach would track the genesis of Trumpism to the shift in rhetoric brought into public debate by partisan news media and social media. This would involve a historical project comparing previous media norms to the ones at work in contemporary partisan media. Students might examine the impact of the growth of stridently conservative radio and TV programs and electronic media during the last 25 years, and consider whether they prepared the way for the political rise of Donald Trump.

What’s our obligation? Our job?

Silence is not an acceptable strategy. As teachers, we should advocate no particular political party, candidate, or public policy. But we are all obligated, deeply, to hew to the basic principles of democratic life in order to help our students discern what is reasonable. Public school teaching is not neutral and has never been intended or understood as such.

Public schools are places where reason and reasonableness must be cultivated in the best traditions of liberals and conservatives alike, striking the balance between the principles of equality and freedom, preparing students for the maelstrom that awaits them.

It’s not necessarily an easy job. But it’s one that we cannot ignore.

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