Teaching the 2016 Election with Integrity

It has been fascinating to read the media grappling with how to cover the 2016 presidential election. It seems like each day there is another think piece on the media’s role and how it should respond to the virulence of the Trump campaign. There is another group of communications professionals, however, who will soon be tasked with finding ways to explain and frame Trump’s candidacy and the entire electoral process: teachers about to return from summer vacation to classrooms full of scared, curious, and anxious students.

Jamelle Bouie may be right that America’s media culture is not equipped to handle this unprecedented election, but I am confident that its classrooms are. In any event, they need to be.

Election years are always unique challenges for teachers, and this one promises to be a doozy. Good teachers let their students’ curiosity drive their learning and design learning experiences to promote critical thinking. The overheated media landscape and contentious political season mean election conversations are likely to be rampant in classrooms, hallways, and locker rooms. Teachable moments will abound. Already, this past spring teachers were seeing upticks in bullying and activism as well as newly articulated fears and anxieties about teaching in this poisonous climate. This fall is going to be rough. “I’m putting my head in the sand until November 9th,” one of my colleagues joked when I asked her about the start of school. “Or just staying in the 1700s.”

In the Southern Poverty Law Center’s illuminating study, The Trump Effect, several respondents noted that for the first time in years, they are considering putting aside their pretense of neutrality to reassert values like respect, justice, and equality. A similar cocoon-shedding is taking place in the media in what the Columbia Journalism Review’s David Mindich has called the media’s “Murrow moment,” harkening back to Edward R. Murrow’s famed indictment of McCarthyism. Mindich concludes by noting that “[i]f a politician’s rhetoric is dangerous…all of us… are complicit if we don’t stand up and oppose it.”

Where does that leave teachers?

This is obviously fraught, potentially explosive territory for us. Election curricula are always complicated by (unfulfillable) expectations of non-partisanship. Many of the SPLC respondents noted administrative or community pressure to avoid politics or the challenges of embracing a political position out of step with the broader school community. I also see a tension between progressive views of education, in which students develop the tools to discover their own truths about the world, and a more top-down, hierarchical approach that would attempt to dictate what and how students think about the world. In other words, while I want my students to think for themselves, I also want them to learn to resist destructive ideologies. The power I have in my classroom to govern the terms of our discourse in this way is an under-discussed yet essential aspect of the sacred responsibility of teaching for the future.

And yet, just as the media is starting to rise to this challenge, teachers may need to shed our pretense of neutrality given the stakes of the 2016 election. Indeed, I have argued that neutrality in the classroom is not only pointless and impossible, but that it is actually a destructive pose because it inhibits the development of students’ morality and their critical literacy skills.

The media is generally concerned with accuracy, thoroughness, and disseminating information (though this, year journalists seem to be more openly embracing their role as critical gate-keepers of democracy). Teachers, on the other hand, have an explicit charge to make our students better thinkers, better people, better citizens; we set out to cultivate moral, rational beings who seek to make the world a better place. It’s that lofty goal and teachers’ virtuosic ability to pursue it — and a strong normative classroom culture oriented around fairness, justice, and rigor — that renders us well-suited to shepherding our students through this fall’s election season.

After all, the best classrooms are places where bullying is not accepted, where shared values of tolerance, respect, and humanism are not just expected but taught, and where the pursuit of truth — and the cultivation of the skills for discovering it — is the goal. As the SPLC report notes, many teachers feel trapped behind the prevailing assumption that “[c]onventional wisdom and common sense dictate that teachers keep their partisan politics out of the classroom.” But there is a difference between “partisan politics” and anti-racism and anti-bigotry, not to mention between “partisan politics” and scholarly expectations of reasoned logic, use of evidence, and academic rigor. When one candidate’s platform violates the norms of classroom culture and the expectations of academic discourse, it’s incumbent upon teachers to speak up and teach, just as we would if presented with similar behavior from one of our students. And while Hillary Clinton fits the mold of a more conventional candidate, I look forward to subjecting her platform to the same standards of justice, morality, and academic rigor. I teach at a Quaker school, and you can be sure our school’s core value of pacifism will enter into our discussions. Still, as one of the SPLC survey respondents noted, “[i]f it can get you suspended from high school, you shouldn’t be espousing it as a candidate.” Conventional election curricula are equipped for Clinton; Trump’s candidacy tests the institutional norms of schools and classrooms and calls for a more robust challenge.

Thus, while I am always careful about how and when to show my biases, I’m not worried about appearing biased if my stance is against bigotry and in defense of moral reason and the scholarly use of evidence, logic, and research. Just as the notions of media neutrality collapse under threats to democracy, so too do notions of teacher neutrality. We can’t be silent. And I’m confident we won’t be.

What I’m saying is that I think this fall offers great potential for reinvigorating the work we do in our classrooms. I am actually excited to have such a broken, poisoned climate to teach in and about this fall. Maybe the invigorated electorate will spur newfound student interest in the political system, in its history, its development, and its problems. Maybe when we read primary sources, students will understand Washington’s ambivalence about political parties, Frederick Douglass’s interrogation of the myths of American freedom, or the Seneca Falls Declaration’s revelation of the gap between America’s stated values and the realities of its past and present. Maybe when we study the international community’s failure to intervene in Rwanda or the development of the modern Middle East, they’ll understand why questions about the kind of country we are, the kind of country we claim to be, and the kind of country we want to be are so important. And maybe when we question established narratives, compare contradictory accounts, and practice thinking morally about the past, they’ll start to see what we hope they’ll see when they think critically and develop their moral compasses. Maybe they’ll get why studying history matters.

Truly, if our republic is as imperiled as it seems, the next generations of voters, leaders, activists, and politicians — our students — need to be taught how to take care of it. They need to learn to look out for one another, to promote justice and equality, and to debate and argue with rigor. And, with the current system failing to model those norms, we teachers have the experience and expertise to help them see the world how it really is so that they can learn how to make it a better place. It’s never been more necessary.

I always start getting antsy for school in August, and I am uniquely excited for this fall. I expect to find students for whom the world is suddenly more interesting, but also scarier, murkier, and more challenging. My aspiration to create a classroom guided by values of respect, tolerance, and equality and to help my students develop an academic approach that takes morality, integrity, and rigor seriously means that I not only have to engage with the election, but that I have to be willing to speak out while empowering my students to do the same. I will be helping my students hold the candidates accountable to the same standards I have developed for their work and behavior in my classroom while using the election as tool for reflection, connection, and extension. And I will happily part ways with a superficial attachment to neutrality in doing so. I am biased — towards truth, rationality, and equity — and these are values we’ve never needed more.

jonathan.gold@gmail.com

Other writing: http://www.tolerance.org/author/jonathan-gold