Teaching in the Trump Years (Part 1)

*”A kindergarten teacher in Tennessee says that a Latino child asks every day, ‘Is the wall here yet?’ He was told by classmates that he will be deported and blocked from returning home by the wall proposed by presidential candidate Donald Trump.”

*A high school principal suspended a history teacher after students and parent complained that the teacher in a discussion of Nazism compared Trump to Hitler. The superintendent reinstated the teacher a day later.

* At a walkout of Latino, Asian, and African American  high school students,  protesting the election of Trump, the principal led the protestors to the school stadium and they  aired their concerns about the newly-elected President. At the end of the protest that morphed into a rally against President Trump, the principal said “F*** Trump.” The district superintendent immediately suspended the principal. Two days later, after the principal apologized for his remark to the entire school community, he returned to the school.

The divisions, fears, and epithets unleashed by the year-long primaries and the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency reverberate in mainstream and social media daily. Because schools are political (but not partisan) institutions vulnerable to the cross-currents in the larger society spilling into classrooms, it is (and was) inevitable that those fears get voiced in and out of school.

Protests over the Vietnam War in the late-1960s and early 1970s, President Nixon’s illegal activities in the Watergate break-in, pro-life and abortion rallies,  teaching the Adventures of Huck Finn in middle school, climate change, policing minority communities,  teaching evolution–to name a few–have been controversial issues that entered classrooms over the past half-century. Parents and students bring those issues into classrooms and the question of teachers airing these issues dispassionately and abiding by norms of critical thinking and impartiality, and students listening to one another arises again and again, then and now. Not a new issue at all.

But  with Donald Trump, his precedent-breaking actions and language (not to mention tweets) as Republican nominee and now sitting in the White House raise anew the issue of handling controversial topics within elementary and secondary classrooms (be they lessons in math, foreign language, science, English, and social studies) such as banning immigrants from predominately Muslim nations and building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

What should teachers do?

The history of teachers dealing with disputed issues has been pock-marked with incidents of teacher firings, censorship, and fear of school board and community retaliation for lessons that take up contentious questions (see here,herehere, and here). Historically, there are teachers who skirt such questions and censor themselves for fear of blow-back from administrators and groups of parents who do not want their sons and daughters to take up, read, or discuss topics that conflict with their values. So teachers are often stuck.

Here’s the dilemma.

Teachers know they are obligated to have students–who are compelled to attend school–think and talk through volatile issues roiling the community that go to the very core of schooling in a democracy where diverse opinions and values are debated and decided. Teachers know that learning the rules of evidence and distinguishing between facts, opinions, and untruths are required tools for children and youth to navigate daily life. Such knowledge and action is non-partisan. It is the very core of schooling.

Yet, teachers also prize their autonomy. They relish the simple and powerful fact that they can close their classroom door and choose what to teach for the next hour as long as it is consistent with district and state curricula.  Managing controversial topics in elementary and secondary classrooms, then, in a polarized political climate is hardly a walk in the park.

So how do teachers manage this dilemma?

University of Wisconsin (Madison) scholar Diana Hess has laid out choices that teachers can and do make to manage this dilemma in coming to grips with controversial issues in their classrooms.

Four Approaches to Controversial Issues in the Curriculum

DENIAL

It is not a controversial political issue: “Some people may say it is controversial, but I think they are wrong. There is a right answer to this question. So I will teach as if it were not controversial to ensure that students develop that answer.”

PRIVILEGE

Teach toward a particular perspective on the controversial political issue: “It is controversial, but I think there is a clearly right answer and will try to get my students to adopt that position.”

AVOIDANCE

Avoid the controversial political issue: “The issue is controversial, but my personal views are so strong that I do not think I can teach it fairly, or I do not want to do so.”

BALANCE

Teach the matter as genuine controversial political issue: “The issue is controversial and I will aim toward balance and try to ensure that various positions get a best case, fair hearing.”

In subsequent posts, I will offer classroom examples of how teachers fit into these different categories in how they deal with controversial issues since Donald Trump was elected President.

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12 Comments

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12 responses to “Teaching in the Trump Years (Part 1)

  1. What is controversial is sometimes generational. I went through high school during the late ’60s. The Trump issue is just so trivial compared to the Vietnam War. But to those that did not go through that era this is huge. Trump makes a fascinating educational opportunity. How and why he got elected will be studied for years. Protesting his election is kind of like protesting yesterday’s weather, it is a done deal. This presidency is a great opportunity to teach about political involvement and how to actually make a difference. How many students have learned the importance of the electoral college in the last month? My students and I have a lot more to discuss now. Teachers we are allowed to have opinions but as teachers we need to be able to rationally discuss and defend our opinions if students question them. Irrational statements with no foundation or biased references (Breitbart anyone?) have no place in the classroom. But definitely discuss what generated those statements and how to separate bias from reality from “alternative facts”. That is teaching. This is going to be an interesting 4 years.

    • Christiana Varner

      I disagree. The Trump issue(s) are as big or bigger than the Vietnam issues – why? because his actions and appointments could lead us into another WW – another Vietnam – and a multi generational reactive politics and policies.

  2. JL

    Dear Dr. Cuban, eager to hear your take on “balance” vs. “neutral”. Every issue may deserve a balanced treatment of both sides, but sometimes “balance” (in the news anyway) is implemented like neutrality or false equivalency, like Climate Change vs. Climate Change Denier, or Evolution vs. Creationism. In developed countries, America remains one of the extremely few where there is a false equivalency on issues like these. Whether based on scientific or historical evidence or other principles, is there a thing in the classroom like “the hottest place in hell is reserved for those who claims neutrality in times of great moral crisis”?

    • larrycuban

      Your last question is a doozy and gets at the personal and professional dilemma teachers face at moments like this in the U.S. Do you have any further thoughts on “balance” and “neutrality” in managing volatile issues?

    • Chester Draws

      Americans love their exceptionalism don’t they — it’s not just Trump.

      America remains one of the extremely few where there is a false equivalency on issues like these

      Any references for this? Because I say you are completely wrong.

      Climate Change is a major issue everywhere — despite what the US left think, the rest of the world don’t all agree. I am very happy to argue that Climate Change is exaggerated and that the “solutions” proposed are counter-productive to my students. But only if they ask first, because I don’t believe teachers should be crusaders. (Please note, I have a science degree — a good one too — so “science denier” is hard to pin on me.)

      And I teach in a Catholic school, where several of the staff are creationists. and only too happy to give their position. I am an evolutionist (because us climate deniers aren’t actually anti-science) and that’s what the science department teach.

      And there are dozens of such issues that all countries have. That they differ maybe from the ones you are focused on doesn’t make them less real. In Germany the use of nuclear power is a red button issue, and the anti crowd really don’t want to accept the science. In France the activists against genetic modification aren’t going to accept the science any time soon either.

      Really, throwing “false equivalency” around means is that you really, really don’t like it that other people have the temerity to disagree with you.

  3. I’m really glad that you’re doing this series. I’ve been wrestling with this a lot lately, so I’m looking forward to hearing more about what other teachers and schools are doing. My high schoolers are particularly apathetic, unsure of how to internalize all of the news or what their role could be, if anything because of their age. Many stories focus on reports of students who are more politically inclined already. I’d love to hear about how teachers are supporting and engaging more apathetic students to at least understand the news and issues of our day. Thanks!

  4. Pingback: 4 mogelijke houdingen tegenover controversiële onderwerpen in de klas | X, Y of Einstein?

  5. Chris g

    Perhaps one way of framing these scenarios for students is doing a brief historical intro on the cyclical nature and historian instances of other “great religious awakenings” (which is just fancy talk for major societal thaw-freeze of moral norms). For instance, Chris Beneke’s “Rise of American Religious Pluralism” is a great book to learn how society dealt with other similar moral phase changes. Seeing how rule of law emerges from morally lawless times proved des great inspiration & hope. Interact with people different from yourself. Learn that even if they break your own sacred taboos, they are rarely the personified evil group leaders characterize them as. See that rule of law is what provides an escape mechanism for “blasphemy” ( it may be rude, but physical violence or Heckler’s vetoes are not permissible). Recognize that, just like the SSM culture wars showed, frequent association diminishness hyper sensitive sacrilege – we get used to the “other”.

    I think the big worry is that we “really really like” our own sacred values. This is normal. But as a society’s size grows and it’s diversity increases, sacred values rub into each other and you either break apart the society or learn to live with the profane. The 1860 “moral unfreezing” went down the former path. The ~1910 unfreezing pulled back from the brink of a 2nd civil war. Society survived the profanation of the 60’s. I guess we’ll see how much people cherish sacred values….

    …& how strong collective memory is of the ugliness of real existential-based war.

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