Teaching Civics in the Year of The Donald

Earlier this year, I asked my 8th grade social studies class to raise their hand if they would be turning fourteen before November.  Most of them raised their hands.  “That means,” I told them, “that you will be able to vote in the presidential election that happens after this one, in 2020.  So please, pay attention to this one.  Don’t let the first one that you vote in be the one that you learn about the process.  Watch what’s going on now.”

As the election cycle has continued, I’m almost starting to regret my words to them.   Watching the Republican debate on March 3rd made it especially clear that I might have some explaining to do in class the next day.

Before I continue, let me lay out a few premises to my situation.  Firstly, I find a great number of the things that Donald Trump has said to be abhorrent, on an ethical level and also as a matter of judgment (good judgment being one of the things I like in my presidential candidates).  Secondly, I am a social studies and Spanish teacher for middle school students.  In the social studies class that I teach, we cover early American history and spend a great deal of time on civics and the United States Constitution.  Thirdly, I feel that generally, a teacher in my position should instruct the facts of history, their implications both within their historical context and today, but leave personal opinions out of it as much as possible.  Just the facts, ma’am.

And so, I try to stay neutral.  A couple months ago, my students asked me who I was voting for.  I played it cool, asking, “Who do you think I would vote for?”

“Donald Trump!” said one kid.

As my facial expression probably gave me away, I asked, “Is that your final answer?  What are some things that you know about me?”  Things were getting pretty Socratic right about then.

“You like Spanish and you like Mexico, so probably not.”

“I suppose that is a clue.  Any other guesses?”

“Hillary Clinton, because she’s a girl!”

“Do I strike you as the kind of person who’d vote for someone based on their gender?”

“Haha, I guess that’s a no?”

When they started referring to Bernie Sanders as “Colonel Sanders,” I realized they might be on to me.  I don’t mind them knowing, but at least I can rest easy that I didn’t push it on them or over-share.

As the year progresses, however, I’m questioning what exactly my role is in explaining political current events to curious students.  As a fourth premise, let me also add that I am thrilled that they are curious.  Social studies teachers dream of the day that previously disinterested students will show up on a Wednesday morning and ask an unprompted question (any question!) about how the Supreme Court works.  Maybe it’s because the news is currently discussing the same topics we’re studying in class.  Maybe it’s because the candidates are especially, shall we say, vibrant characters.  Maybe it’s because kids these days naturally love watching the political version of a fails reel.

Some topics that have to be left as a cliffhanger.  On the Monday after Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, the kids came in saying that they heard “one of the Supreme Court guys died.”  We’ve been covering separation of powers and the three branches of government for much of the year, from the Enlightenment to the drafting of the Constitution, so when the question arose, “What happens now?” I was quick to remind them that we had just talked about this, and directed them back to the textbook.   And behold, there on page 260, under the title, “How the Federal Government Works,” it was confirmed that the President appoints federal judges.  We left it at that, and time will tell if we were right.

These things have been more or less harmless, but other topics, and especially that of Donald Trump, make it difficult to be completely neutral.   As a teacher, I am responsible for teaching not only language, history, and civics, but also character education.  Several students have said, either to me or to other students, “I like Donald Trump!  He speaks his mind!  Maybe he says it in a bad way, but he says what’s the truth!”  I realize that these students are likely repeating what they’ve heard at home, which is to be expected at that age (no doubt I did the same thing in 7th and 8th grade).  However, this is a year in which the media is saturated with sound bites of Trump speaking.  Therefore, it’s likely that they are hearing the quotes themselves, in addition to the assertion that it’s “the right thing” to say.

Enter the Socratic method once again.  A month or so ago, after hearing once again that “Trump speaks the truth,” I posed I hypothetical to the class: “Alright, I’m not going to say one way or another who is right or who is wrong, who I support or who I don’t.  However, I want you to think about this: just because someone says something forcefully, or just because they say something that no one else would usually say out loud, doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily right for them to say it, and doesn’t necessarily make it true.”  At this point, I took a deep breath, bracing myself for whatever angry parent emails I was going to get for saying something that, despite my disclaimer, was clearly about Trump.  “Let’s suppose I was talking about a student in the seventh grade, and I said, ‘Ugh, Johnny is the worst.  He’s awful.  He’s got an ugly face.  He’s a terrible guy, and he’s bringing the whole junior high down.’  Is it right for me to say that?  Is it even true, just because I said it?”  The kids seemed to see my point, and I didn’t end up receiving any emails.  If I had, perhaps I would have begged the same courtesy afforded to Trump, seeing as I was, albeit timidly, speaking my mind.

At its most basic, the rise of Donald Trump sets a terrible example to kids who are, believe me, paying attention.  The lesson they are learning is that you can say what you want, speak off the cuff, insult others, throw your weight around, and you will be rewarded.  Your reward is success, the praise and support of many people, and that thing that we prize most in the social media age: attention.   We take the time to caution our students about the harm of bullying (and irresponsible use of social media, for that matter), but when the loudest bully of them all sounds off, we do something even worse than looking the other way: we listen.

Shortly after the March 3rd debate, I overheard some boys talking.  One of them was whispering, “…because, you know how people say that guys with little hands also have, you know…”  Commence me shifting into teacher mode of excuse-me-gentlemen-I-don’t-like-this-topic-of-conversation.   The boy’s reply: “What?  I’m just telling them that’s what he said, and it was on the news!”  And you know, the kid has a point.  What he gets chided for saying quietly in class, a leading presidential contender said proudly from a podium, and then replayed repeatedly on the news.

Trump’s comments on women are especially problematic.  We’re all acquainted with his suggestion that the rape epidemic in the military is thanks to men and women working alongside each other, his bizarre speculation about Megyn Kelly’s menstrual status in addition to calling her “a bimbo,” the fact that he once told a woman who asked for a break so she could pump breast milk that she was disgusting, and his many, many cruel assessments of the appearance of women.   Excusing these statements doesn’t create a problem of sexism, but it reinforces the existing problem.  Shrugging and saying that those offended by these comments are overreacting gives up on a teachable moment for students.  Make no mistake: just because it’s the 21st century, don’t imagine that these are not biases that we’re still dealing with.  While it’s rarely mean-spirited, evidence of subtle sexism does occasionally come up in the classroom.  For example, when we were learning about the Supreme Court and I showed them a picture of the justices, one boy expressed a degree of pleasant surprise by saying, “Oh wow, women can be on the Supreme Court, too?”

A couple years back, one boy came to school with a T-shirt that read, “Cool Story, Babe.  Now Go Make Me a Sandwich.”  I pulled him aside into the hall and asked him to explain the shirt to me.  “It’s supposed to be a joke, right?  So just explain what the joke is.”  He tried to explain around it, stammered a bit, and finally said that yeah, the joke was exactly what I thought.  I suggested to him that, if he felt uncomfortable explaining the joke out loud, he probably shouldn’t feel comfortable wearing it.  He replied that it was actually his girlfriend who bought it for him.  This means there was not one, but likely two parents who were also involved in the process of him wearing the shirt; one at the purchase of this shirt, and the other and sending him off to school in it, with no one seeing an issue with the message.

I say this not to condemn the kids or parents, but just to point out that it’s still a problem in our society.  When the man running for the highest office in the country says things like, “I like kids… I mean I won’t do anything to take care of them.  I’ll provide the funds and she’ll take care of the kids,” that reinforces the problem.

Perhaps my third premise, that a teacher should keep his or her personal opinions out of the classroom is a flawed one.  Some of my favorite teachers, especially of history, were outspoken and passionate about what they taught, and spoke pretty freely about both current and historical events.  However, I recall this being more of a phenomenon in high school and college.  Doing so in middle school feels like an overreach on my part.  We recently covered the characteristic differences between the Democratic and Republican parties.  Laying out some of the fundamental differences, I took care to ask students which issues they care most about, but intentionally avoided asking them, “So, which party do you think you align most with?”  That question isn’t fair at age thirteen.  What does a thirteen-year-old truly understand about the role of government in issues such as taxes, subsidies, health care, abortion, environmental protection, and unemployment?  When they inevitably asked me with which party I was registered, I told them simply, “Well, I have been registered as both at different points in my life.”  Opinions can change in one direction or another, whether it’s the result of formal education, independent research, or life experience.  My input at this point should be to acquaint them with the fact that these issues are out there, and let them find their positions as they grow.

However, Trump’s bad behavior is something simpler than the fine nuances of social policy and legislation.  On basic thing that all political parties should be able to agree on is, “Be excellent to each other,” or however else you choose to word that golden rule.  With any luck, this policy is one that a student adopts early and doesn’t outgrow.  Although Donald Trump’s advance toward the Republican nomination is something I might have little control over, I’m hoping that his influence in my classroom-sized corner of the world will be as limited as possible.

2 thoughts on “Teaching Civics in the Year of The Donald

  1. Patricia Loux

    Well written and thoughtful evaluation of the state of politics in this election cycle and its affects on young minds. Never thought I’d live to see our political process come to this.

Leave a Reply