Teaching Discourse in the Year of the Donald

It’s the time of the summer that I have started to slowly turn my attention back to my classroom, making plans for the coming year and reviewing my curriculum.  As a social studies teacher, many of my objectives align with not only the social studies standards, but also tie into the standards for English Language Arts.  My mission is that, at the end of 8th grade, students will have not merely memorized a series of names, dates and events, but should also be effective readers of a wide range of texts, be able to analyze cause and effect, make reasonable inferences based on available evidence, and communicate effectively both orally and through writing.

Thinking about these objectives while also spending my time recently watching the Republican National Convention and reading the news surrounding the official nomination of Donald Trump, I couldn’t help but wonder: how would Trump fare if graded with the same metric used to measure the proficiency of my twelve- and thirteen-year old students?  This spring, I wrote another blog post (“Teaching Civics in the Year of the Donald“) about the poor moral example that Trump presents to these same students.  These issues persist, and frankly, are still of greater concern to me than how Trump speaks or how he does or does not support his claims.  However, it’s becoming increasingly clear that, in addition to having serious and dangerous shortcomings of character, Trump also fails to meet the competencies expected of a junior high student.

I realize that there are many Trump supporters who might say, “Who cares? I’m not voting for him because of his ability to write a research paper or pass a test; I support him because of his business savvy, his experience, and his ability to make good decisions for the country.”  To this, I would reply that the skills I’m about to outline are critical to making wise decisions, representing the country well, and demonstrating general competence as a leader.  If these are the skills we expect of an adolescent, they should easily be met by a presidential nominee.  Is he smarter than an 8th grader?

In the context of peaking aloud, 8th graders are required to “adapt speech to a variety of contexts and tasks, demonstrating command of formal English when indicated or appropriate” (Standard ELA-Literacy.SL.8.6).  This refers to register, the use of appropriate language for a particular social context (for example, you speak one way when hanging out with friends, and other way when you’re on a job interview).  Analyses of Trump’s language formality have been found lacking, even for the standards of an 8th grade oral presentation (let alone what is essentially an adult’s job interview for the highest office in the country).

Following the August 6, 2015, Republican debate, Trump’s responses were assessed using the Flesch-Kincaid grade level test, an equation that determines the readability of a text by analyzing such factors as the number of total words, sentences, and syllables.  As Politico notes, Trump’s language was found to be at the 4th grade reading level (and his responses at a news conference five days later, at the 3rd grade level).  The other candidates scored several grades higher for their responses at the same debate: 9th grade (Cruz), 8th (Carson, Huckabee, and Walker) and 5th (Kasich).

As both Politico and Thinkprogress observe, one of Trump’s favorite words (which also include “I” and “Trump”) is “very.”  Rather than making use of more advanced, specific adjectives, he chooses to strengthen simple adjectives with “very,” resulting in a much lower level of complexity.  As Robin William’s character John Keating instructed his students in the film Dead Poet’s Society, “Avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy.”  Of course, “very” is at least an adverb that exists in the modern English language, unlike “bigly,” a word Trump used in his victory speech upon becoming the presumptive nominee, following the end of Ted Cruz’s departure from the race.  Despite this, Trump claims, “I have the best words” (0:56 mark in the video at the link).

Complexity of vocabulary and grammar certainly decline in spoken language as compared to written text, which has the possibility of being edited and more thoughtfully crafted.  However, within the context of debates and speeches by major political candidates, who we should assume have prepared for these events, there is still an expectation that the language be formal, clear, and with some foresight applied.  I would hope that an 8th grader giving an oral report in class would have put some thought into some of the phrases and wording that he or she intended to use.   In something as simple as showing up to class (let alone a political debate), the 8th grade standard is that students will “come to discussions prepared, having read or researched material under study; explicitly draw on that preparation by referring to evidence on the topic, text, or issue to probe and reflect on ideas under discussion” (Standard ELA-Literacy.SL.8.1.A).  Trump, on the other hand, prides himself on not preparing.  He has mocked other candidates for using teleprompters and also stated, “I essentially don’t use notes and I definitely don’t read the speeches, because I think it’s much easier, but you know what happens, you don’t have the same vibrance.” (1:03 mark).  I’m imagining an 8th grader coming to class without having prepared and making the same excuse, and what, exactly, the teacher’s response might be.

As students hone their abilities to research and compose support for an argument, it is crucial that they be able to discern between those sources that are credible and those that are not.   One 8th grade standard stipulates that students will “gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation” (Standard ELA-Literacy.W.8.8).  In the age of the internet, with unlimited “information” available, this can require specific instruction.  As this excellent unit from Scholastic outlines, students must ask themselves a variety of questions to determine the validity of their sources, such as, “Would you include this site in a bibliography?,”  “Is there any bias?,” “Can you tell the facts from opinions?” “Have the authors documented their sources?,” and “Are there any errors in spelling or grammar?”  Based on these questions, students in 8th grade should distinguish whether or a source is reliable.  Is The New York Times?  Is CNNWikipediaThe Weekly World News?

It seems that Trump would benefit greatly from the Scholastic unit on reliable sources.  Recently, Trump referenced the National Enquirer to assert that Rafael Cruz, father of his then opponent for the Republican nomination, “was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald’s being — you know, shot.”  For those who may not be familiar with this grocery store impulse-buy tabloid, the National Enquirer (which bills itself as a purveyor of “The Hottest Gossip and Celebrity News!”)  is perhaps the furthest thing from a credible source, specializing in UFO stories, celebrity scandal, and macabre features that the magazine refers to as “True Crime.”  Carl M. Cannon of RealClearPolitics notes that the National Enquirer has also published a number of headlines articles attacking Trump’s political rivals, while endorsing Trump himself in an article entitled, “Trump Must Be President” and biographical tales in the first person in “Donald Trump: The Man Behind The Legend!”  When asked on “Good Morning America” about his allusion to the National Enquirer story on Rafael Cruz, Trump responded, “I don’t know what it was exactly, but it was a major story in a major publication, and it was picked up by many other publications.”

I want to emphasize that the National Enquirer is not one of those sources that is borderline credible (in fact, I struggled with posting the few links to the website in the previous paragraph, but did so only to illustrate, in full color, just how sleazy it is).  This is not a “major publication” that an adult person should reasonably mistake for being “the news.”  This is the kind of source that, if I were teaching a lesson on finding quality sources, I might include at the very beginning as an obvious non-example: something that an 8th grader would immediately recognize as being bogus before I then tackled some more challenging grey-area sources (granted, if I were to use The National Enquirer in a classroom setting, I’d have to first somehow find an issue that isn’t speculating about the sexual practices of famous people or salivating over the “new evidence!” in child murder investigations).

Trump’s pattern of recklessly believing or sharing information from questionable websites is habitual.   At an Ohio Trump campaign event, the stage was rushed by a protester, who was promptly stopped by Secret Service agents.  Shortly after, Trump referred to a fraudulent online source which alleged that the man was affiliated with ISIS (which was not the case).  When asked on “Meet the Press” about his propensity for relying on faulty sources, Trump replied, “What do I know about it? All I know is what’s on the Internet.”

Beyond referring to sources that are simply misleading, Trump has also wantonly re-tweeted messages from white supremacist groups.  As Jay Hathaway of New York Magazine observed, Trump has retweeted praise from Jason Bergkamp (@keksec_org) six times since the beginning of his campaign.  Bergkamp writes for Vanguard 14, a website that covers “white nationalism and genocide.”  Trump also retweeted the Twitter account @WhiteGenocideTM twice in January and February, and shared another false statistic in November that misrepresented the rate of homicides of white people committed by black people.  For further detail on people affiliated with the Trump campaign and the connections between their Twitter accounts and those of the top #WhiteGenocide “influencers,” I recommend reading the full article by Ben Kharakh and Dan Primack for Fortune here. According to Karakh and Primack, a Trump spokesperson defended Trump’s retweets of these accounts, stating that the personal views of these users are not “vetted, known, or of interest to the candidate or the campaign.”  Trump certainly should be interested in whether or not he is repeating and supporting the messages of white supremacists.  In many cases, it doesn’t take much digging into the usernames, graphics and tweets by these users to recognize them for what they are.  His inability and/or refusal to do is not only a moral issue (although as I mentioned previously, this is an important one), but also points to the question of his competence.

In the matters on which a presidential candidate should have some information and expert advisors in place (call it the “research” phase of his presidential project), Trump seems to have none.  In March, Trump was asked on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” with whom he was consulting in developing his foreign policy.  He responded, “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain and I’ve said a lot of things… I know what I’m doing and I listen to a lot of people, I talk to a lot of people and at the appropriate time I’ll tell you who the people are.  But my primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff.”  Imagine, if you will, a teacher asking a student what kinds of sources he or she has amassed for an ongoing project.  Any student giving the response above would probably not get very far with that excuse (and would probably be in for some extra time after class to actually get the research done).  It’s laughable for a middle school research project, but frightening for the leader of the free world.

In an interview with The Guardian‘s Hugh Hewitt (a conservative talk-radio host), Trump did not know the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas (basic information for anyone with working knowledge of foreign policy and the Middle East).  As a follow-up question, Hewitt asked, “So the difference between Hezbollah and Hamas does not matter to you yet, but it will?”  Trump replied, “It will when it’s appropriate. I will know more about it than you know, and believe me, it won’t take me long.”  It’s troubling that, in campaigning for the position of commander-in-chief, Trump hasn’t bothered to learn these things, but still promises having all of the answers for solving America’s problems, both domestic and international.  Despite the fact that he seemingly has no grasp of current foreign relations, Trump assured Hewitt, “I will be so good at the military your head will spin.”

To extend the 8th grade analogy a bit further, I would suggest that, in the same way a student presents their argument for a thesis in order to convince a reader of their position, a political candidate presents facts throughout their campaign to convince the public to vote for them.  In short, the candidate’s thesis is, “I intend to prove that I am the best candidate.”  To support this thesis, they should present specific reasons as to why they are most qualified, why their platform will be the most beneficial to the country, and conversely, why their opponent is not as qualified.  Just as a student would, the candidate should “introduce claim(s), acknowledge and distinguish the claim(s) from alternate or opposing claims, and organize the reasons and evidence logically” (Standard ELA-Literacy.W.8.1.A) and “develop the topic with relevant, well-chosen facts, definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples” (Standard ELA-Literacy.W.8.2.B).

Trump has made a great many assertions throughout his campaign, promising a new direction for the country that appeals to his supporters who are, for various reasons, frustrated with the current state of the nation.  He certainly has been clear about his presidential thesis statement, stating that not only should we vote for him, but that, when it comes to a rigged political system, “I alone can fix it.”  However, the “concrete details” required by even a middle school standard have been noticeably lacking.  In addition to his truly head-spinning comments to Hewitt, Trump has asserted, “I will be the greatest jobs president that God ever created, I tell you that.”  On several occasions, Trump has proclaimed that we will be “winning so much.”  In language bizarrely reminiscent of a drug-addled Charlie Sheen, Trump has proclaimed, “We’re gonna win so much.  We’re gonna win at every level.  We’re gonna win economically.  We’re gonna win with the economy.  We’re gonna win with military.  We’re gonna win with healthcare and for our veterans.  We’re gonna win with every single facet.  We’re gonna win so much, you may even get tired of winning.  And you’ll say, please, please, it’s too much winning.  We can’t take it any more, Mr. President, it’s too much!”  What “winning” specifically entails, or how we will get there, is not clear.

When Trump has presented specific details, his statements have been misrepresentations of the truth or, in some cases, patently false.  Following his acceptance speech for the Republican nomination (the moment in which a candidate officially presents themselves for general election, and most visibly outlines his or her positions), multiple fact-checking organizations found statements in Trump’s speech to be misleading.  For a quick visual representation of Trump’s claims (from “true” to “pants on fire”) see Politifact.  A full transcript of the speech is also available here.

Among Trump’s inaccuracies was his claim that the number of police officers killed in the line of duty has risen 50 percent this year, as compared to last year.  This figure is false; as of July 25th there have been 68 fatalities for this year, as compared with 63 on the same date last year.  These numbers include all causes of death on the job, including traffic fatalities.  Additionally, firearms-related fatalities are on the decline overall (for more information, see the website for the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund).

Trump also stated that the United States is one of the highest-taxed nations in the world.  According to the Organization for and Economic Cooperation and Devleopment (OECD), out of 29 industrialized nations, the United States is ranked 17th in terms of taxes paid per capita.  In terms of overall tax revenue as a percentage of GDP, the United States is also well below average (25% in 2013, as compared with the OECD average of 34%).

Additionally, Trump declared that Hillary Clinton wants to “essentially abolish the Second Amendment.”  This assertion is false.  Clinton has not proposed any repeal to the Second Amendment (which should be obvious, as any candidate looking to remove any part of the Bill of Rights would be very well publicized).  She has supported a ban on certain weapons, which had been the law in the 1990’s, but has since expired.  She also supports background checks for gun sales (a policy favored by 93% of the American public, but not by the NRA, who have given her an “F” rating).  Saying that she wanted to abolish the Second Amendment is nothing more than a scare tactic, and adding the word “essentially” doesn’t make it right.

For further detail, I strongly encourage anyone planning to vote to look into the various fact-checking responses available, not only for Trump, but for Clinton as well, and to do so following the debates, and to do so from a variety of sources such as the New York TimesPolitifactFactCheck.org, and PBS.

It isn’t only politicians who should meet the expectations we have of 8th grade students.  We, the voters, should also “come to discussions prepared, having read or researched material under study,” as the standard I mentioned earlier states.  If a twelve-year-old can learn about supporting feeling with facts, judging sources with a discerning eye, and expressing themselves in a mature way, then the same should go for the adults in the room.  In the meantime, I’ll be planning for the upcoming school year, hoping that, should any of my students run for office in a few decades, they will be well-equipped for the job.

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