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The President, the Little Girl, and Challenges to School Values

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In Saturday night's Harrisburg, Pennsylvania speech by the POTUS, we both noticed the children in the audience behind him.  In particular, there was a girl, no older than 10 who was holding a sign that said "Women for Trump".  Each time the POTUS said something about the press for example, and the audience booed, so did that little girl.  Each time the POTUS said something about something he disapproved of that little girl gave an exaggerated thumbs down.  Sometimes, her eyes drifted to the side as if looking for a cue but she was certainly front and center. This was not an uplifting speech as when a president called for support from Americans to join together and develop a space program putting a man (or woman) on the moon. This was another kind of speech, drawing lines among us and around us, dividing to win and "conquer". Some of us are energized by that rhetoric. 

Our focus was drawn by that young girl. We were impressed that she was becoming politically alert and engaged. We know she will never forget her experience of being so close to the President of our nation, in such a large crowd filled with support for him. But, we were saddened also. She and the other children present were absorbing the style, the dismissiveness, the put downs and cheering. Irreparable damage was being done.

Words That Divide and Incite 

The words used by this POTUS divide and incite. Maybe this is an extreme swinging of the pendulum back from the previous president whose rhetoric was complex, scholarly, careful and inclusive. To appeal to the American masses must we slide backward? Must we set aside the social advances we have made as a nation? Is it only the billionaire who can inspire and identify with the white middle class, with those white Americans feeling overlooked and  less fortunate?  Whatever the reason for the style of communication being used, the lesson of its effectiveness is being taught, the attitude is being proudly shared, and children are admiring it. It is damaging and harmful.

What is next for that little girl?  It is unlikely she understood the content of the speech.  She was likely told what to do and when to do it either by an adult or by her sense of the crowd's reaction. There is a phenomenon called "wisdom of the crowd". It is used by businesses to leverage consumer feedback. Crowd averages are found to be closer to correct than individual judgment. Ed Yong, in his National Geographic post called "The Real Wisdom of the Crowds" explains the effect beyond the human realm.

Non-human examples are prevalent. For example the Golden Shiner is a fish that prefers shady areas. The single shiner has a very difficult time finding shady regions in a body of water whereas a large group is much more efficient at finding the shade.

Political rallies, concerts, community events, and probably even schools count on this phenomena. We set the prevailing values and behaviors, the tone of the event or space. We model, teach, and expect everyone present to follow. 

But, what of those students who are living within two cultures? The one in the hands of educational leaders to keep schools safe, respectful, and inclusive and the one in the hands of those adults who call others by disparaging names, get laughs and hoots of support, and build momentum by blaming the 'others' who are in some way different. Difference can be created by labeling a group, by religion or ethnicity or where one lives, or by weight or other physical conditions, or by social class or job. We know these issues all too well. We have worked to make public schools welcoming to all and to serve the social purpose of being the great equalizer. No matter the respect or level of philosophical agreement one has for this POTUS, he is still our President.  The prevailing culture, we hope, remains preserved: we respect the office no matter who presides within it.  Therein, lies the educator's challenge.

The Leader's Challenge

We are free to agree or disagree with policy and direction any POTUS takes. That is one of the attributes of freedom in America. So, too, is a free press. Perpetuating the belief that the press is not to be trusted undermines a long and strong foundation in our nation. It is the function of the press to keep us informed, not just report what our politicians want as the message. This is an honesty problem. Discrediting reporters and networks as sources of 'fake news' attacks the very institution we count on to keep politicians ethical and honest when temptations of power and greed become too great. Yes, we have needed this to keep our democracy healthy and great.  Where would we have been if the press had not uncovered Richard Nixon's truth or President Clinton's?

No matter their political leaning, educators, especially those who teach social studies, welcome opportunities to teach their students both sides of an issue, as do teachers of literature and science, art and drama, and others.  Disagreement is not the concern. It is in the behavior of those in disagreement that the problem arises. We are faced with a generation of students who are being taught by the leader of our country to disparage those with whom they disagree. They are being shown that shouting out disapproval or disagreement and mockery, booing and showing thumbs down is more than acceptable, it is admirable and strong and courageous.

Imagine the surprise of a child who is in the auditorium listening to the candidates for class president who stands up and boos and waves a thumb toward the ground. Image the candidate who calls out other candidates with mockery and names and labels. Imagine the locker rooms and cafeterias and hallways. Imagine the parents who come in to speak with you about their child's expressions and actions.  It is all likely to happen.

Be Prepared

There is clearly something in the populace that responds to the POTUS's disparagement of the press and others who believe differently than he, but that is left for others to resolve.  For educators, the choice point is now, before it is half of the auditorium of students booing and waving their thumbs down, before students become more firmly grounded in the belief that their opinion gives permission to disparage others, before your work toward healthy school cultures and against bullying all erodes.  The democratic principles upon which our schools have been built demand a renewed commitment.  That little girl is sitting in someone's classroom in someone's school.  And, this week she is proud and excited by her moment on TV and in front of the gathering on Saturday. We have an opportunity and an obligation. Respect must survive in schools or anarchy triumphs. We have a long history of the struggle to balance individual rights of free speech and free press with acceptable school behaviors. It is one of the challenges of our work. Essential and important work it is.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by counselling courtesy of Pixabay.

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