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How Should Educators Teach Trump?

Note: This week's guest-blogger is Meira Levinson, Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. 

Yesterday, Jacob Fay and I laid out some general arguments for why and how those who care about educational policy and practice should also start talking about educational ethics. Today and over the next few days, I want to dive into some specific ethical dilemmas we think everyone would be well served talking about with rather than past one another.

I am going to start today by focusing on an ethical dilemma raised by the current presidential election: namely, which of Donald Trump's outrageous statements, if any, teachers should teach their students to reject outright as a matter of principle, versus those which they encourage students to treat as legitimately controversial. 

Now, before readers start vilifying me for indulging in political correctness run amok for suggesting that teachers should take a definitive stand against any of Trump's statements, let me point out that teachers are expected every day to teach many moral and political principles as if they are incontrovertibly true--and to reject others as incontrovertibly false. Growing up in Texas, for example, I was taught about "Economics with Emphasis on the Free Enterprise System and Its Benefits," as was every other public high school student in the state, because it was a required course. It still is. When I taught middle school in Georgia, I was required to satisfy character education standards that tell teachers to inculcate "respect for and acceptance of authority," patriotism, courage, loyalty, and honor, and even "respect for the creator" as a means of emphasizing "the natural rights of all people." These Character Education Quality Core Curriculum Standards also remain in place today.

Teachers in all states and at all grade levels also teach their students to reject interpersonal racism--and would be outraged if they were told to do otherwise. Even though such discrimination was enshrined in law in many states and jurisdictions, and was publicly defended by governors, senators, and other political luminaries just decades ago, no public school teacher today would teach her students that they might legitimately choose to discriminate against another person based on their ascribed racial membership. The same is true with respect to sexism and (usually) religious discrimination; teachers readily tell students that girls and boys, and adherents of all faiths, should have equal opportunities at home and in the workplace. They do not treat such discrimination as a matter of legitimate controversy. As Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy ably demonstrate in The Political Classroom, some issues are rightly closed or settled.

So the question I'm asking—whether students should discuss Trump's sexist, racist, anti-Muslim, or pro-torture and anti-human rights statements as matters of legitimate controversy, and when or if they should be taught that some of his statements are morally or politically wrongcannot be answered simply by saying that everything ought to be open for debate in classrooms.

On what grounds might one decide, then, to treat Trump's most ethically extreme claims as closed (and wrong) versus as open for legitimate debate? The most straightforward tack is to treat the decision solely as an empirical matter: if it's being openly debated, then it must be open for debate. But this seems too quick, as it puts the power to legitimize previously unthinkable policies into the hands of charismatic or viral extremists.

Trump claims in direct contradiction to the Geneva Conventions, for example, "When you get these terrorists, you have to take out [kill] their families." As Ryan Lizza has reported, many American citizens now seem to be treating such a claim as legitimate. At a rally where Trump affirmed these sentiments, the "crowd erupted in applause. 'Yeah, baby!' a man near me yelled. I had never previously been to a political event at which people cheered for the murder of women and children."

I know that Trump is the Republican's presumptive nominee for president. I know that he's gotten over 10 million votes in the presidential primaries. But I still can't stomach the idea that this means teachers should encourage their students to debate whether killing children is an acceptable counter-terrorism strategy. I still think that teachers should teach their students definitively to respect basic human rights accords, including those that forbid intentional killing of non-combatants.

What are the normative grounds, thenthe moral values or ethical principlesby which one could make such a decision? One possibility is to look at democratic values themselves. Ben Justice and Jason Stanley's recent article in Social Education emphasizes that "democratic principles and ideals are not themselves neutral" and argues on those grounds that "it is reasonable for a teacher to observe that Trump's rhetoric [about banning Muslims from entering the United States] is a contemporary example of a violation of the democratic ideal of equal rights for all religions" (p. 40). I find such arguments attractive, not least because I agree with their substantive conclusions. At the same time, however, I worry that they just shift the dilemma one step up, to the question of when and how teachers get to decide what is and is not consonant with "democratic principles and ideals." After all, democratic principles are themselves always up for renegotiation, often in highly contested circumstances.

In the end, I wonder whether my search for ethical principles that could offer definitive guidance about how to teach Trump is a bit of a fool's errand. (Although I'll keep seeking some for a while longer.) At least as important, perhaps, is for educators and educational policy makers to have conversations with fellow citizens from a wide variety of political and ideological backgrounds. In talking across political lines, we will come to understand others' perspectives better. Although our substantive conclusions may remain relatively unchanged, my guess is that we will develop far different and more nuanced procedures for how to define what is legitimately controversial versus a settled claim that does not need to be (re)opened.

--Meira Levinson

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