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What To Tell Students About Donald Trump

by Terry Heick

What I know about politics–in terms of processes and systems–is negligible, so this is not a post about politics.

My interest in writing a long-winded ‘hot take’ on Trump’s election also might as well be zero. The closest I came there happened last night as it became clear that Donald Trump was going to become President of the United States last night.

Around midnight, I jumped on twitter to think out loud a little, trying to wrap my head around what was happening.

And that was my first stage of acceptance here. Maybe we’re worried too much about ‘who’ and assigning to much value to ‘political truths.’ We assume being conservative will yield x but being liberal will yield y. Liberal. Conservative.

A political system based on degrees of excess will, by design, be characterized by those same degrees of excess, and reward and punish them accordingly. Seems like an awfully awkward way to govern.

In education, as it is, content knowledge gets all the ink, but literacy and critical thinking carry the day. In American football, the quarterback gets the praise or blame, but the offensive line is where most is won or lost. And so it is in society with politicians and political infrastructure, when it is the ‘business’ of families and people living out their lives that both affects and is affected by growth or decay rather than the ‘leadership’ of politicians.

To push this analysis further, let’s think in terms of a kind of cognitive perspectives–angles of ‘seeing’ and ‘knowing’. No matter what you think politically, it’s difficult to argue with the fact that Trump is, insofar as anyone can tell from outward appearances, a person of dubious moral value; to defend his character out of loyalty to his politics is to consent to a confused moral economy where we equate ‘like’ with ‘truth.’

Not ironically, this is a popular currency within and across social media where ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ are a product of pattern and appearance. Here, human value is reduced to a matter of traction. To respond to Trump’s election in any extreme–exaltation or despair–is to misunderstand how the world changes, how generations clash, how technology grows, how the climate becomes altered by our behaviors, and so on. It’s a kind of ‘missing the point’ combined with an ongoing and lowing ignorance.

Railing against Trump (e.g. #notmypresident) reduces a complicated issue to liking and disliking, for and against. This is a tragic reduction for both sides. Endorsing him makes a similar error. That both are primarily done through rhetoric, writing (like this), social media, water cooler talk, and other minor episodes of moral posturing is a more significant problem still.

This is the difference between thinking and doing.

Belief & Identity

This morning, Barack Obama addressed the media at the White House, at one point addressing the younger generation directly, saying “It’s sometimes hard and contentious and noisy, and isn’t always inspiring. But to the young people…you have to stay encouraged. Don’t ever think you can’t make a difference.”

And this is true. But he also said something more poignant, I think: “The path that this country has taken has never been a straight line.” And that seems worth thinking about.

Trump’s election has been compared to Andrew Jackson’s election in 1829, where Jackson based part of his platform on the idea of becoming a ‘voice for the people.’ (That Jackson would go on to sign the Indian Removal Act in 1830 is also worth mentioning.)

There is a push and pull to social change, in part because there is rarely common agreement on where we’re going and how we might get there. Republicans tend to think people should be capable of ‘doing things’ themselves, while Democrats tend to see government as the agency and infrastructure through which these kinds of things happen. Neither are right or wrong but rather two ways of going about the business of living alongside of one another.

For me personally–as opposed to my identity as an educator, husband, father, Kentuckian, and so on–the most frustrating bit of Trump’s election is that it seems to affirm a warped worldview that Trump based his campaign on–us vs them. A community not built on inclusion isn’t a community at all. Trump has consistently bullied, ridiculed, mocked, and otherwise demonstrated a moral-less character–a character we have to hope the checks and balances inherent in the United States system of government can protect us from.

The issue of race has also been radically under-discussed here, as it always is. Some have assigned his victory to ‘white lash,’ and it’s hard to dispute–and impossible to know–the effect there. White voters upset with Obama’s term or ‘Hispanic encroachment’ on the ‘American way’ is undoubtedly a ‘thing,’ and that’s worth further understanding. Do not underestimate how widespread racism is, how far it can reach, and how long it can linger. It doesn’t matter whether or not you personally are ‘sick of hearing about race.’ 400 years of physical and institutional slavery has its own momentum that will eventually have to be accounted for.

That politics, again and again, seem to divide rather than unite should trouble us, but we also might learn to become better at tolerating disagreement in pursuit of common ground.

That there are often single issues–abortion, gun control, etc.–that sway a voter to fully endorse a candidate’s plans for our nation is a fault of our political party system. I have friends that will never vote for a Democrat because they almost always are ‘pro-abortion’–and the opposite is true as well: I have friends that will never vote Republican because they’re against it. Party ‘lines’ reduce thinking and turn crucial issues into matters of fanaticism.

As a nation, we elect individuals, but only as a matter of management and function. It should be the long-term impact on the quality of lives that concerns us the most. I would whole-heartedly endorse Trump if he can help all individuals and communities live a life worth living, do good work, and create and maintain sustainable patterns of living we all can enjoy. His character matters less to me than his effect.

But what message does that send to children? We teach them that bullying is wrong, but then we reward a clear bully with the most powerful position in the world. The same about ethics and greed–Trump’s business practices are pirate-like, but we celebrate his ‘financial acumen.’  That is a mixed message that students can see a mile away.

Trump’s election brings forth other important questions that transcend content areas:

Why do personal beliefs cause conflict?

When is it okay to lie?

When are we most capable, as a species, of tolerating conflict, and why?

How can we learn from mistakes as a nation rather than as individuals?

How might we might have and express beliefs to mitigate conflict and clarify common ground?

How can we tolerate disagreement in a way that serves one another rather than the ‘superiority’ of our belief system?

What is the relationship between the individual and the nation? The family and community? The farm and city?

How can technology be used to protect and extend our humanity rather than limit, make artificial, or obscure it?

And so on.

What To Tell Students About Donald Trump

As a country, we have weathered two world wars, McCarthyism, brinkmanship with the Soviet Union, assassinated Presidents, dozens of misguided, military-based police actions (including Vietnam), market collapses, and more. Things always seem more urgent in the moment.

The recent election cycle has been beyond contentious, yet we all woke up this morning and lived alongside one another and life went on. I have friends on facebook gloating over Trump’s victory–winky faces and smirking and memes and other celebrations of ‘their man’ replacing ‘that moron’ Obama. It’s now on them and their guy to make the world a better place.

What should you tell students about Trump? That, of course, depends. How old are they? Are they black or white or Hispanic? Poor or rich? How is their mental health, and that of their parents? Are they academically motivated? Are they from a white, middle-class and stable family? Are they an African American college student hoping to one day be on the Supreme Court? Or an Hispanic student hoping to one day own their own business? Are they from the LBGT community? Muslim? Are they single moms with college debt? Is there one message?

Right, right. So one message?

First, let them know that they’re safe. Tell them adults lie and mislead and money makes everything complicated. Tell them that the President is a red herring.  Tell them not to fall for the okey doke of identity politics.

But more than anything, tell them that nothing matters more than what they do with their lives. Their ideas and actions far surpass in potential anything you’ll ever teach them. Tell them what they create and design and build and restore and care for and connect and code and love are like water colors, and that with every decision and act and social media comment and project, they–not the President–are painting the world.

And then design learning experiences that help them believe you.

What To Tell Students About Donald Trump