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American educators are treating Trump’s presidency as the ultimate teachable moment

Annabelle Timsit
By Annabelle Timsit

Geopolitics reporter

Stephen Uhlhorn teaches social studies to seventh- and eighth-graders at Western Hill High School in Ohio. And in every class, regardless of the historical period under discussion, there’s one person who’s always on his students’ minds.

Donald Trump, Uhlhorn says, is “inescapable” even in daily lessons.

“I’m teaching Ancient Rome right now to my seventh graders,” he says, “and we’re covering Hadrian’s wall,” the 73-mile-long stone fortification in northern Britain, built at the behest of emperor Hadrian to fortify the boundaries between the Romans and the so-called “barbarians.” “And so the kids are like ‘the wall doesn’t work,’ and other kids are a little more like ‘we have to keep people out.’ So even when you’re not covering Trump or current events, things come up.”

Uhlhorn is just one of many teachers across the US grappling with the question of how to teach Trump’s presidency, which is markedly different from recent administrations. Unlike his predecessors, Trump uses social media to announce policy changes and confront other public figures (paywall); has eschewed traditional US alliances; and flouts many of the conventions and traditions associated with his office.

These changes have prompted some history, civics, political science and social science teachers across the US to adjust their curriculums, change their teaching styles, and institute new classroom rules that seem better suited to the changing political moment.

“Trump is really good for business”

The dramatic twists and turns of the Trump era have gotten many students more interested in civics lessons, according to Matt Polazzo, an AP American government teacher at Stuyvesant High School in New York City. “I always joke that Trump is really good for business,” he says, “because a lot of the questions about American government that had seemed very abstract and very theoretical, now, with the Trump presidency, have become very real.”

In response, some teachers have adjusted their lesson plans or teaching styles. Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at Tufts University, asked fellow professors on Twitter how they had adapted their coursework to someone like Trump. More than 150 people responded with answers that varied from changing the sources in the syllabus to starting a new class and teaching students about disinformation online.

Several respondents reported using real examples from the Trump administration to examine how they fit into theories of international relations. Others wrote that they had added more materials on authoritarianism, populism, and the role of Russian meddling in the 2016 election to their syllabi.

“It’s my duty to teach them to be engaged and informed citizens”

While every teacher makes their own decision about how to teach students about Trump’s policies and rhetoric, many feel that his presidency is a good opportunity to help their students become “engaged and informed citizens,” as Polazzo explains. For some, that means teaching students to tell real from fake news, and to be critical consumers of information. High school English teacher Andrea Rinard identified this as one of the five tenets of her teaching philosophy under Trump in a Medium post this summer: “We must teach our students how to conduct responsible, ethical means of inquiry,” she writes. “We must coax them out of the echo chambers and help them learn how to discern what is real and what is truly ‘fake news.’”

Teaching students critical thinking and media literacy is easier said than done. But many schools are trying out new ways to do it. In California, former governor Jerry Brown signed a bill into law in September 2018 that mandates that the state’s Department of Education “make available to school districts on its Internet Web site a list of resources and instructional materials on media literacy…including media literacy professional development programs for teachers.”

Meanwhile, Uhlhorn says that his school district has started working on integrating materials on media consumption into the K-12 social studies curriculum because they have noticed that high school students are unprepared for the rigor of academic research. “They’re not able to go out and look at sources and discern the fake from the real, not just quote Wikipedia, so we’re trying to move that forward in a way that kids are better able to consume information,” he explains.

Of course, shaping the next generation of informed and engaged citizens is never easy. In 2017, UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access surveyed US teachers, who reported that their students felt more stress and anxiety than before and were more intolerant and prone to believing misinformation. In predominantly white schools, teachers reported that “polarization, incivility, and reliance on unsubstantiated sources have risen,” and that the schools had become “hostile environments for racial and religious minorities and other vulnerable groups.” And a recent study found higher rates of bullying in areas of the US that Trump carried during the 2016 election, leading the researchers to conclude that there was “a correlation between voter preference and bullying,” according to NPR.

This kind of learning climate is unproductive and has real, “adverse socio-emotional and academic consequences” on kids. But it’s also hard on teachers. Some of them complain that they have had to self-censor to avoid creating tensions within and outside of their classroom. Sean Cannon, a US history and AP comparative government teacher at South Brunswick High School in New Jersey, says that, while most of his students lean liberal, some very vocal conservative students and their parents “will call the board at the drop of a dime on you if you cross Donald Trump in some way, shape or form.” This, he explains, “has a chilling effect on all the teachers” in his department.

Syl Sobel, an author who writes children’s civics books about US presidents and the American political system, says he’s seen the polarization in classrooms first-hand while visiting schools to talk about his books. “So many schools and teachers were so very concerned about engaging in any discussion,” he explained. “It’s so much harder now for teachers and individuals to have any kind of discussion about governance and politics without really getting into personal opinion, animosity, and polarization and division.”

The challenge is to teach students about Trump in a neutral way. Polazzo, who says the student body in his school overwhelmingly leans liberal, believes that “You can give an honest assessment of Trump’s presidency without being overly partisan.” But he acknowledges it’s difficult, especially when the president lies (paywall) or proposes a poorly-planned policy idea. Still, Polazzo thinks that these inconsistencies can serve as good starting points for legitimate debates: “I try to use Trump’s radical ideas as a jumping off point to try to have a more sober policy discussion.”

“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

A quote often attributed to American baseball player Yogi Berra (paywall) states that “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” That’s true of everything, but especially politics. And so it’s hard for teachers to know how to contextualize Trump with an eye toward the future. “When it comes to Trump, I think that it’s really a little too soon to say how history is going to view him,” says Polazzo. He believes that any future assessment of Trump’s presidency will be intrinsically tied to the degree to which “the current social and economic schisms and divisions” in American society either worsen or get resolved.

Meanwhile, Cannon believes it’s still too soon to tell how George W. Bush or Barack Obama will be judged, let alone Trump. But he says US history can offer some clues. Harry Truman’s decision to desegregate the military in 1948 almost cost him his second term, says Cannon. But today, that decision is widely seen as brave and morally commendable. “Do I see Trump doing anything like that? No,” says Cannon. “But I’m going to withhold judgment until enough time has passed.”

Regardless of what happens after the end of Trump’s term, his presidency is this generation of educators’ ultimate teachable moment. “The worse the government gets, the more interested people are in the subject,” Polazzo says. “Unfortunately, it seems that only the crises bring about engagement sometimes.”

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