Teaching in the Time of Trump

The President communicated the following as three separate tweets on March 4:

“Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”

“I’d bet a good lawyer could make a great case out of the fact that President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!”

“How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”

The President offered no evidence to support these claims. The same was true of prior claims of election fraud and President Obama’s place of birth.

All of this confounds teachers like me, because we tell our students that the truth matters and that knowledge leads to better outcomes. The President says things without knowing or seeking to know, while teachers—in every school in America—require their students to read carefully, do research, find reliable sources, cite those sources, and support claims and arguments in every essay response, book report, research paper, and lab report students submit. We ask students to keep an open mind and to seek to learn, and every day our president does the opposite.

As a history teacher, I cringe when the President makes reference to McCarthyism or to Watergate in his tweets, praises Frederick Douglass as someone who has “done an amazing job,” or says he’s a “fan” of Andrew Jackson, because he doesn’t appear to know anything about American history. A President who attacks the free press or the independent federal judiciary, for example, clearly knows nothing about our Constitutional system. By his own acknowledgement, the President has never read a presidential biography, which is surprising given his current position. The least he could do is read a biography of Washington or Lincoln, or read “The Federalist Papers.”

Multiple sources have reported that the President does not read any books. When asked on Fox News by Megyn Kelly about the last book he read, the President said, “I read passages, I read areas, chapters, I don’t have the time.” Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of Trump’s 1987 book “The Art of the Deal,” told the New Yorker that in the 18 months he worked with Trump, Schwartz “never saw a book on Trump’s desk, or elsewhere in his office, or in his apartment. I seriously doubt that Trump has ever read a book straight through in his adult life.” By comparison, in our school, ninth graders read a dozen or more books during the school year.

To make matters even worse, the President doesn’t appear to value learning. In a series of interviews with the Washington Post, the President said he reaches the right decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.” The President thinks he can make good decisions about enormously complex questions he has never encountered before “with very little knowledge.” Of course, being an intellectual is not essential to being President. But, according to Allan Lichtman, a political historian quoted in the Washington Post, even among anti-intellectual Presidents, “Trump is really something of an outlier with this idea that knowing things is almost a distraction. He doesn’t have a historical anchor, so you see his gut changing on issues from moment to moment.” And then there are the tweets. Are 140 characters really sufficient to communicate about the complex issues the President and Congress decide? In most elementary schools, a book report is more thoughtfully researched and written.

In short, this President is a disaster for knowledge and truth. Without learning and being thoughtful, you can’t make good decisions. I do not want to overstate President Trump’s ability to recast the critical importance of knowledge and truth. But I also do not want to understate how much what the President says and does matters, particularly to children. Children have always viewed their President as the ultimate role model; President Trump has yet to prove himself worthy of this position.

For teachers like me—who believe that asking thoughtful questions, learning, doing research, collecting and evaluating reliable evidence, and analyzing that evidence impartially are all critical to reaching sound conclusions—teaching in the time of Trump is a real test. The best I can do for my students, I submit, is to equip and to encourage them to do the hard work of finding the truth for themselves:

  1. Try to get the whole story from a diversity of high-quality sources, not just one side or one source.
  2. Do not accept any claim until there is enough reliable evidence to support the claim.
  3. Follow decisions and their consequences as they unfold over time, to see whether more knowledge and analysis lead to better outcomes.

In other words, I will ask my students to see for themselves whether being open-minded, building knowledge, and reasoning carefully and systematically about complex questions increase or decrease social utility.

As an aside, while I’ve discussed teachers and students so far, it’s adult voters who pose the greater paradox. How do unsubstantiated statements, stories, and conspiracies spread and take hold, when it is so easy to instantly search the web from our phones to find reliable sources that bring us closer to the truth?

To close, I went to New York City last week with our Model UN team and I noticed the following engraved above the main entrance to 30 Rockefeller Center: “Wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times.” Let’s resolve to make sure this is so, inside and outside the classroom.

This article was published in Loudoun Now on April 6, 2017.