I was meandering through the neighborhood last Saturday with my two youngest grandchildren in tow, sleeping in their double-wide twin stroller. It’s one of my favorite things to do. Since I live in a hilly community, I get in some vigorous exercise and even get to listen to a story or two on my iPhone.
During these lengthy rambles, I invariably pass some neighbors and get the chance to tip my cap and say hello. I’ll even stop and schmooze for a while, but I try and do so quietly so the kids don’t wake up. About a mile from home, engrossed in a story, I made eye contact with a woman I’ve known for a while who enjoys commenting on some of my opinion pieces. She wanted to talk; actually, she wanted some advice.
Her daughter, a senior at a local high school, has been coming home upset by comments that her social studies teacher has been making in class about the coming presidential election.
“He speaks about Donald Trump daily,” she said. “He highlights many of Trump’s most controversial positions, criticizes Hillary Clinton for hers, and is impatient with anyone who questions him. He gives the class articles to read from the National Review that always favor Trump. There’s no balance in his classroom,” she continued, “and I’m not sure how to deal with it.
“This teacher, along with several of my daughter’s male classmates, is making that class an unhappy experience for her. The boys talk about immigrants stealing jobs; they demean black kids; and they rage against Hillary Clinton, calling her an ‘ugly skank.’ I’m not sure what to do. She’s a senior, and I don’t want to offend this teacher because it might affect her grade point average. I also don’t want her to become a social outcast.
“Look, I’m a Republican. My dad was a Republican, and my entire family, as far back as I can remember, has voted Republican. But I’m not going to vote for Trump and neither is my husband. His negative attitude grates on us; he’s obnoxious, he’s hurtful, and he seems totally unaware of his impact on kids. But I’m not a Clinton fan either, so we’re just going to sit this one out. We’re worried about my daughter, and we’re becoming more and more anxious each day that my son comes home from middle school spouting the garbage he hears from his friends. This election is frightening us!”
I was at a loss for what to say. A presidential election should be a terrific opportunity for giving social studies students a real-time lesson in civic engagement. Fundamental discussions followed by mock debates help maturing minds better understand complicated issues. The consequence of this election’s inflammatory language, however, is that bullying has become an acceptable strategy; and political promises that target people of color—especially Muslims and immigrants—have become socially acceptable.
I believe that teachers should be free to express their political opinions in school, within the appropriate context. But I also believe that good social studies teachers should be expected to teach their students how best to examine a candidate’s character and their readiness and ability to serve. Is this person truthful? Intelligent? Informed? Stable? Does he or she have relevant experience that will inform critical decisions? Is the candidate focused on serving the needs of the country, or primarily interested in achieving personal power and influence? And, ultimately, what does the candidate hope to accomplish while in office?
The vast majority of us—both liberal and conservative—agree that democracy is achieved through the freedom of political expression and equal access to the voting booth. We disagree, however, about what a good democracy actually looks like. This, then, should be the focus of discussion in our social studies classrooms today—preparing our youth to better understand political policy and the consequences of making poor choices. Driven by emotion and ignorance, we make unfortunate decisions, electing politicians who rely on personality and name recognition to win elections, not logic and reason. And both Democrats and Republicans are to blame.
The political climate in the United States did not become polarized overnight. A report by the Southern Poverty Law Center in April 2016 found that the 2016 presidential campaign rhetoric is having a negative impact on the nation’s schools. It found that this election season has produced higher levels of fear and anxiety among all students, especially those of color, and intensified racial tensions in schools. students worry about being deported; African-American students worry about being profiled and subject to “stop and frisk” laws; Asian students feel accused of being part of a worldwide conspiracy to manipulate the nation’s currency and rob it of middle-class jobs.
Teachers, primarily social studies teachers, have a responsibility to teach about the electoral process in which citizens select the men and women they want to run their government, hopefully, those who are capable and invested in the country’s best interests. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, and this year may be a prime example.