Try to keep campaign nastiness out of class

A presidential election in any year brings vigorous campaigning, including personal attacks, and the occasional name-calling, which presents a challenge to teachers, especially those in elementary grades, but this year, the mudslinging has sunk to lows that have sent many teachers looking for ways to avoid talking about the election altogether, squandering a great learning opportunity.

Donald Trump speaks in Mesa Arizona December 2015
Donald Trump in Mesa, Ariz., Dec. 2015 (Gage Skidmore / Flickr CC)

They have, in the past, run mock elections, discussed issues of the campaign, especially in government or civics classes, and brought the election into the classroom in other ways, including marketing, commercials, news media coverage, debate, and even computer programming as students developed simulations of the election using polling data.

Except this year is different. An informal and unscientific survey, conducted in April by Teaching Tolerance, an educational group within the Southern Poverty Law Center, found that 40 percent of about 2,000 teachers who participated in the survey were hesitant to teach about the campaign at all.

Part of the problem is that the language used by candidates, if used by students toward other students, would likely constitute bullying or harassment. If a student, for example, were to post a comment on Facebook that another student was “deplorable” or a “bimbo,” or was a “rapist,” which actually might constitute slander or even libel if the comment were printed, the bully would certainly face disciplinary action.

“We’ve already seen kids using Trump’s language against each other: ‘If Trump gets elected, your family has to go home.’ It’s really hurtful,” Education Week quoted Kyle Redford, a fifth-grade teacher at Marin Country Day School in Corte Madera, California, as saying.

Clearly, students must be protected. In that same survey, more than two-thirds of the teachers said students—mainly immigrants, children of immigrants, and Muslims—have talked about concerns or fears they have regarding what might happen to them or their families after the election. Administrators start worrying when that happens, concerned over maintaining an emotionally safe school environment, one that is conducive to learning.

“Some teachers have been ordered to avoid the subject by nervous administrators, who fear chaos inside schools and complaints from angry parents outside of it. Other teachers say that they want their classrooms to be ‘safe spaces,’ where minority students can find refuge from the bigotry and bombast of Trump,” writes Jonathan Zimmerman, a history teacher at New York University and the author of Campus Politics: What Everyone Needs to Know, on Philly.com, the website for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News.

Unfortunately, avoiding discussion of these matters, especially at the high school level, condescends to young people, he says. “They already know that the country is bitterly divided about immigration, criminal justice, and much else. What they need are adults who can explain and explore these divisions in an informed and reasonable manner.”

But those adults won’t generally find any of that exploration of real divisions coming from either the Trump or Clinton campaign.

“I don’t see a lot of substance or policies or actual plans by either candidate, so it’s hard for me to set up sort of a debate or a discussion,” KING-TV in Seattle, Washington, quoted Dustin Leithold, a high school social studies teacher in the Aberdeen School District, as saying.

He is among the teachers who have opted to stay away from the election in his American government class.

Education ideas are few and far between in this presidential election cycle, and that’s probably the right place for them. Teachers tend to think education issues should be closer to the top of the list than they actually have ever been, but kids in American government classes also tend to be concerned more about education issues than about creating better jobs, narrowing the wealth gap, strengthening or fixing Obamacare, rebuilding the country’s infrastructure, fighting terrorism, redoing the energy sector, and bringing Americans together as a country despite frequent differences of opinion.

Whenever politicians focus too much on education issues, it tends to drag them into the education wars. So they usually avoid it.

For example, Governor Greg Abbott in Texas has no comment, the Houston Chronicle reported, about a textbook entitled Mexican American Heritage by Jaime Riddle and Valarie Angle. The book is being reviewed by the State Board of Education for possible inclusion in the state’s curriculum, but it has been criticized as containing many factual errors, sins of both commission and omission, and promoting stereotypes of Mexican Americans.

Stereotypically, Mexicans were viewed as lazy compared to European or American workers. Industrialists were very driven, competitive men who were always on the clock and continually concerned about efficiency. They were used to their workers putting in a full day’s work, quietly and obediently, and respecting rules, authority, and property.

In contrast, Mexican laborers were not reared to put in a full day’s work so vigorously. There was a cultural attitude of ‘mañana,’ or ‘tomorrow,’ when it came to high-gear production. It was also traditional to skip work on Mondays, and drinking on the job could be a problem. [from Page 248]

I would say something like, “Don’t get me started,” about a book like this, but the campaign has already launched most of America down a path of stereotyping, bullying, and bigotry. That ship sailed a long time ago. Why should we continue to shelter students from this real-world activity of real Americans?

What we need to do, instead, is explain to students that people have differences of opinion and that these differences are a natural outgrowth or even a foregone conclusion of a free world. We just haven’t figured out yet that those differences don’t make people on the other side unpatriotic. I haven’t known an election cycle where so many Democrats and Republicans claim to love America while, at the same time, hating so many Americans.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.