By David K. Shipler
We’ve seen Donald Trump behave like a 12-year-old,
and now we’re seeing 12-year-olds behave like Donald Trump.
--Richard Cohen, president, Southern Poverty Law Center
The new school year begins with an opportunity and a challenging risk for teachers: whether to use the presidential campaign as they usually do, as a teaching tool about American democracy, or to treat the brutish campaign of Donald Trump as they would some bloody mass rape and massacre, reported gruesomely on the news but typically avoided in the classroom.
Teachers are divided, according to about 2,000 responses to an online survey last spring by the Southern Poverty Law Center. For 40 percent of the respondents, the emotional divide whipped up by Trump’s ugly rhetoric was making the election too hot to handle. A teacher in Pennsylvania bars Trump’s name from the classroom. “It feels like it makes it an unsafe place for my students of color.”
Other teachers, though, are eager to put the campaign on the agenda, because students have been so intensely engaged. The problem for each teacher is how, and whether, to maintain the customary neutrality.
It’s usually a school policy and a mark of professionalism for teachers not to betray their political preferences while leading discussions, and especially not to endorse one candidate over another. But Trump’s bigotry, which has been emulated in student behavior and comments, has driven some minority students to plead for support from teachers, and some teachers say they have felt compelled to offer comfort by denouncing him.
“Two responses from teachers illustrate their dilemma,” the study observes. “A teacher in Arlington, Virginia, says, ‘I try to not bring it up since it is so stressful for my students.’ Another, in Indianapolis, Indiana, says, ‘I am at a point where I’m going to take a stand even if it costs me my position.’”
The study, entitled The Trump Effect: The Impact of the Presidential Campaign on Our Nation’s Schools, was based not on a representative sample but on an open online questionnaire distributed to subscribers to the newsletter of Teaching Tolerance, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s program to combat bigotry. The link to the survey was also distributed by other programs, Teaching for Change and Facing History and Ourselves. It seems likely, therefore, that the teachers who responded were those most attuned to ethnic, racial, and religious tensions in their classrooms. More than one-third have seen increased anti-Muslim or anti-immigrant attitudes, and more than two-thirds have heard immigrant children voicing “fears about what might happen to them or their families after the election.”
Black youngsters display high anxiety as well. “My students are terrified of Donald Trump,” said a middle-school teacher with a heavily black and Muslim population. An elementary-school teacher in Oregon said her black students were “concerned for their safety because of what they see on TV at Trump rallies.” Some teachers hear black students worry that they will be deported to Africa if Trump is elected. Elementary school kids in Virginia were “crying in the classroom and having meltdowns at home.” At a high school in North Carolina, Latino students “carry their birth certificates and Social Security cards to school because they are afraid they will be deported,” a teacher wrote. Another said that students in her diverse school think that “apparently America hates them.” Others now believe that they are looking through a window into genuine attitudes among all whites.
“My Hispanic students seem dejected about not only Donald Trump's rhetoric, but also about the amount of people who seem to agree with him,” a teacher wrote. “They feel sure that Americans, their fellow students, and even their teachers hate them (regardless of their citizenship).”
The fears are exacerbated by white children who copy Trump’s crude insults, teachers report. Most of the 2,000 respondents have witnessed a rise in “uncivil political discourse.” Some kids chant “Trump! Trump! Trump!” to intimidate minority students. A fifth-grader told a Muslim kid “that he was supporting Donald Trump because he was going to kill all of the Muslims if he became president!”
Racial and ethnic epithets and stereotyping have proliferated in schools during the campaign. “Many teachers reported an increase in use of the n-word as a slur, even among very young children,” the study found. “At the all-white school where I teach,” said a Wisconsin middle-school teacher, ‘dirty Mexican’ has become a common insult. Before election season it was never heard.”
Another wrote: “So many of my students have begun to show hatred towards refugees, low-income and poverty citizens, and there has been an increase in religious bias. Many are taking the anger and hate-filled speeches of the candidates to heart and are projecting the messages onto students they feel fit the stereotypes in the speeches.”
Further, the self-correcting mechanisms built by the society seem damaged by the Trump phenomenon. One teacher noted that once upon a time—before this election campaign—if a student made a racial or ethnic remark and was called out, there would not be a repetition in that class. “Now, they argue back. They question me, why I think it is not appropriate to say when their parents and the future president of this country is saying it.”
This is undermining years of anti-bullying efforts, some teachers report, as kids emulate Trump in feeling that they now have license to say whatever hurtful things they wish. “I think Trump's rude and brash behavior teaches my students that they can act like that.”
The long-term ramifications are both obvious and stealthy. The country’s veneer of racial, ethnic, and religious accommodation is under severe stress, with segments of the new generation of citizens now accustomed to righteous-sounding distaste for those who are different. There is nothing new in this, of course, but it’s been a long while since a national leader has given such hatred positive sanction.
Less visible are two other probable results: one, the spreading alienation from government, what a Connecticut high school teacher observed as students “losing respect for the political process and for the office of the president.” Two, the plummeting standards of intellectual honesty and critical thinking.
So far in this campaign, millions of American voters have put on display the failure of the nation’s schools to teach citizens to value accuracy, to revere honesty, to respect facts, to consider history, and to exercise enough intellectual curiosity to disassemble candidates’ statements for acute analysis. Shouldn’t these skills and values be taught in every high school?
“They are increasingly political (which is good),” a New York high school teacher wrote of the students, “but the extreme rhetoric being modeled is not helping their ability to utilize reason and evidence, rather than replying in kind.”
Therefore, even once Trump vanishes like a sinister specter, hopefully on November 8, his shadow will linger for at least a generation—unless teachers across the country do their jobs assiduously to help youngsters learn what they need for respectful citizenship.