Last year, I blogged about the importance of teaching students “how to think – not what to think” in a post titled “Teaching in a Heated Political Climate.” I still firmly believe that students should be taught to analyze rhetoric, obtain news from multiple and varied sources, and most importantly to know why they think what they think. I want them to understand media and political biases and also to understand their own. I want them to realize when they are being manipulated. Knowledge and literacy = power.
I still perceive my role as one of facilitator, as mediator, and quite often as devil’s advocate as a means for evoking thoughtful dialogue, debate, and mutual understanding. In my previous post, I posed these questions:
- How can I satisfy any of those roles if I am working toward a specific political agenda?
- How many parents want their kids’ teachers telling them which candidate they should vote for?
And then the election rhetoric went wild. This isn’t the first election through which I have taught high school seniors at or approaching voting age. I truly believed that I held the secrets for facilitating discussions that fostered a level of mutual respect and the ability to listen to different views that most adults would envy. But as many voters noted, this election was especially divisive. I imagine it was especially difficult for certain teachers to remain impartial when the subject came up as a matter of course, such as in government, economic, and history classes. As a matter of fact, several students confided in me that some adults had told them outright who to vote for. The students were not amused.
However, this year seemed especially difficult to navigate as a teacher of rhetoric. In an AP Language course that necessitates the study of rhetoric, speeches, and the historical and cultural context and impact of language, it became immensely difficult to examine the speeches of now-President Donald Trump without pointing out logical fallacies, simple diction containing vocabulary like “very, very bad,” “amazing,” and “big loser” that is on an elementary level, and the overall negative tone of most addresses.
Let me share my first disclaimer here: these are not political views, nor are they arguable. This merely reflects the patterns of Trump’s speech – something that we train students to examine. I refuse to assign value to his ideas at all. Call me Ms. Switzerland.
My plan going in was to present all current, relevant articles in a balanced way. For instance, for every negative piece on a candidate, I would share a positive one or one from a contrasting point of view. I pulled pieces for both major candidates equally. However, the stark contrast between the writing register (how fancy they write, for non-English majors), tone, and level of logical fallacies or contradictions provided an unbalanced view on its own, without me pointing those things out. Students began asking questions about why Trump doesn’t use more specific words to communicate, asking questions about hate-speech, and noting contradictions. Addressing those questions without bias is nearly impossible. You simply cannot argue that our President employs a dynamic vocabulary, even if he’s your best friend.
I responded by asking my students questions (instead of supplying my own answers) about what audience that speech style would appeal to, and I pulled an article about how many Americans thought that Al Gore sounded “boring” and “too intellectual.” Then one girl asked: “But don’t we want our president to be an intellectual?” It seemed that no matter how carefully I worked to navigate through this year’s election cycle, the fact that I had encouraged my students to question everything came back to bite me.
In the end, I began to pull current articles that had nothing to do with the election, and we studied speeches of the past. To quote our president, this was “sad.” I have never had students so interested in an election and so willing to learn about what the candidates stood for. If we shy away from deep exploration in school, where will they experience a more respectfully facilitated deep discussion of timely, relevant issues? Students just don’t care as much when the speechwriter has been dead for a hundred years or more, even if they write as beautifully as Frederick Douglas.
Again, unintentional bias seems unavoidable in a class that discusses the beauty and craftsmanship of Douglas’ words, and then the students themselves note the stark contrast between his eloquence and the lack thereof of some of our current leaders – on both sides of the aisle. My response to this? An article on anti-intellectualism in America.