Education in the Age of Trump


Credit Evy Mages, Washingtonian. 2016.


In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, American educational institutions have begun to grapple with what his presidency means and how it impacts their missions to facilitate emotional and intellectual growth.

Clearly, the goal of a school should not be to impart specific partisan beliefs onto its students. Students must be allowed and encouraged to explore different ideologies and discover what ideas resonate most strongly with them. Freedom of thought and speech are vital in building healthy discourse, and that all starts in school.

However, while students should be allowed to develop their own worldview, they should not be taught that all ideas are equally valid. When elementary school children learn about slavery, for example, the door should not be left open to the possibility that perhaps slavery was the right thing to do.

Therefore, as Trump threatens to drown out healthy national discourse with fear-mongering and alternative facts, the battleground to fight for truth and preserve freedom of thought and speech must also be in the classroom.

It is not conventional for schools to take sides in political issues, but taking a stand for equity and inclusion should not be political. Right now, we are witnessing a national referendum on what it means to be an American: whether we will stand up for our highest ideals of equality and justice, or whether we will succumb to xenophobia and fear. Schools must weigh in on that debate.

It is vital for schools of all kinds – public, private, charter; pre-school through grad school – to draw a line in the sand and condemn Trump’s discriminatory actions and rhetoric. If ever there was a time for educators to lead by example and take a stand for what is right, it is right now, as America grapples with some of its ugliest demons on the national stage.

Last week, the editors of Six Votes Down – Abe Asher and myself – signed a letter sent to our high school, imploring the head of school to release a statement condemning Trump’s recent immigration ban. We asked her to affirm the school’s commitment to their students who could be impacted by the ban in some way.

Over 100 alumni have signed onto the letter. For a school that graduates about 80 seniors every spring, 100 is a significant number.

The letter read, “At some point, an institution of learning…must take a stand or become superfluous.”

If a mission of a school is to educate and empower its students, how can that mission possibly be carried out if that same school refuses to condemn an action that threatens the safety and dignity of some of its students and their families? Our country now finds itself in a time of great constitutional and moral crisis, and schools must accept and reckon with the implications of that truth.

It was in school, guided by amazing, compassionate, open-minded educators, that I developed my sense of morality and learned to distinguish right from wrong. In the classroom, I learned about not only the harm of discriminatory views but also the power of multiculturalism. I cannot imagine being ten years old in a time as fearful and uncertain as this one and not being able to turn to those trusted adults and role models for counsel and support.

Teachers stand for everything that is good about this country, and I mean that in the least hyperbolic way. They navigate a difficult job with grace and, often, for little pay, because they believe in the power of the child. They know that teaching tolerance is the only way to make each generation better than the last, and they take up that fight every day.

Somewhere along the way, someone missed the opportunity to teach Donald Trump and his cronies humility and compassion. Let’s not sacrifice the opportunity to instill those values in the children of today in the name of legitimizing Trump’s dark and fearful views.

The end of the letter to our high school reads,

“…there is never any excuse for an established power to be timid in the face of bigotry and hatred — especially when those forces are so close at hand…

…We believe that the consequences of remaining silent through this moment will far outweigh the costs of taking action.”

These words were directed at our high school and carry with them disappointment in an institution that we want to love and that we hope will rise to the occasion. However, I think these words can, and should, ring true for all schools everywhere in this country.

This is a moment in American history certainly unlike any other in recent memory. There is great cause for despair, but even greater cause for hope. Already, so many individuals and institutions have taken up the fight for what is right, and schools across this country should feel no reservation in standing up and jumping into battle right alongside them.

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