Teaching Social Studies in the Age of Trump


The other day in U.S. history class we were reading about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 in preparation for a class discussion on immigration.

The law is an example of a familiar trend. New populations enter the country, a result of American demand for labor and poor conditions abroad. We see a nativist backlash, which gets enacted into tougher immigration laws.

Teachers moderating such discussions in the classrooms of America in 2018 face a dilemma.

How much, if any, of your own views do you reveal? What do you say if a student asks directly for your views? What do you say if a student speaks harshly against Trump? What do you say if a student uses Trump’s method of personal attacks or generalizations?

How to teach social studies without being political is undoubtedly an old problem. This old problem takes on new weight in the Trump Era, where everyone is on edge and emotion fuels all public debates.

Politics in the classroom makes both sides a little skittish.

At the college level, conservatives get up in arms about liberal biases, and react by staging “free speech” rallies that have turned violent when protestors show up. UC Berkeley spent nearly $4 million in security at such events last year.

The outrage can be reversed. Recently in Arizona, liberals got up in arms about an allegedly biased economics class with links to the Koch brothers being taught in Tucson.

Ah, the power of education.

Good modern pedagogy tells me that we must start with with the endpoint. What’s the desired outcome? What’s the objective?

We want to develop critical, independent thinkers. No indoctrination. Let the kids learn to think for themselves.

There are a few different ways to approach this.

Option A: Balance. Present both sides. Don’t let the students know where you stand. Deflect any direct questions about viewpoints.

I think most teachers try to go with Option A. It’s the easiest needle to thread, and the least controversial.

Teachers fail at this when they don’t realize the depth of their own biases. They may only understand straw man arguments for the other side, and thus teach the weakest version of the side they disagree with, compared to the best evidence of their own stance. They might present one perspective with a different tone of voice, betraying their own opinions.

Another way you can get in trouble here is by showing news stories without critically evaluating every source. For example, teachers may show Fox News clips with a disclaimer, “this is right-wing media, boys and girls.” But then show Vox clips without a source disclaimer.

Especially in a polarized political climate, a social studies teacher needs to stay vigilant and self-aware in the face of competing rhetoric flooding the airwaves.

Option B: The Bait and Switch. Present one perspective strongly for an extended period, and then burst the bubble by showing certain flaws in that way of thinking.

This method keeps students guessing, and teaches them to think critically about even what their teachers say. It keeps them on their toes, as they should be if they want to stay critical thinkers beyond the walls of the classroom.

For example, in an economics class, you could drill the foundations of capitalism until you’ve got a class full of students looking at market-based solutions to every problem. Then flip the script, drop some Bernie Sanders critiques, and leave them to make their minds up from there.

This approach is delicate. It takes organization and discipline. Like Option A, it requires the ability (and willingness) to teach the strengths of both sides of the argument.

Option C: Mr. Devil’s Advocate. Challenge every point of view.

Sometimes, when I sense my whole class coalescing around one point of view, I put on the “devil’s advocate” hat and pretend I believe the opposite to challenge the prevailing opinions. Sometimes I win converts, sometimes I just make them come up with better arguments.

This option works best if used sparingly. To encourage sharing and discussion, usually it’s better to invite and nurture each point of view. If someone contradicts a known fact, you can go with, I see where you’re coming from, but have you ever considered…

Always best to let the students challenge each other and you play the role of balanced moderator.

Can teachers share their own opinions? Ever?

I do think it’s OK for a teacher to share an opinion, as long as they clarify the evidence that forms the basis for the opinion, and concede a possible rebuttal…You know, I tend to be more of a protectionist because of X and Y, but Jacob made a great argument when he said A and B…

A good rule of thumb is to keep students in the dark to your political views. But in the example above, the teacher is modeling healthy, constructive discourse. If a teacher shares an opinion within the context of an open and critical learning environment, no big deal.

When Trump says something that would land a student in detention, I think it’s OK to call a spade a spade. If a student repeats it, send them to detention.

Teaching is an art form. There’s no standard way to stay neutral on controversial issues. The worst thing a teacher can do in this atmosphere is avoid the discussion altogether. The youth will soon inherit our democracy. If they are left alone to observe political dialogue happening online, God help us.


Author: Billy

High school teacher and blogger.

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