The struggles of teaching children in a "post-truth" America

There's a McSweeney's article by Dr. Daveena Tauber making the rounds on the internet. Tauber, a writing educator, proposes a new grading rubric that's appropriate for the President Trump era. Gone are top marks for evidenced-based claims and organized arguments — those get "Loser" grades. Instead, the "Winners" get "Yuge!" marks for inconsistent reasoning, frequent use of sentence fragments and repetition of simplified points without evidence or logic.

It's a funny piece, but the humor fades quickly when you're an educator and you realize how accurate Tauber's take is. After all, how do you emphasize to young people the importance of nuanced, well-supported arguments when they are eschewed by a man about to assume the highest office in the land?

How can you — as you work with one student after another as they struggle to write coherent essays — persuade them to take the time to organize their thinking and be judicious with their word choice, when the president-elect fails to prepare for debates, speaks off the cuff and spouts out without regard for ideological consistency?

I could go on (how, for instance, can the teaching of science not be undermined when our incoming head-of-state rejects overwhelming proof of climate change?). But it's not just diligence and evidence we're talking about here, or even academic rigor in general. Since Donald Trump's unexpected Electoral College victory, educators across the country have been grappling with an enormous challenge: How do we teach students to act, to think, to work and to speak appropriately when the country has just elected a leader who represents the antithesis of so much of what we do?

I'm not being hyperbolic. This is quite literal, and it affects our schools every day. Let's start with the basics: We teach kids to be kind and respectful, and we spend a lot of time on anti-bullying prevention. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has spent the past year and a half name-calling and repeatedly demeaning his opponents. Secretary Clinton became "Crooked Hillary." Sen. John McCain's war record is, in Mr. Trump's eyes, not much to write home about because McCain was simply imprisoned for five years: "I like people who weren't captured, OK?"

Seasoned military commanders, Mr. Trump suggests, are by far his inferiors when it comes to confronting our most dangerous enemies.

Teachers tell children to be truthful, and we stress to them that our communities succeed when we are civil toward each other. During the 2016 campaign, however, our now president-elect had (at best) a tenuous relationship with the truth, and anyone who disagreed with him was almost certain to end up disparaged on Donald Trump's Twitter feed (his 140-character diatribes continue even now that the election is over).

In school, children need to feel comfortable and safe in order to learn, and in classrooms and on athletic fields we emphasize teamwork, selflessness and grace. Now, many students are showing up to class not ready to study math or history, but instead are worrying whether they are welcome in this new America. Kids across our country are learning from our president-elect that success comes from me-first, bombastic epithets and behaviors.

Ask any elementary school student about the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and he or she can tell you all about the great civil rights leader who implored us to reach a point in our societal development at which "the content of our character" is the basis for our judgments of other persons. Inquire of any high schooler about the Holocaust; she or he will tell you about the atrocities that resulted from religious intolerance. Educators always teach students about people and events from history that reveal the perils of succumbing to impulses of hatred and prejudice — because we know that danger is always there.

And we do even more to ensure all students feel as if they belong in our schools. There are ramps and handrails to assist those with physical disabilities, and we have special educators to help all students get an education.

Teachers advise civil rights clubs and applaud students who play in the band or perform in school plays. We have sports programs for girls as well as boys, and we assure our female students that they are future engineers and mathematicians and, yes, even presidents. And we educators, entrusted by law to be substitute parents for students, act as role models for these children, even as we teach them to emulate King, Mohandas Gandhi, Helen Keller, Susan B. Anthony, and other giants of history who appeal to our better natures.

We teachers do all of this — and it's not easy, mind you, to refocus 9-year-olds after recess, or to get a teenager to put the cellphone away, or to comfort kids who might not know where their next meal is coming from or whether their parents will drive them away if they come out of the closet — we do it, most of us, with vigor and optimism, and with patience we did not know we have. We teach with passion and compassion, and with the belief that what we do matters to these children and to our nation's future.

What do you think it's like for a teacher, then, when we pledge our allegiance every morning to a country whose newly elected leader winks at white nationalists and names one as a top adviser? When he mocks people with disabilities, or when he demeans women and jokes about sexual assault?

How do you reconcile the core of your teaching mission with Mr. Trump's misogyny and his belief that women who end their pregnancies merit punishment?

What do you say about inclusion and equality when the president-elect of the United States pledges to drive out people based on their religious beliefs and says he will roll back equality provisions for gays and lesbians?

I ask you: How can I teach children to dare to reach high when Donald Trump appeals to people's basest impulses, to their darkest fears?

No, that rubric of Tauber's isn't so funny. I have children to educate, but every day, our country's new leader is setting different standards. He is teaching a very different lesson from mine.

David Parr is a public school teacher in Maine.

Last modified onMonday, 28 November 2016 11:09