civic education in the year of Trump: neutrality vs. civil courage

In the minds of many dedicated civic educators, two deep instincts are clashing as Donald Trump dominates the news media and the Republican presidential race.

One instinct is to try to be as neutral as possible about issues and candidates. It’s dangerous for an arm of the state, a public school, to take sides on political issues. Citizens are forced to pay for public education. Kids are especially impressionable and form a captive audience in the public school classroom. Teachers have great power since they can influence students’ educational progress and economic success. Arguably, the most ethical way for a public school teacher to treat students and their families is as bearers of authentic political views that should be respected in the classroom. Furthermore, students can learn a great deal by wrestling with genuine ideological diversity. Arguing from diverse perspectives is a challenging educational practice that teaches reasoning, interpretation, and perspective-taking. Finally, we suffer from a particular problem today: ideological polarization and a failure to interact productively across partisan lines. The social studies classroom–as Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy show–almost always harbors ideological diversity and can be a precious place to cultivate productive discussions.

The other instinct is to preserve the constitutional republic by teaching students to honor and protect its core principles when they are threatened from within or without. The ultimate test of civic education is the graduate’s readiness to resist assaults on human rights and the rule of law–if necessary, with her life. We must learn to be upstanders, not bystanders. In the Federal Republic of Germany, this outcome is called “civil courage.” A measure of successful civic education might arise if a new authoritarian ordered a particular minority group to wear the equivalent of the Nazis’ yellow star. In that case, every citizen who had learned Zivilcourage would put the star on. In the US, civil courage is a central goal of certain civic education programs, such as Facing History and Ourselves (whose roots were in Holocaust education), but it’s also consistent with provisions in many state standards documents.

This year, one of our major parties is likely to nominate a man who has been called, by leading figures in his own party, a threat to fundamental constitutional principles and human rights. Under such circumstances, the two agendas I’ve presented above come into conflict.

For instance, normally I’d recommend k-12 teachers to assign their students to debate the issues in the presidential campaign. I think they should often assign students to sides so that they don’t just argue from their own beliefs. But would you assign a student of Mexican heritage or a Muslim student to take the side of Donald Trump? If not, why would you assign any student to that role?

In 2012, according to a CIRCLE poll, 72% of high school government teachers required their students to watch a presidential debate. I endorse that idea. But when the debate was like last night’s fiasco, how should the assignment be presented and how should the experience be debriefed? More than one of the candidates behaved in ways that would be completely unacceptable in an 8th grade classroom. Should the teacher note that?

Andy Sabl wrote some years ago:

Professors worship at the altar of “maybe.” We prize the intellectual courage to say, “I’m not sure what’s right.” In the process, we slight what the Germans have learned — the hard way — to call civil courage: saying that you do know what’s right even when those around you are getting it backward. Training students in supple thought, do we undermine decent character?

I agree, especially during the year of Trump. But it’s not easy to decide precisely what counts as an assault on essential values rather than an expression of free speech in a rough-and-tumble competitive democracy. In Germany, the label “civil courage” gets used for people who stand up for immigrants–and also for people who criticize immigrants in the face of what they decry as political correctness.

Some criteria for deciding when to be neutral and when to stand up for principles won’t quite work. For instance, I wouldn’t distinguish an acceptable “mainstream” from radical alternatives that should be beyond consideration. Donald Trump’s opinions have broad and deep roots in American culture. As a factual matter, they are mainstream. Besides, our political debate is too narrow; radical voices can be salutary. Bernie Sanders is not actually very radical, but he’s arguably further from the empirical mainstream than Donald Trump is, and I think that (at worst) Sanders is improving the national debate. I would object if teachers presented Sanders as some kind of threat because he challenges the status quo.

Also, it’s not Trump alone who uses propaganda–however you define that–or who ignores constitutional limits, or who holds some lives cheap. I am a defender of the current administration, but this president routinely orders drone strikes that kill innocent civilians in foreign countries. So if teachers should drop their neutrality and demonstrate civil courage against Trump, why not also against the current, center-left administration?

In sum, I think this issue is genuinely hard. Valid principles conflict. It would be a mistake for public schools to abandon the quest for neutrality and enter the political fray against the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party. But they would also err if they taught students that it’s their responsibility to protect the republic and then presented a clear and present threat to the constitution as just another campaign. There are few sharp lines in politics, and good judgment usually requires deciding where on a continuum to make a stand. Teachers and schools should and will reach subtly different conclusions about the 2016 election, depending on their local communities’ norms and their students’ demographics and opinions, their personal commitments, and the way the campaign actually plays out. (Will the threat to constitutional rights become even more explicit, or much less so?) But I think everyone who has a role in educating the next generation of American citizens must at least think seriously about these tensions.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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