Can Teachers Speak the Truth about Donald Trump?
Consider this statement: Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States of America, is a racist, sexist, xenophobic bigot who constantly tells lies and makes wildly misleading claims.
I offer this statement not as an accusation against the President but as an assertion. It is not based on what Trump’s advisors call “alternative facts” but is based on actual verifiable facts. And it is not the subjective opinion of a left-leaning professor but is an objective truth that can be unequivocally demonstrated and proven.
Now can you imagine a public school teacher walking into a classroom, making this statement to the students, and using it as the basis for a lesson? I posed this question to some teachers and parents and their responses were all the same: Absolutely not! If a teacher made this statement there would very likely be an immediate backlash from students, parents, other teachers, administrators, the school board, and the local community. If a journalist covered the story then politicians would probably chime in. Maybe even Donald Trump himself would Tweet his displeasure and call for the teacher to be fired. And in some school districts the teacher might actually be fired or at the very least face disciplinary action.
But consider the flip side of this scenario: If any teachers said or did the things that Donald Trump has done—such as call Mexican rapists, grab women’s genitals, mock a person with disabilities, or refer to women as fat, ugly, and unattractive—they would likely be suspended or fired. So teachers face serious consequences if they say or do as Trump does because it is generally agreed upon that such actions are inappropriate and reprehensible (even illegal). But if teachers speak truthfully about Trump’s inappropriate and reprehensible behaviors they may face severe consequences.
And this is not only an issue for K-12 public school teachers. Even in my world of higher education where professors are supposed to have more autonomy and academic freedom is touted as sacrosanct, many of my colleagues would be uncomfortable making this statement in class for the exact same reason: fear of what repercussions they would face. But again, if any professor acted Trump-like in their interactions with students and colleagues they would be in serious trouble.
What is going on here? Why can’t teachers speak honestly about the President? If there is consensus among educators that his actions are offensive and unacceptable, and if we can use Trump’s own words to establish how he is a racist, sexist, xenophobic bigot who lies, then why can’t we talk about him in a direct and straightforward manner? Why must we fear reprisals or even risk losing our jobs for telling the truth?
Here is one more thing to consider. Most educational institutions from kindergarten through graduate school have mission statements or strategic visions. If you read these, and I encourage you to read the one for your school, you will probably see references to some of the following themes: tolerance, equality, and respect for all; a safe, welcoming, and inviting environment free from discrimination and bullying; the rigorous and scientific pursuit of truth and knowledge; and the development of critical, flexible, and independent thinking.
What does it mean if the most powerful person in the United States is blatantly and unabashedly rejecting the guiding morals and values of most of the country’s schools? Don’t teachers have an obligation to discuss this with students, much like they do when they witness student infractions of these principles? Is there no better teachable moment than when the President of the United States goes against much of what our schools are trying to teach, promote, and instill in students?
To begin to understand why teachers cannot speak truthfully about Trump we need to recognize that education is a social institution. Like all social institutions, the educational system is comprised of roles and statuses that people fill, patterned ways of acting that guide behavior, and organizational structures that provide parameters for maintaining stability, continuity, and control.
The last point about preserving control is especially important. As Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann point out in their classic book, The Social Construction of Reality, “Institutions, by the very fact of their existence, control human conduct by setting up predefined patterns of conduct, which channel it in one direction against the many other directions that would theoretically be possible.”
Berger and Luckmann go on to say that the way people behave in social institutions is usually not spontaneous nor is it instantaneous. Our actions within social institutions are the result of years of socialization, or what they call habitualization—a fancy word referring to actions that are repeated so frequently that they become the common and accepted way of doing things.
It has become habitual to not talk about politics in schools. Some schools even have “predefined patterns of conduct” which prohibit educators from engaging in partisan political speech. And even if there is no official rule disallowing such talk, most educators have learned to censor themselves and abstain from saying anything that might sound remotely political.
It is understandable why teachers may want to avoid partisan political talk; they do not want to pressure students into accepting their beliefs. But the statement at the top of this post is not about partisan politics; it is about people and principles. Educators do not want students to discriminate, disrespect, or demean others by being racist, sexist, xenophobic, or bigoted. We also do not want students to tell lies and make exaggerated claims about reality. Encouraging these ideals among students is not a reflection of what it means to be a Republican, a Democrat, or an independent; it is a reflection of what it means to be a human being in American society.
Berger and Luckmann leave us with one last important point to consider. Although social institutions may seem like they are rigid, enduring, and unchanging we cannot forget that they are human products. More importantly, we must recognize that even the social control mechanisms that constrain our behaviors are socially created. Berger and Luckmann are explicit about this point: “Social order exists only as a product of human activity . . . and [only] insofar as human activity continues to produce it.”
Knowing that we have the potential to recreate our social institutions can be both affirming and frightening. Any teacher who speaks candidly and states that Donald Trump is a racist, sexist, xenophobic, bigot who lies constantly will most likely be vulnerable to professional and personal attacks. But if we want to create a new social order that genuinely reflects the principles and values that guide so many of our educational institutions then we have no choice. We must find our voices, express ourselves loudly and clearly, and speak truth to power.