Educators and the Civil Debates in the Classroom

Categories: Teaching

In the days following the 2016 election, the responses of three teachers from my high school popped up along my Facebook timeline. The first, my beloved drama and English teacher Emily Tucker who wrote “I’m trying to figure out how to go into work today. How to be a teacher of teenagers and pretend that my pride in America wasn’t shattered last night.” The second, a popular government and US history teacher Chris Dollar wrote “To say nothing or do nothing when directly confronted with words and actions that give power to these values, is to be complicit”.

And the third, my retired AP European History teacher Dr. James Corbett who had gained some notoriety for criticizing the Catholic church in class, fighting alongside his wife for the IRA, and wrestling a bear (for all of which he had photographic proof, which was proudly displayed along his classroom walls) ended his long winded response with a frightening comparison: “We are at a crossroads.

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As with the Germans of the 1930s, our working class has sent a very clear message: ‘DO SOMETHING!’ the system isn’t working for us.”

In my research into how educators (specifically high school English, history, and government teachers) were using the most recent examples of political rhetoric and social media politics to keep their lessons relevant and insightful for their teenage students, I have found that the responses can be divided into three distinct categories: self-care, critical social advocacy, and direct comparison to classroom texts. While all three strategies were present across grade levels and class subjects, self-care techniques were far more in use for elementary school level classes than direct comparison and the age make-up of students did have an understandable effect on how teachers addressed certain issues.

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It’s worth noting that while my research focused on English, history, and government classes as these three subjects gave the most insight into how rhetoric and literature lessons were changing, science educators have also expressed a change in how they handle subjects like global warming and evolution. It’s also worth noting that because this topic is relatively new my sources are mostly from op-ed pieces and interviews with educators over the past year.

Many teachers expressed a growing concern for the safety of their students. According to an nrpED article by Kat Lonsdorf, elementary school teachers especially found it difficult to explain the results of the election to their students. Teachers who before had used the election process to teach students how a democracy worked were finding it difficult to explain how such an unprecedented result had come to pass. On Twitter, the hashtag “Im Telling MyKids”, started by The National Education Association, recorded the many messages of hope and resilience teachers had passed on to their students. The hashtag was not without criticism, however. Twitter user @GreerCD responded on November 11th, 2016, “#Im TellingMyKids that this hashtag is pretentious”.

In higher level classrooms, teachers found ways of using self care techniques through writing rather than open debate. Kara Voght’s article for Politico Magazine, “Teaching English in the Age of Trump” explores how several teachers have used the current political climate in their classrooms, including Julie Jee, an English teacher in Poughkeepsie, New York, who felt that immediately opening the floor to debate was rash and more harmful to her students than it was helpful:

To avoid a “free-for-all” that might invite heat-of-the-moment responses and hurt feelings, Jee turned the question into a writing assignment, which curtailed highly emotional responses and allowed for a controlled classroom discussion later. She said the shift was “cathartic” for her students, that writing allowed them to freely express themselves without worrying about social repercussions.

Still, many teachers find open debate to be the most insightful method of education for their students, but the method of self-care comes in the way they present their own argument, not just in how student’s present theirs’. That same article for Politico cites a Raleigh, North Carolina high school English teacher, Rob Phillips, who has “taken a stronger lead in teaching his students how to have a measured, intellectual, effective response to ideas they disagree with…this means paying close attention to his own tone and language, so that he can be an example to his students, and also taking extra care to coach his students’ rhetorical methods and modes of logic.”

But other teachers find the subject of tone to be a much more difficult problem than Phillips makes it out to be. In an article for PBS News Hour, AP Government teacher at St. Ignatius College Preparatory and co-founder of the Twitter hashtag “hsgovchat” which connects high school government teachers in an online community, Justin Christensen expressed the challenges he faced teaching during the election, especially when it came to the rhetoric coming from the Republican candidate’s twitter feed:

I would be in front of my students in 90 minutes. Should I show these tweets in class today? What should I say if a student asked me about them? Before I got in my car, I took screenshots of both tweets and posed a question to my colleagues on Twitter: “As teachers, how do we respond when (Trump)’s statements would break our own classroom rules?” I did not often encounter this dilemma when I taught AP Government during the previous two presidential elections. I happily presented both sides to my students. In 2012, I even bought cutouts of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. I would stand next to each cutout and act as their spokesman. Since my students tended to support Barack Obama, I spent more time speaking on behalf of Romney. I wanted my students to listen to both sides in order to develop an informed opinion. This year, I have yet to buy a cutout of Donald Trump. As I tried to explain in my tweet that morning, I was uncomfortable acting as a spokesman for someone who would routinely break my own expectations if he were a student in my class.

How can government teachers hold civil debate in their classrooms about an ongoing election when so much of the actual rhetoric happening during the election goes against the norms of civil debate? Herein lies the limits of the self-care method of teaching. Government teachers especially feel that they have the responsibility to provide two well balanced arguments in order to teach their students the value of debate and rhetoric in order not to isolate or exclude students who may feel their side of the argument isn’t being heard. But in an election where the candidates’ arguments are not well balanced and one side is using rhetorical fallacy and plain old falsehoods, it’s difficult to present them as two sides of the same coin. And if they don’t present the sides as equals, they risk excluding students who agree with the lopsided argument or endangering the students who that argument attacks. The self-care method seeks to keep all of its students safe, but it may not be effective in higher levels of education.

In my own experience (though this particular argument has by now at least been legislatively settled) the debate over same-sex marriage had to be presented as a well balanced, two-sided issue. The problem that teachers leading these debates were coming across was that the rhetoric from one side of the argument was far more weighted down by hate speech than the other. I’m sure you can imagine how I felt sitting in my AP Government class, a closeted lesbian in conservative Orange County, having to find out which one of my classmates thought I was going to burn in hell. Self-care and civil discourse did not mesh well for me in these classes.

It’s here where teachers have found success in critical social advocacy. Instead of blindly presenting both sides of the same issue as equally valuable, teachers can critically examine the rhetoric being presented and show which side of the argument is prejudicially biased or more likely to include logical fallacy. In the aforementioned Justin Christensen article, Christensen lays out a series of five questions for teachers to ask themselves when presenting difficult rhetoric brought up in the 2016 election: “When does Trump’s rhetoric contradict our classroom rules…Why does Trump use such controversial rhetoric… What does polling suggest about the coalition of supporters Trump has created… What do experts think of Trumps proposals… How does Trump fit in the Republican party?” Although these questions were written out in April, 2016, and the situation has changed since then, they are still relevant and can be used to examine the current administration. With minor adjustments, they can be fitted to allow teachers to traverse a wide variety of debates in which the rhetoric is unbalanced or radical, as I have done below:

  1. When does this argument’s rhetoric contradict the rules of civil debate?
  2. Why is the group behind this argument using such controversial rhetoric?
  3. What do polls suggest about the members of this group?
  4. What do experts say about the terms set by this argument?
  5. How does this group fit into larger, more mainstream groups?

Other teachers have gone in a different direction, making the “bad” rhetoric into a lesson on how to create a major hold over a large political base. Rob Phillips, the North Carolinian English teacher from Kara Voght’s article, found that when he was asking his AP Language and Composition students to examine presidential speeches, it seemed strange for him to call the logical fallacies in Trump’s speeches bad rhetoric, because clearly it had been effective for him:

As some have pointed out, the president employs ad hominem attacks, strawmen and other logical fallacies to drive emotional appeal. And it works. Phillips, who asks students to analyze presidents’ speeches in his AP Language and Composition class, says he’s changing his lesson plans to include a deeper conversation about whether abandoning logic and skipping over evidence-based assertions can be effective. “I always said these were to be avoided,” he says, “but now I’m thinking, ‘Well, maybe not. Maybe it will galvanize your base.”

Here, I have to disagree. Teaching students that poor rhetoric will give them a leg up in political debate shows a deep misunderstanding of the historical context which Trump came to power in and the long history of dissatisfaction towards the government found in his core group of supporters. While examining these speeches for logical fallacy is an important part of cultivating a sense of argumentative literacy in students, presenting them as useful techniques puts power into the wrong hands. There is no way to use a logical fallacy in an ethical way, as it serves only to disguise the truth which is not ethical rhetoric. And while I’m sure Phillips is not directing his students to use logical fallacies for the purpose of civil debate, I can’t help but wonder if that’s what his class is actually learning.

But in the age of Trump and social media based politics, is the study of logical argument even valuable anymore? This is the question posed by David Tollerton, lecturer at the University of Exeter, in his article for The Guardian “In the age of Trump, why bother teaching students to argue logically?” Tollerton’s tongue in cheek eulogy for the rational argument tries to find a reason to keep assigning argumentative essays when facts no longer hold any meaning:

As educators have we been getting things hopelessly wrong? Maybe, if one of my students writes “social cohesion means social cohesion” in this latest essay, I should put a hearty tick in the margin. Should footnotes and bibliographies be dismissed as elitist pedantry? Perhaps we should be training our students in the art of constructing compelling internet memes founded on fantasies? Or forceful slogans that combine emotive power with a strategic absence of content?

Tollerton goes on to say that of course we should continue to hold on to our beloved rational arguments and our love of facts. To do otherwise would undermine the very foundations of civilization and force us to believe in nothing at all (although, he notes, it would make grading a lot easier). This is the core of the critical social advocacy strategy of teaching in the era of Trump: rational argument and civil debate should be taught because of its absence in the current political arena, rather than in spite of its absence.

But the strategy teachers seem to be the most excited about is direct comparison to classroom curriculum, especially when it comes to literature. Before, high school English teachers had to stretch and manipulate fifty year old interpretations of hundred year old texts to relate them to a 21st century teenage audience who was far more invested in analyzing their crushes’ social media than the library’s dustiest copy of The Scarlett Letter. Now high schoolers have a stake in the books they read, finding new ways to compare old curriculum to new issues. Voght’s article for Politco cites a wide scope of literary classics that teachers are adding or reimagining for their classes, including 1984, The Crucible, Antigone, Of Mice and Men (this text was specifically lauded for humanizing the rural, white Americans living under the poverty line in Middle America that made up a large portion of Trump’s base), and Julius Caesar. Voght says that teachers are finding that their students have started to use the literature taught in their classrooms to interpret the messy world of politics that they’re seeing on the news. An example of how “real world” writers are using the same strategy can be seen in Ron Charles’ Washington Post article “Turns out the Trump era isn’t ‘1984’. It’s ‘King Lear”». Charles notes that comparisons to literary dystopias like 1984 or The Handmaid’s Tale fail to express the chaos and erratic instability of the Trump administration the same way that Shakespeare’s tragedy of old age does:

The repressive governments of those imagined hellscapes are marked, primarily, not by their vast deception but by their absolute order. Flawless message control and meticulous image manipulation are the foundations of their sovereignty. Nothing could be further from the continuous upheaval that Donald Trump wreaks.

How much more visceral and real does the character of Lear become to the high school English class when the teacher puts him in this context? How much more comforting and inspiring does Cordelia’s rebellion against her father’s wishes become? If there is any argument left for teaching Shakespeare it’s surely to be found in the high school literature teachers’ response to the Trump administration.

The scope of responses to teaching rhetoric and literature in the context of a White House administration which values neither is vast. My research was limited to public news sources, many of which have a liberal bias. I haven’t left conservative or pro-Trump voices out of this argument on purpose, but rather I was only able to find one side of the debate. The voice I have left out, until now, is the voice of those in favor of stopping the lessons in rhetoric altogether. Public debate is no longer behind podiums but rather behind Twitter handles or the comment sections of Facebook posts. Using your rhetorical toolbox that your high school government teacher packed you on a Twitter user going by the name @MAGA4ever who swears they’re up for rational debate, but accuses you of promoting fake news as soon as you cite a source they disagree with is exhausting and doesn’t do either party any good. Your ability to compare and contrast the metaphors in Brave New World is useless at the political protests where both sides claim to want a constructive dialogue, but one side decided to come heavily armed. And I can’t say that your history teacher’s warning about the past repeating itself is having much effect on the news pundits yelling at each other whether or not we should give Neo-Nazi’s a chance. So I guess that’s it then. Facts, logic, civil discourse is dead. We had a good run but I think it’s time we all packed up our bags and let whoever can shout the loudest lead. If it’s still working for chimpanzees I’m sure we can make it work for us.

Of course there’s still value in rhetoric. How can we say that the election of one president takes away the power of a good person speaking well? It’s in our nature to think catastrophically. We each took on the role of Chicken Little and frantically shouted “the sky is falling” when we felt an acorn drop on our collective heads. Every aspect of this presidency is uncharted territory for us. The idea of an administration so brazenly rejecting the standards which the rest of the world is held to is disturbing, even more so for students watching the election process for the first time as politically engaged adolescents. But in all the acorns falling down on us, there are still some truths: students should be kept safe at all cost, a well made argument is still valuable, old texts are still relevant, and facts, whether you believe them or not, are facts.


Works Cited

  1. Charles, Ron. “Turns out the Trump Era isn’t ‘1984’. It’s ‘King Lear’.” The Washington Post, 28 May 2017.
  2. Christensen, Justin. “Teachers’ Lounge: Teaching politics in the age of Trump.” PBS News Hour, 15 Apr. 2016.
  3. Lornsdorf, Kat. “Teaching In The Age Of Trump.” NprED, 11 Nov. 2016.
  4. Tollerton, David. “In the age of Trump, why bother teaching students to argue logically?” The Guardian, 15 Nov. 2016.
  5. Vogt, Kara. “Teaching English in the Age of Trump.” Politico Magazine, 17 Sept. 2017.

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Educators and the Civil Debates in the Classroom. (2021, Oct 08). Retrieved from

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