12 Winters Blog

Another kind of Trump obstruction

Posted in December 2019, Uncategorized by Ted Morrissey on December 23, 2019

On December 18, 2019, the House of Representatives impeached Donald Trump on two articles: abuse of power, and obstruction of Congress. The latter was largely based on Trump’s refusal to recognize the House’s authority of oversight, and therefore not turning over requests for documents while also instructing witnesses not to cooperate, including in defiance of legally issued subpoenas (in both instances, regarding documents and witnesses).

Many on the Left (and many on the Right, for that matter) felt that there should have been other articles, including an article for obstruction of justice. Based in large part on Trump’s actions as described in the little-read Mueller Report, over a thousand former federal prosecutors, who served both Democratic and Republican administrations, signed an open letter that stated, “Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice.” (link)

The purpose of this post is to suggest that there could be a third charge of obstruction added to the list, and this one may be even more insidious than the other two: obstruction of education.

While many schools across the country have used the Trump era as an opportunity for teaching real-world issues, others, especially those located in the heart of Trump country, have become complicit in Trump’s actions — both the illegal ones and the unseemly ones — by not allowing teachers to discuss Trump and Trump-related events with their students. Some have gone so far as to threaten teachers with disciplinary action for pointing out easily verifiable statements of fact about him or his administration.

While classes in history and government may seem the most obvious for discussing Trump and his policies, English, speech, journalism and other communication courses should also be sites of Trump-related analysis, as it is through the manipulation of language that the President and his allies have managed to consolidate and maintain support among nearly half the country (but well beyond half in Trump country).

Perhaps the chief way that the commander-in-chief has retained his followers is through the promulgation of misinformation (i.e. lies). According to The Washington Post, whose fact-checkers have maintained a running list throughout Trump’s presidency, as of Dec. 10, 2019, he had told 15, 413 “untruths.” What is more, the number of false statements has been accelerating, and in 2019 he had made more false claims than in the previous two years. (link)

Between untrue tweets, false statements to the press during his frequent White House lawn gaggles, and utterances to his favorite personalities on Fox News, Trump and the Republican Party have been able to construct an alternate reality that paints Trump as a heroic figure standing against a deep-state conspiracy. Anyone who attempts to cut through the fog of misinformation to reveal a truer picture — journalists, activists, teachers — is a co-conspirator with the deep state.

Never mind that most of Trump’s misdeeds — including the impeachable ones — have been stated or acted out in public. In a downright Orwellian moment, Trump said to a group of veterans on July 24, 2018: “Just stick with us, don’t believe the crap you see from these people, the fake news.… Just remember, what you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening …” (link)

In retrospect, it is frightening to see how well Trump’s tactics have worked: his followers literally do not believe what they see and hear themselves. A key element in Trumpian obfuscation has been the erasure of the line between fact and opinion. There are no hard, verifiable facts in Trump world. Everything is an opinion; therefore, his followers can dismiss statements of fact — by educators, for instance — as mere opinions. Then Trump-supporting students, parents (and perhaps even school officials and board of education members) charge teachers with pushing their own opinions on their innocent, doe-eyed students.

Teachers who are trying to share fact-based information with their students are cast as Rasputin-like brainwashers of young minds and therefore silenced, so that even the students from families who do not support President Trump are prevented from considering the ramifications of his presidency. The topic of Trump, in any context, is taboo in the heart of Trump country — which, as it happens, tends to be in the key Midwestern states that Trump must win in 2020.

Many of the students who are prevented from pondering the Trump presidency will be voting age by Election Day in November, making the Trump taboo in the classroom another variation of voter suppression, which the GOP has been using to maintain power for years. In fact, a recently leaked audio recording suggests Republicans will be ramping up their suppression efforts in 2020. Trump adviser Justin Clark told a group of supporters on November 21, 2019, that voter suppression is “going to be a much bigger program, a much more aggressive program, a much better-funded program.” (link)

Again, it is largely through propaganda via social media that the iron curtain has been erected between the distracted public and the true nature of Trump and his presidency. To that end, many schools have added courses, or at least units, that teach students how to navigate spaces like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube to help them avoid falling prey to propaganda and gaslighting. (link)

In fact, professional organizations have officially advocated for this kind of educational experience in particular. In March of 2019, the National Council of the Teachers of English released its “Resolution on English Education for Critical Literacy in Politics and Media.” It reads that the NCTE

  • promote pedagogy and scholarly curricula in English and related subjects that instruct students in civic and critical literacy, going beyond basic reading comprehension to the thinking skills that enable students to analyze and evaluate sophisticated persuasive techniques in all texts, genres, and types of media, current and yet to be imagined;
  • support classroom practices that examine and question uses of language in order to discern inhumane, misinformative, or dishonest discourse and arguments;
  • prioritize research and pedagogies that encourage students to become “critical thinkers, consumers, and creators who advocate for and actively contribute to a better world”;
  • provide resources to mitigate the effect of new technologies and platforms that accelerate and destabilize our information environment;
  • support the integration of reliable, balanced, and credible news sources within classroom practices at all levels of education;
  • resist attempts to influence civic discussion through falsehoods, unwarranted doubts, prejudicial or stereotypical ideas, attempts to shame or silence, or other techniques that deteriorate the quality of public deliberation; and
  • model civic literacy and conversation by creating a supportive environment where students can have an informed discussion and engage with current events and civic issues while staying mindful and critical of the difference between the intent and impact of their language. (link)

I will highlight in particular that English teachers are called upon to “resist attempts to influence civic discussion through falsehoods, unwarranted doubts, prejudicial or stereotypical ideas, attempts to shame or silence, or other techniques that deteriorate the quality of public deliberation.” Trump-supporting students and parents — and school officials who bow down to their pressure by not allowing teachers to discuss with their students current affairs related to President Trump (especially issues related to his impeachment) — are clearly “influenc[ing] civic discussion through … prejudicial ideas … and attempts to shame or silence.” Moreover, school officials who threaten teachers with disciplinary procedures are applying “other techniques that deteriorate the quality of public deliberation.”

It would, of course, be unprofessional and unethical for teachers to employ classroom practices meant to sway young minds — like using grades to reward anti-Trump commentary and punish pro-Trump commentary, or subjecting pro-Trump students to hostility — but it seems that what Trump supporters are afraid of are facts themselves being influential, so therefore teachers must be muzzled, no matter how easily verifiable the facts are, or how publicly Trump laid bare the deeds himself.

Preventing educators from discussing Trump and Trump-related issues with their students via intimidation is textbook fascism, “forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism,” which is part of the first definition at Dictionary.com. Historically, fascists have targeted journalists, writers, educators and intellectuals in general because they share the common characteristic of trafficking in the truth — and truth is the number-one enemy of authoritarians. It must remain veiled at all cost.

A final point I will make is that parents certainly have the right to shield their children from certain topics and specific ideologies, and that is why homeschooling and private schools exist, so that parents who do not support the diverse nature of public schooling can educate their children in another manner. I have no problem with that: it is democratic; it is quintessentially American. But parents should not have the right to turn public schools into private ones by dictating curriculum and classroom practices which impact all students.

When they do (or when they are allowed to do it), it becomes yet another sort of Trump obstruction: the obstruction of education.

One Response

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  1. David F said, on December 23, 2019 at 1:07 pm

    Thanks for this…as a high school teacher of Govt (both AP and non) I have several thoughts:

    1. The teaching of civics (and critical thinking in general) is undermined by a lack of content knowledge of history–US and World. I blame the social studies curriculum in K-8, where students are often stuck in problem-based learning environments and do not develop the deep knowledge necessary to discern nonsense from fact.

    2. The Danielson framework, which you’ve criticized, as well as pedagogical techniques overly emphasizing engagement are another part of the problem–students often remember their activities, but not the content.

    3. Schools are far too eager to push devices into students’ hands rather than have them read extensively. They’re already using their devices at least 7 hours per day according to Common Sense Media–why add more? Instead, we should be trying to put complex works that develop their background knowledge and emotional empathy into their hands.

    4. None of this is new. Ever since the Life Adjustment Movement and other progressive ed efforts of the 1920s and 30s, these arguments have been made (without the ed tech). Riesman, Bestor, Rickover, and Hofstadter made the same arguments in the 50s and 60s…yet the zombie of engagement uber alles refuses to die. Things are worse today as reading for pleasure continues to plummet.


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