Never Again Trump? We Had Better Attend to Our Schools

Now that 45 is gone, or gone-ish, I have been seeing a lot of think pieces about the US social failures that led to the rise of this fascist movement. One critique that comes up often is that our schools have failed, that we have allowed too many millions to be suckers for dim-witted conspiracy theories, we have allowed a narrative that feeds white people’s paranoia, we have simply not taught history and civics and even statistics well. Certainly the defunding of education has left schools deprived of opportunities to develop rich experiences for students.

This may all be true but if we are going to take a hard look at the failings of education, I’m afraid too many policy-makers, administrators, and teachers have ducked responsibility for our own complicity in creating a population that is uninformed and susceptible to the demagogue. In fact, a broad range of educators would do well to look in the mirror in seeking the origins of Trumpism.

First, let us recognize that the population that is educationally “at risk,” the students who need important attention and adaptation, are not the Black and Brown kids, not the immigrant kids, not the queer kids. They have demonstrated a degree of civic sophistication that is historic. Notice the community knowledge and mobilization in Georgia, which defied voter suppression and intimidation to turn that state around. I’m not saying we don’t have to devote more resources and options to marginalized students. But of course the ones who need an educational intervention are mostly white people.

The problem that is dominant throughout education in the US, the problem that undermines democracy, is authoritarian teaching. Top down teaching. Bossy teaching. Closed-minded teaching. Teacher-knows-all teaching. If the hidden curriculum, the lesson taught by how we act not what we say, emphasizes passivity, mindless answers, and compliance, we are preparing the soil for Trumpism. Our curriculum has been dumbed down by standardized tests and bullied into more and more narrow methods of transmission. That is part of the problem.

One of the key tenets of the white supremacy ideology is authoritarianism: the desire for a big man to tell us what to do, the demand for women to be subservient, the fear of losing white privilege over people of color. A politics of nursed grievances, a world view that cannot come to terms with defeat (in Vietnam, for instance), a morality that worships violence, competition, and conquest — all of this is reinforced by authoritarian education.

This has been the guiding mission of Facing History and Ourselves, an education project which began with the question, “Seeing the masses of people who embraced Hitler and Nazism, what can we say about their schooling? What happened to them as children to make them so susceptible?” And the answer, while complex and ongoing, had to do with the need to provide education for democracy.

Education for democracy requires that we take the teacher off the pedestal, that we pursue a curriculum of questioning, a curriculum of inquiry, a curriculum of wonder. Students need to explore and experience the real world, the vast variety of our communities. Classrooms need to center media literacy, the ability to question the authority of texts, the way to find reality amidst a barrage of digital presentations.

Certainly this will not solve all of the problems and obviously there are committed fascists who need to simply be defeated. But for the 74 million who voted for Trump, we could make plenty of headway through an education system that helps students to think for themselves.

Rick Ayers is an associate professor of education at the University of San Francisco.