How will we discuss the presidential campaign in class?


A major goal of teachers, especially secondary school social studies teachers, is to help students learn to evaluate multiple perspectives on issues by weighing evidence, separating fact from fiction, examining underlying assumptions and then formulating their own informed opinions. As a teacher, I generally withhold my opinion on a topic — but I have no problem asserting that slavery, genocide, racism, dictatorship and antisemitism are bad. There are no upsides.

On any given topic, I give students documents to evaluate that include things I agree with and things I don’t. In class, my primary role is to ask questions that promote respectful discussion of the issues. I use this approach whether we’re talking about the past — say, the causes of the American Revolution — or current issues, such as the role of human action in climate change, whether a military campaign constitutes war crimes, or whether a group’s behavior should be identified as terrorism.

This fall, one important topic of discussion will be the Biden administration’s record on foreign policy, the economy, the climate, and the migrant/refugee “crisis.” Another will be whether Biden’s age should be an issue in the election, whatever your evaluation of his first term.

The big problem in September will be what to do about former President Donald Trump. How do you manage a balanced, unbiased analysis of a candidate who makes outrageous, hateful and blatantly false statements? Trump is facing scores of criminal indictments, has been found guilty of defamation and fraud, tried to overturn the 2020 presidential election, continues to claim that the election was stolen, dismisses any accusations against him as politically motivated, and demands immunity from prosecution as a former president.

November’s election will be a major focus in middle school and high school social studies classes. I’m not neutral about slavery, genocide, racism, dictatorship or antisemitism, and I’m not neutral about the threat Trump poses to the future of democracy in the United States and the country’s constitutional foundation. I won’t use unsubstantiated conspiracy theories, propaganda websites, and Trump-sycophantic reports in document packages and pretend that students are evaluating legitimate sources.

Even an exercise in fact-checking Trump statements can leave a teacher open to accusations of injecting opinions into class dialogue and trying to influence students’ ideas. But a teacher’s job is to influence students’ ideas. Our responsibility to promote civic discourse supported by evidence in an election year means we must encourage students to think critically about the campaign and the candidates, and if that means presenting an accurate picture of the threat Trump poses, we’ll have to live with the consequences.
There will be students in every class who support Trump, which is their right. They should be welcomed into the discussion and encouraged to offer evidence to support their positions, but they can’t be permitted to shout down or intimidate other students, which I witnessed in 2016 and 2020.

Trump has recently said some scary things, some of which he has backtracked on and some of which he has not. Any one of them should disqualify him from being president. He told American Jews, who already face a rising tide of antisemitism, that “Any Jewish person that votes for Democrats hates their religion. They hate everything about Israel, and they should be ashamed of themselves.” He has accused immigrants of “poisoning the blood of our country,” echoing the ideas of Adolf Hitler, and promises mass deportations, in violation of constitutional guarantees of due process.

Trump lowers the character of political speech as he raises the level of hostility. He has warned of a “bloodbath” if he isn’t elected, threatens to withdraw the United States from, or sharply reduce U.S. financial support for, NATO, which has helped prevent broader European wars since tens of millions of people died in World Wars I and II, and to withdraw the U.S. from global efforts to minimize climate change. He has repeatedly expressed admiration for authoritarian leaders like Russia’s Putin, China’s Xi and North Korea’s Kim.

In his speeches, Trump continuously lies about his record as president. He didn’t build the greatest economy or pass the biggest tax cut in U.S. history. He didn’t do more for African Americans than any president since Lincoln. He didn’t defeat ISIS or increase government revenue — and he wasn’t re-elected in 2020.

Teachers shouldn’t tell students who to vote for or how they themselves will vote, but they will be remiss if they don’t help them understand who Trump is and what he represents. Those who are unsure how to do this can have students read and debate the points raised here. Students can evaluate whether they raise legitimate concerns, or are just anti-Trump propaganda.

Dr. Alan Singer is a professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of social studies education programs at Hofstra University.