Opinion Blog


Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Social Studies Opinion

Trump Has Been Awful for Civic Education

By Rick Hess — October 29, 2020 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In a few days, the nation will decide whether to bring down the curtain on the Trump Show. That decision could have a momentous impact on civic education.

Traditionally, the office of the president has been looked upon with respect, and even borderline reverence by children. (“I want to be president when I grow up.”) And presidents typically recognize that the burden of the office is more than just the day-to-day job description, it’s the weight of the moral expectations that go along with it. Trump, however, has approached the office as an excuse to flaunt his basest impulses.

I’m not talking about policies or politics. This isn’t about the Trump administration’s policies or the Biden agenda, but rather what the Trump Show has meant when it comes to civic virtue and the nation’s character. As theologian and influential Evangelical leader John Piper powerfully argued last week:

It is a drastic mistake to think that the deadly influences of a leader come only through his policies and not also through his person. This is true not only because flagrant boastfulness, vulgarity, immorality, and factiousness are self-incriminating, but also because they are nation-corrupting. They move out from centers of influence to infect whole cultures. The last five years bear vivid witness to this infection at almost every level of society.

Or, as my AEI colleague, and conservative Washington Examiner columnist Tim Carney put it the other day, “Trump isn’t merely crude or impolite. He’s foul, narcissistic, hateful, disrespectful, clownish, and less concerned with the truth than even most politicians. Even if you agree with his nominations and his policies, these flaws matter.”

Trump’s behavior has been especially destructive for education—where the charge includes modeling virtue and teaching it to students. Now, as I’ve said before, I have little patience for any wild-eyed social-justice advocates who would dismiss foundational virtues like kindness and responsibility as racialized tropes. But I’ve even less patience for a President of the United States who spews dishonesty, disrespect, and division as a matter of course.

Back in the spring, back before we knew just how much 2020 had in store for us, I wrote an Education Next essay with Matt Rice that tried to parse some of the left-right disagreements on civics education. We pointed to a number of substantive differences on everything from action civics to what students need to know. But the overarching theme comes down to a matter of trust.

Those on the right don’t trust that action-civics projects or ethnic studies will be evenhanded, welcoming to diverse perspectives, or designed to help students understand what is good or admirable about our nation. Those on the left don’t trust that instruction which emphasizes the founders and the founding documents or that makes room for talk of American exceptionalism will tell the whole of the nation’s story, speak to all students, or empower youths to be agents of change.

Now, I believe that these divides can be bridged. In conversations where people are trying to hash out disputes in civic education, I’ve found that it’s usually possible to surface a lot of common ground. Doing so requires setting aside sweeping rhetoric and getting down to brass tacks to create space to delve into the issues. Of course, lowering our guard long enough to engage in these conversations requires trust and mutual respect. When those things are lacking, disputes start to look a lot more intractable.

Trump’s legacy has been grievous on this count. It’s almost as if his leadership was reverse-engineered to erode civic trust. He has encouraged his adherents to mock civility and disdain his critics, while his depredations have left fuming opponents inclined to impugn the integrity of anyone who hasn’t vocally abandoned Trump.

And yet, Trump, whose Twitter feed is a daily lesson in civic malfeasance, has this fall sought to refashion himself as a champion of “patriotic” education. Meanwhile, much of the recent passion for civics education among education advocates has struck me as a bit too convenient—I find myself wondering whether these deep-blue groups are more interested in ensuring that Americans dump Trump than in the long-term health of civic ideals and respectful discourse. Again, suspicion and bad faith loom on all sides.

How do we escape this impasse on civic education?

If Trump wins, I’m not optimistic that we will. The odds are, though, that Trump is not going to win and that the Trump Show will soon be drawing to a close. However one feels about that, the advent of a Biden presidency would offer a welcome opportunity for a reset when it comes to civics and civic education. The question will be whether we—on the left and right, together—are able to seize it.

Related Tags:

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Evaluating Equity to Drive District-Wide Action this School Year
Educational leaders are charged with ensuring all students receive equitable access to a high-quality education. Yet equity is more than an action. It is a lens through which we continuously review instructional practices and student
Content provided by BetterLesson
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Attendance Awareness Month: The Research Behind Effective Interventions
More than a year has passed since American schools were abruptly closed to halt the spread of COVID-19. Many children have been out of regular school for most, or even all, of that time. Some
Content provided by AllHere

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Social Studies Teachers Rally Against Laws Aimed at Limiting Classroom Discussion of Racism
Some teachers are speaking out against new legislation. But others are holding back, for fear of repercussions.
5 min read
In this Aug. 28, 2021 photo, demonstrators held a rally in Kansas City, Mo. against laws forbidding teaching critical race theory in classrooms.
Demonstrators held a rally in Kansas City, Mo., on Saturday against laws forbidding teaching critical race theory in classrooms.
Photo courtesy of SURJ-KC
Social Studies Opinion Why Do Native People Disappear From Textbooks After the 1890s?
How we teach American history has direct consequences for Native students today, writes a Navajo Technical University professor.
Joshua Ward Jeffery
5 min read
A Native American man sees a vibrant history emerging from a book.
"Tells His Story" by Brent Greenwood for Education Week
Social Studies Explainer Who Decides What History We Teach? An Explainer
Education Week breaks down how politics has long been embedded in this decision, and how new laws may affect the process.
15 min read
Image of books on history.
thomaguery/iStock/Getty
Social Studies Opinion Q&A Collections: Teaching Social Studies
Links to 10 years of posts with commentaries from over 100 social studies educators.
7 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."
iStock/Getty