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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
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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.

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