Image by ZioDave
As we head into the fall, students are returning to school just as the Presidential candidate debate season begins. Fresh off of his kid-gloves treatment from Matt Lauer, Trump is already preparing ground for a poor performance by claiming that the debates are going to be rigged and asking that there be no moderator at all.
Teachers and parents who care about the future of our democracy need to ask ourselves: How do we sensitize young people to the problems of this kind of coverage, and this kind of candidate?
At a minimum, we need to ensure that we are teaching media literacy. Students need to understand that “the news” isn't handed down from on high, but that ordinary people make the news; that those people, while trained and often experienced, still have biases and points of view just like everyone else; and that they are making social, political, and economic decisions about what to cover, and what not to. They need to know that anything they hear a public official say has context and subtext, and that they should never take officials’ highly-crafted words at face value unless they can independently verify them.
We also need to teach young people how to filter, consume, and respond to media. Now that there are thousands of options to access millions of bits of information every day, they need to learn how to curate channels of credible news outlets as well as thinkers they trust to help shape their own thinking via informed opinion. (Indeed, we need to make sure they can tell the difference between an informed versus an uninformed opinion to begin with.) They need to learn how to research their own questions as well as how to evaluate the credibility and legitimacy of a source. And they need to know how to ask questions and share their own reactions to what they see and hear. In short, they need to develop the habits of active citizens including a healthy level of skepticism.
On a more fundamental level, this election reminds me of how important it is that we hone young people's ability to evaluate character and behavior. It is painfully clear that Trump has a consistently loose relationship with the truth, as well as a history of cheating and mistreating people. Far too many grown people have been willing to overlook this because he says things they want to hear.
We need to make sure young people know that bad guys don't always look a certain way, or sound a certain way, or announce themselves as such. The only way we know whom we can trust and whom we can't is by how they behave. People are what they do, not what they say about themselves, and not even what we want to believe about them.
Teachers are understandably tense and squeamish about talking about partisan politics. But no language arts or history teacher has ever struggled to identify a villain who offends the morals and values most Americans share.
Let’s be clear:
Future generations will not hesitate to call Trump what he is: an authoritarian demagogue. Current teachers shouldn't be so blinded by our present day red-blue divide that they fail to speak the truth about him.
And parents—who have no such social or economic prohibitions regarding what they discuss with their kids—should be frank about who this person is with their kids. Even though most of our kids will not be voting in the upcoming election, they will all eventually encounter unscrupulous people who are out to capture not only their votes, but their money, their attention, their energy, even their very hearts. Their health, safety, and well-being will depend on their ability to spot a con artist when they see one.
Sabrina Stevens, is Midatlantic Regional Progressive Education Fellow, and a mother, writer, education advocate, and former teacher based in Washington, DC. She is a founding member of EduColor, a collective that works to elevate the voices of people of color in the education policy dialogue.