Teaching in the Time of Trump

Dear Reader,

I have taken a sabbatical from the blog for a few months now – in all honesty, the pernicious political climate defeated any desire I had to put together my thoughts for a blog post. Every idea I started with turned angry, and I generally believe anger is an impotent emotion.

angry trump
Trump speaks to supporters – photo by Politico

I am hardly alone in feeling the negative vibe in the air – most people in our society (70 % according to recent polling) feel that the country as a whole is more negative since the last election.  As the saying goes, the speed of the group is equal to the speed of the leader. You could restate this as the tone of the group is set by the tone of the leader. The leader’s tone is dangerous, angry, toxic. Horrible.

It has not been easy to resist the tone.  It has especially been a challenge at work, in the classroom.  How does one teach in the time of Trump?  It’s not easy.  First and foremost, we have to tolerate things we disagree with and realize that opinions about Trump run a full spectrum.  Despite how I feel about Trump, I have to model tolerant disagreement. Second, we have to acknowledge that everything we talk about in the classroom connects to the world around us, and the students certainly feel impacted by what’s going on out there.  Nothing feels quite normal to students these days.  They have anxieties and insecurities that get expressed in class discussion and in their writing. My students worry about their Muslim neighbors, their immigrant classmates, their LGBTQ friends, themselves. As much as we’d like to, we can’t shut the door and pretend that the world doesn’t exist; we have to talk about it. The only good way I can think to let the world in is by not focusing on Trump so much as what we read can teach us about ourselves. After all, even though a person like Trump seems new and unique in time, in truth he is not new but rather a regression.  We can learn lessons from stories, plays, novels, and poems that show us who we do – and don’t – want to be. These past few months, I have found some solace in knowing that the things we study teach us about why truth matters, why bullies can’t win, what happens when we demonize others, and what happens when we fight for the best version of ourselves.

One of the classes I teach is called Ethics in Literature, and one of the things we confront in this course is the idea of what is true. There is a dangerous way of thinking out there in the world that says, “If it feels true to me or if it confirms what I believe, then it must be true.”  In current political discourse, this is what is know as “Alternative Facts.”  In plain truth, alternative facts are lies.  One of the lessons we learn in ethics is that thinking so doesn’t make it so. “Many people are saying” is not a rational argument, and when we talk about big questions of right and wrong, objectivity is essential.  Here is an example: Person A thinks chocolate ice cream is the best.  That thinking expresses an opinion about ice cream.  Is chocolate ice cream the best?  Not according Person B who loves vanilla ice cream.  Can they both be right? Ice cream is a low-stakes argument.  But what if we apply that same process to a moral question? Moral questions can’t be decided based on a mere difference of opinion or preference.  It may be Person A’s opinion that pursuing stem-cell research is wrong because it makes him uncomfortable, but that is not enough to declare it morally wrong. Moral questions require justified thinking, not just opinion or preference. And saying something like “stem-cell research is wrong because I think it’s messing with the natural order” is not a rational, justified argument.  It may be how Person A feels, but that does not make it true.  There really is a difference between facts and feelings, and one of the most important things we can teach students is to believe in the independent objectivity of facts.

As we read Macbeth, we see what happens when we give way to our darkest impulses, when we seek to win at all costs even at the expense of other people. The witches set the tone for this early on by declaring that “fair is foul and foul is fair.”  Macbeth is a bully who decides to trash and destroy everything in his path. He wants power, but he doesn’t know what he wants to do with it.  The gluttonous desire for power is all consuming, as he ultimately realizes that he is “in blood / Stepp’d in so far that, should [he] wade no more, / Returning were as tedious as go o’er” – in other words, he is in over his head. The paranoid pursuit of power leads him to threaten and murder everyone he perceives as a threat in order to try and maintain his grasp on the throne. Ultimately, the bully defeats himself as everyone turns against Macbeth, refusing to accept his fatalistic vision. Shakespeare’s dark play shows us that ambition alone does not make a great leader, and while it may inspire fear, it will never inspire love, admiration, greatness, or loyalty.

macbeth
image from BBC

When we read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, we learn that how we treat others matters. When Victor’s creature wanders out into the world, he is not a monster.  The creature seeks love, acceptance, and understanding.  He looks for a place to belong.  But it is his difference in appearance and manner that ultimately creates fear in others.  Society can’t handle his difference, and they take out those fears on the creature.  The creature learns that he is “solitary and abhorred” – alone and hated.  This leads him to feelings of “hate and revenge” – the creature learns to treat others the way he has been treated.  At one point, the creature tells Victor, “I am malicious because I am miserable. Am I not shunned and hated by all mankind?” The lesson is simple: when faced with someone different from our norm, someone outside of our comfort zone, we can treat them with respect and create better humans, or we can create monsters. Sometimes, for all the talk of America being “a great melting pot,” we sure do seem to resist people who are different from our norm.  Too often we regard each other with suspicion and derision – and the monsters we really create are ourselves.

But when we read The Hunger Games, we learn that we should not pit ourselves against each other. When we do that, we play the evil leader’s game. President Snow wants people from the various districts to distrust each other, not to talk to each other, and not to help each other. He wants them to see their survival as dependent on the demise of others. Peeta and Katniss refuse to conform to the image of “good tributes” in that while they understand they may have to sacrifice their lives, they refuse to sacrifice their character.  Their resistance is shown in small and big ways.  For example, on the eve of the games, Peeta says, “I want to die as myself” in the arena.  He does not want to fundamentally alter who he is for the sake of the game.  Snow is hoping that the tributes will all behave viciously toward one another once the games are underway, confirming the worst narrative Snow has tried to construct about the people from the districts.  It is a small act of rebellion on Peeta’s part to fight for his character in the face of a truly horrible fate.  In a much larger act of resistance, Katniss shows compassion to her ally, Rue.  When Rue is mortally wounded, rather than run away to save herself, Katniss stays with Rue so she doesn’t have to die alone.  Her rebellion is shown in the way she prepares a funeral scene for the fallen tribute and honors Rue’s district in an unprecedented show of solidarity.  What Collins’ book tries to show is that cooperation is how we win, and we must fight to stay true to ourselves even when circumstances try to force us to act in ways that hurt others. We must always search for and nurture the better parts of our nature – and that is the only way we really win, the only way to make ourselves great.

When we studied John Rawls’ theories on social justice, my students did an exercise where they created an ideal society behind their own veil of ignorance. The veil of ignorance assumes that you don’t know who you will be or what place you will have in society, so in creating society, the goal is to try and set it up as fairly as possible for everyone. I challenged them to think affirmatively – create the society they want by deciding on what was good. The point of the exercise was to discover what things we truly value. Their list was encouraging: they want freedom, they want justice, they want equality, they want peace, they want respect, they want education, they want opportunity. What is made plain by the list they created is what they don’t want: prejudice, injustice, inequality, fear, disrespect, lack of education, and lack of opportunity.

The exercise could be easily dismissed by saying it’s too idealistic, but during this week where we have celebrated the anniversary of our nation, it’s fair to point out that the Declaration of Independence was pretty idealistic too. America was a dream. It took some work to get it going, and we are still wildly imperfect. Does that mean we should cease to try?  Perhaps the most essential benefit of studying the humanities is that art, literature, and philosophy help us understand how much bigger the world is.  Too often, we are locked within a selfish bubble, only concerned with what is immediate to us. This isolationist thinking is dangerous. As much as anything else, my goal as a teacher is to say simply this to my students: try. Try to imagine the world you want to live in. Try to figure out how you can go about creating it.  Try compassion.  Try to live with honesty and dignity. Try to treat others the right way, to earn respect by giving it. Try to be the person you think you should be, even when it’s hard. Try in small ways and in great ways. Change happens in depressingly slow ways sometimes, but then sometimes it makes massive leaps. But none of it happens if we don’t try and just pretend that everything is normal, everything is okay.

This is how I have learned to teach in the time of Trump.

© Ryna May 2017

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Required Reading

Dear Reader,

In college, one of the things I was most excited about was all of the great books I was going to read.  Even between semesters, I sought out reading recommendations from my favorite professors – I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss anything.  Over summer break, I averaged 2 books a week – a habit that, until I went back to school for my doctorate, I was able to maintain long after graduation.

Today, I read an article about the books that most frequently appear on college syllabi, and it got me to thinking about the best books I’ve ever read.  If I were ever to design my own course in reading “Great Books,” these are the 7 works I would have on my 15-week syllabus, with explanations.  Note: I fully admit that some great books are not on this list, and I’ll also admit a serious Western Lit bias, but this is an impossible project; however it also a fun one to think about.  So, in 15 weeks, this is what we would read:

1. The Great Gatsby

I have great affection for Fitzgerald’s most popular book.  I love the era it is set in, and I do believe that it is the quintessential narrative of the aspiration, excess, and fallacy of “The American Dream.”  An alternative to this on the same theme: Death of a Salesman.

2. Beloved

No other novel honestly spooked me as much as Toni Morrison’s Beloved.  It is a haunting story of slavery and the impossible, regrettable moral choices the protagonist faces.  Shivers.  Also in this lane: a contemporary novel called The Known World.

3. Things Fall Apart

Chinua Achebe’s novel is a postcolonial masterpiece.  It was one of the first books I ever really read about another culture, and it was fascinating to consider the alternative view of Christianity in the world.  In this same vein, also a good bet: The Poisonwood Bible.

4. Hamlet

Of course there is Shakespeare on this list!  My favorite play to watch may be A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but my favorite play to read and sit with is definitely Hamlet. I love this play because, even though I have read it dozens of times, I always find something new it in.  I have never read another play like it.  Its depths resound.  Sorry – can’t find anything really comparable – except maybe Macbeth.

5. The Things They Carried

Of all the books and stories about war, this one is the one I always come back to.  Tim O’Brien is an amazing storyteller.  I remember the first time I ever read “On the Rainy River.”  I was sitting on a beach in Jamaica, and was a real gut-punch.  If you like this one, you’ll also love Dispatches – a non-fiction story about a reporter in Vietnam.

6. 1984

I probably like Animal Farm better, but 1984 is just scary.  It’s scary because it’s so true.  I think even George Orwell would be surprised at how right he was about the world to come.  When I first read the book, I kind of laughed at the idea of “Big Brother.”  Not so funny now.  Huxley’s Brave New World is also frighteningly on the nose.

7. Last but not least, Frankenstein

Mary Shelley’s gothic novel raises all of the questions we are still asking about the limits of human knowledge and achievement along with the ethical responsibilities we bear when we push those boundaries.  The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells provokes these questions as well.

So what do you think?  If you were assigning “Great Books,” what would be on the list?

 

© Ryna May 2016