I started teaching English in public schools in January of 1975. 41 years ago.
In that long time, I have made a sincere effort not to shape my students’ political or religious beliefs. I have tried to deepen their analytical skills, their attention to detail in reading, their aesthetic sensibilities, their appreciation of art, and their love of and respect for language. But I have never wanted their thinking to blindly reflect my own opinions about the direction the community or nation should take, or the cultural trends deserving our support.
It seemed simple after all: the public school teacher, paid by public funds, must not insist, nor even imply, that their own political views should determine those of their students.
I admit that I have sometimes, though largely by accident, betrayed that trust. I have known, and sometimes acknowledged, that my students have discerned my political positions. But I have also, and explicitly, let my students know that sharing my political or cultural views is neither a way to guarantee nor preclude their success in my course. I have even suggested that students, in planning their essays, should avoid glibly taking a position they think I support – whether political or literary – for I will inevitably be hard on those who fail to make a strong case for our supposedly shared position. I do not want, I assure them, weak allies. And so I have, for four decades, made a sincere if sometimes faulty effort to free my teaching of political and ideological advocacy.
This year, I’m abandoning that position. This year I am openly contemptuous of Donald Trump.
This may not surprise my friends, nor even the few regular readers of this little blog, who know that I have never been shy about my opinions. But trust me when I tell you that, with my students, I have never before been so openly contemptuous of a presidential candidate. Especially not one who has garnered the nomination of one of the two major political parties of my lifetime. But I cannot, and will not, speak of Trump with any pretension of respect.
I would have been equally disparaging of George Wallace if he had earned a place on a national ticket. I would have dismissed David Duke and tossed aside Louis Farrakhan. I could not, however, throughout my politically involved youth, have imagined a bigoted, self-serving jackass like Donald Trump ascending to real political power. Now that he has, I must, as a dedicated teacher, take a stand against his odious bid for power.
What does an American teacher stand for if not for the essential values that have shaped out nation’s growth and standing in the world? What if not the Enlightenment principles that informed the founding fathers?
- All of us are created equal.
- All are entitled to certain rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
- All must therefore be judged as individuals, based upon their actions and behavior.
- No religious test may apply to full citizenship and the granting of those rights.
- All are equal before the law.
- All have a right to be left alone, so long as their actions threaten no others.
- All have the power of reason—as Enlightenment figures such as Locke declared and American revolutionaries celebrated—so that all should have a voice in the governing of our republic.
These are among our fundamental principles. These are among the truths we have, ever since Jefferson’s declaration was approved, taken to be self evident. These are the ideals that may not determine economic policy, foreign policy, tax reforms, or entitlement programs – even while informing debates on those and other subjects – but they remain ideals we ought to share and strive to realize.
And Donald Trump ignores them, denies them, abuses them. He is the enemy of what our nation stands for.
By announcing that all desperate Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists, and thus denying that all are created equal and all are equally deserving of individual standing before the law.
By insisting that all Muslims must be banned from entry to the United States because some Muslims are terrorists.
By treating women as less than equal because they should be judged, as his statements and gestures have long made clear, by the structure of their cheekbones, the length of their legs, the cut of their calves, and especially the size and perkiness of their breasts.
By insisting that those who have garnered great wealth, including himself, are worthy of respect for no reason besides that accumulated wealth – no matter how many investors they have left broken in their path, no matter how many unions they have busted while seizing the laborers’ wealth, no matter how many times they have come out on top even while failing to offer a successful product.
By denying one of the Enlightenment’s primary values – a respect for science — and its virtually unanimous support for ecological concern and adamant insistence regarding human contributions to global warming.
By ignoring the Enlightenment’s core beliefs – that reason, logic, argument, and consistency should be the wellsprings of whatever guides us and our decisions – because he is a shape-shifter who plays with the media, his own personae, and virtually every position he has taken over the last several decades, always without offering reasons or arguments to explain whatever fleeting stand he is taking at any given moment.
And finally, by being the most obviously self-serving, narcissistic, inconsistent, bull-shitting and media-manipulating figure we have seen in the last several decades of American politics. (But I admit this repeats my previous point.)
However many times you think Hillary Clinton has changed her mind, if you follow the trajectory of those changes you will at least find the reasons she has offered for her shifting opinions. You may find the shifts convenient, and you may have no trust in her sincerity, but her points are not ridiculously unfounded. You cannot say the same for Trump’s bizarrely unexplained shifts. He is the ultimate chameleon, the man of no lasting substance, no set of principles.
But comparing Donald to Hillary is not at all my point. I am not a strong Clinton supporter. I am not now writing to support her run for the presidency, and I easily keep mum when my students speak well or ill of her candidacy. I cannot, in good conscience, do the same for those who embrace Trump’s rise in the polls. She’s one more politician. For better or worse, she’s following an established and reasonably acceptable path, no matter how much you may detest her positions.
Trump is in another category altogether. He is the anti-American. He is the yahoo who brings racism, homophobia, misogyny, and an avid contempt for thought and reason and history and scientific truth to his campaign and his platform. He is the enemy of my people and of my profession. He stands for all that an American educator must oppose.
This is an historical moments in which each citizen must take a stand, even if it means casting off propriety and custom. To pretend that Trump’s campaign is legitimate is to deny all that I know of our history and of our long-standing commitment to essential principles. To support Trump, even tacitly, is to pretend that I do not care about our heritage, our purpose, and what we have long claimed is our mission in the world. I will not be silent in the face of his affront. Not in this blog. And not in my classroom.