The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘What was I in for?’ A professor creates a civics class at UC-Berkeley called ‘Ethics in the Age of Trump.’

Students walk past Sather Gate on the University of California at Berkeley campus in Berkeley, Calif., on April 21, 2017. (Ben Margot/AP)

“What was I in for?”

That’s how professor David Kirp begins this piece about his experience with a new class he created this year for students at the University of California at Berkeley. The title was “Ethics in the Age of Trump,” and as it turned out, it didn’t go exactly as you might expect at a school that Kirp labeled “Ground Zero for political unrest.”

Here’s what happened, as Kirp explains it. He is a professor of public policy at UC-Berkeley and author of the forthcoming book “The College Dropout Scandal.”

A former journalist and member of President Barack Obama’s 2008 transition team, Kirp is also the author of other books, including “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools,” which was named outstanding book of 2013 by the American Educational Research Association.

By David Kirp

What was I in for? I wondered, as I walked into the classroom last January for the first class of the semester. I had been living a placid professorial life, teaching graduate seminars on topics I knew a lot about. For reasons that now escape me, I had volunteered to invent a big undergraduate course on a politically loaded topic — “Ethics in the Age of Trump.”

I hadn’t taught undergraduates or stage-managed a class of 100 students for years. Although I regularly taught a graduate seminar on ethics in the context of public policy, when I started preparing materials for the new course I knew little more than the typical political junkie about arcane matters like the emoluments clause or complex, essence-of-the-republic issues like immigration.

Besides, this was Berkeley, Ground Zero for political unrest.

I fantasized that I’d start by announcing, dead pan, that this was a very short course because the topic was a nonstarter — there was no ethics in the Trump world — and that everyone who left a red envelope filled with cash on the podium would receive an A. Then I would walk out of the room, returning a minute or two later to bedlam. “Just kidding,” I’d say, and we would settle down to business.

What I actually told the students was quite the opposite: This was not going be a class in Trump-bashing; instead, we would dissect the ethical implications of Trump-ism. We would start in familiar ethical terrain, discussing topics like lying, self-enrichment and the pros and cons of resignation and whistle blowing.

In the second unit, the ethical lens would widen to take in topics beyond the Beltway. How had the president’s words and deeds affected the way that issues like racism were understood? What were the impact of Trump’s assaults on the press? During the last weeks, we would address the ultimate issue — whether Donald Trump’s presidency could represent a threat to democracy itself.

I began my teaching career at Harvard University in the 1960s, when virulent protests against the Vietnam War consumed campuses nationwide. So predictable and disruptive were the demonstrations, so not-business-as-usual was the temper of the times, that Harvard professors planned their courses with the expectation that the last weeks of the spring semester were a lost cause.

It was in this fraught context that I offered a seminar on the utopian ideal. Self-styled campus radicals signed up, expecting that we would echo the view of the students who occupied the president’s office, reinventing the university as a commune in which every voice, from freshman to professor, carried the same weight. Instead, I gave them a plain-Jane seminar that started with Thomas More and ended with Aldous Huxley.

What a miscalculation — and what a disaster!

“Blah blah. Blah blah blah — blah blah!”— one student produced hundreds more of these slaps in the face as his first paper. While the rest of the class behaved more dutifully, the weekly sessions became as arid as the Gobi Desert, my efforts to enliven things as teeth-pulling painful as a cut-rate dentist. Would “Ethics in the Age of Trump” suffer the same fate?

In 2017, Berkeley erupted when provocateurs like Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter showed up to speak on campus. Their appearance sparked clashes between anti-Trump protesters and pro-Trump cadres that included the alt-right and self-styled neo-Nazis. Is that who would enroll in the course? Would this class degenerate into shouting matches among ideologues?

My pedagogical M.O. is to begin with a mini-lecture that frames the ensuing discussion. Then I shift to exchanges between the students and myself or else direct a conversation among the students. A profile once dubbed me “part Plato, part Oprah.” I’m given to posing what some would regard as politically incorrect questions and making the kind of off-the-cuff remarks that ardent Trumpians might capture on their cellphones. I could envision those comments going viral, with blog posts about the radical Berkeley professor who indoctrinates his students and the trolling nastiness that would invariably follow.

But all of my fears proved groundless. Reading the room, I could tell that the students were engaged. They came, as I had asked at the outset, having read the material and ready to participate. Undergraduates can be fearless in what they say, which makes them more fun to teach than cautious, career-minded graduate students.

I had urged the class not to assail an unpopular opinion — favoring strict quotas on immigrants, for instance — with murmurous hisses, but this too was a groundless worry. The class paid respectful attention to differing viewpoints, with dialogue rather than dismissal.

Generation Z, born clutching a cellphone, craves variety — and a steady diet of dialogues would not fly. Sometimes I split the students into small groups and gave them an ethical problem to tackle: “Should Gary Cohn have resigned because he was repulsed when Trump failed to call out white nationalists after Charlottesville or was he ethically justified in sticking around, as he did, in order to push his pet tax plan?”

I also recruited outside speakers to add depth and expertise. Richard Painter, the ethics adviser in George W. Bush’s administration, offered an insider’s “West Wing” perspective on life in 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Early in the term, almost all the students favored impeaching the president, but Joshua Matz, co-author of “To End a Presidency,” a fine historically rooted analysis of the potential pitfalls of impeachment, spoke and he changed a number of minds.

A back-and-forth over whether constitutional democracy in the United States was imperiled between Harvard political scientist Saul Levitsky, co-author of “How Democracies Die,” and Yuval Levin, the editor of National Affairs, a quarterly magazine, and author of a rejoinder article, “How Democracies Panic,” generated a back-and-forth among students.

Mostly, the students dismissed the threat-to-democracy argument, believing that Trump, despite his authoritarian tendencies and disrespect for the Constitution, lacked the brainpower to pull off that transformation.

A rigorous debate over the ethics and practicality of open-borders immigration between Toronto professor Joseph Caron and Berkeley professor Sarah Song was coupled with tough-minded students’ questions for both speakers. Berkeley, like public universities generally, is broke, and we could never afford to bring these speakers to campus. ZOOM to the rescue — the out-of-towners were beamed in from across the country.

Most of today’s undergraduates were born during George Bush’s presidency. Though there were some political sophisticates in the room, many started the course with little understanding of political history — Watergate and the Clinton impeachment were terra incognita — and little sense of the nationalist fervor that had erupted in Europe. They were unaware that what historian Richard Hofstadter famously labeled the paranoid style in American politics had a long and dishonorable history.

I came to think of the course as a semesterlong civics lesson that would give Berkeley undergraduates, some of the country’s brightest Gen Z-ers, a rich understanding of how ethical considerations can affect political decision-making.

My ultimate hope is that some of these students will go beyond bull sessions in the dorms to act in ways that reflect what they had learned that they will find their voice in the policy arena, whether that meant going to work for a nonprofit or a government agency after they graduated or volunteering in a 2020 campaign.

“It takes a belief that your actions can be consequential to bring about change.” Near the end of the course we read Berkeley Professor Robert Reich’s latest book, “The Common Good,” and when Reich joined the class this theme resonated.

“Coming from an immigrant family, I never thought I could have an impact,” one student emailed me. “This class gave us a belief that our ideas were valid and that we have the power to make tangible changes should we choose to do so.”

My hunch — my hope, anyway — is that she is not the only student for whom this sense of agency is the biggest takeaway.

As happens during the waning moments of many courses, the students applauded. Typically, that has been my cue to slip away. This time, though, I borrowed a leaf from the playbook of Russian performers and applauded my students. They deserved it.