The rise of President Trump has presented educators at all levels with new challenges. Not only are many revising or adding to their lessons to teach subjects such as populism and authoritarianism, educators also report the need to find new ways to communicate with students in environments more politically charged than some have ever seen.
In this post, Carolyn Curiel, a former U.S. ambassador to Belize who is now executive director of the Purdue Institute for Civic Communication, explores teaching in the era of Trump, whose charged rhetoric and outright lies have ushered into Washington — and the rest of the country — a new political and social dynamic.
Curiel has had a distinguished career. She was an Emmy-nominated producer and writer for Ted Koppel at “Nightline,” head of the Caribbean Division for United Press International, and an editor at The Washington Post before serving as President Clinton’s senior speechwriter and later, ambassador. In 2002 she became a member of The New York Times editorial board, directing the paper’s election endorsements. In 2008, she went to Purdue in 2008, where she is now a clinical professor in the Brian Lamb School of Communication.
By Carolyn Curiel
Communication classes I knew as a student were all theory all the time, almost. I remember few theories I was taught. But I do remember a practical lesson offered perhaps as a throwaway in my persuasion class, which was simply to make a scene to get your way. That communication professor was from Brooklyn.
My professional experience as a journalist and a public servant made my own teaching method as a practitioner preordained. I call it an education in and about the real world, where students eventually will need to compete and achieve without the comfort of a classroom.
I teach communication at Purdue University, my alma mater in my home state of Indiana. My students come from across the political spectrum. I don’t wish to know their personal politics. It’s more important that they back opinion with critical thinking and facts.
This all worked quite neatly until recently. The real world is spinning and instruction has had to keep up. While The Washington Post has been regularly answering the question, “Can he do that?” my classrooms have been roiling in debates over the new Washington paradigm, especially where the concepts of truth and open government are concerned.
The best students are natural truth seekers. In my classes, their chief instrument for the last three years has been a national poll on civic confidence, which I have taught through the nonpartisan Purdue Institute for Civic Communication (PICC).
As the most divisive election campaign in memory hit its ugly stride last year, the students’ questions became increasingly more pointed in seeking American views and feelings about Washington. Our most recent PICC poll surveyed 1,200 eligible voters nationwide from March 7 to 9, and was conducted online by our partners at Penn Schoen Berland (PSB). It has a margin of error of plus or minus 2.8 percent.
Evident in our findings was a public yearning for truth and accountability from elected and appointed officials. In response to one question, an overwhelming 80 percent of respondents agreed that “government officials should be fired for spreading information that has been proven false.”
Respondents were asked to choose a question they would ask President Trump if he were connected to a lie detector. While one-quarter of those polled believed a polygraph was unnecessary, the majority selected a question to put to the President, with the top choice (29%) being about whether there was strategizing between his campaign and Russia. Even 21 percent of conservatives wanted a verifiable answer to that question, about half as many as liberals.
Public servants who lie while in high levels of government are not new to the republic. But there usually has been an underlying, clear motivator: an election to be won, a covert operation, or an affair to be hidden. When my students studied Alexander Hamilton, then saw the musical last fall, many were struck by the truth telling of this founder in exposing his affair with Maria Reynolds. He wrote nearly a hundred pages to explain what happened, in florid detail, then printed and distributed the confession. It helped him to fend off a more serious charge of financial corruption. But had to agree with the class assessment: TMI. So maybe he wasn’t a great example.
The current terrain is not as familiar to citizens as a leader’s lies about an extramarital affair. It has prompted deeper thought about the real world, the ethics of officeholders, judgment, shame, obligations to society, and about language and the plasticity of words that had previously seemed better defined. Our communication moorings seem at risk, but maybe the soul searching was due.
That’s my theory, anyway.
For more poll results and information, click goo.gl/p7dfxB