In his May 3 column in The Washington Post, conservative commentator George Will wrote a sentence that I can’t get out of my head. Will is trying to pinpoint what he sees as the “disability” that makes Donald Trump unfit to be president. “[T]he problem isn’t that he does not know this or that, or that he does not know that he does not know this or that. Rather, the dangerous thing is that he does not know what it is to know something.” I’m not typically in agreement with Will, but his insight here is, I think, stunning — diagnostically astute but also exceedingly relevant to those of us in education.
Knowing what it is to know something is a key concern in epistemology, that branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of knowledge and methods of analyzing knowledge. Epistemology can get pretty heady, and, to be honest, I quickly find myself in the weeds when I try to read deeply in it. But the general concerns of epistemology are central to education and, for that fact, to many human pursuits, to the professions and trades, for example. Good electricians as well as good surgeons acquire a body of knowledge and use it flexibly in different situations with different features. This flexibility requires an awareness of what one knows, what to do when one doesn’t know something, and when experience in the field might require a revision of what one knows. When surgeons or electricians display a lack of such awareness, we consider them incompetent — and possibly dangerous.
These observations apply to both teachers and their students, from the primary grades to the graduate seminar. If an education involves more than the most mechanical rote learning, then by definition it involves consideration of what we’re learning, how we’re learning it, and how to assess what we’ve learned. A good education helps us be more deliberate thinkers and think about our thinking.
And so I come back to Will’s observation about Trump not knowing what it is to know something. We have daily proof of his disregard for the truth. We also have continual display of his ignorance and intellectual carelessness — his confusion about U.S. history, for example. But if you want an extended illustration of the muddled state of what he does know and the related defects in his thinking, read the long interview he recently gave to the Economist. The interview is on Trump’s economic policy, a topic that one would assume is his strongest suit, given his continual self-advertisement as a business wizard. The editors note that the interview was “lightly edited,” though I bet the editors had to do more than light editing to make the interview readable. Still, the interview reads in many places like a word salad of policy fragments and clips of economics-talk blended with Trump’s trademark non sequiturs, meandering sentences, and evasions.
The Economist is a pro-business, pro-market publication which in theory would make it sympathetic to Trump’s economic policies, though the editors would differ with him on trade. But in separate articles, the editors blast the incoherence and shallowness of the thinking behind “Trumponomics.” “Trumponomics … is not an economic doctrine at all. It is best seen as a set of proposals put together by businessmen courtiers for their king …. The economic assumptions implicit in it are internally inconsistent. And they are based on a picture of America’s economy that is decades out of date,” they write.
Trump is a master pitchman with a keen sense of how to exploit (and, lately, undermine) the media. As I wrote on my blog on Nov. 30, he has managed through his tenure on “The Apprentice” and other self-promotions to create the persona of the ultrasuccessful and all-powerful businessman, and he sold that image to a lot of voters who were desperate for the economic transfiguration he promised. But as pitchman moved to president, the celebrity illusions of omniscience and transformative power dispelled like smoke rings, and we are left with a bundle of emotional pathologies and the intellectual limitations Will describes so well.
A lot of us in education have denounced Trump for his appointment of Betsy DeVos as education secretary and for the anti-public education policies the two of them champion. But there is another reason we educators, regardless of political affiliation, should be deeply concerned about Trump’s occupation of the White House: his continually evident lack of knowledge and the significant defects in his thinking — and his nonchalance about both.
Trump’s supporters use a language of education to defend the neophyte president’s performance: He’s learning on the job, they say, or he’s a good listener. Yet we have little evidence that he’s actually thinking through what he’s hearing vs. simply reacting to it. Nor do we have evidence that he’s learning very much at all, as demonstrated by the recent incident involving the sharing of classified information with his Russian visitors.
People critical of President Trump say that his fragmented and digressive language is strategic, is used to distract us and keep us off balance. This may well be true, but what Trump says can be strategically evasive and still reveal the liabilities in thinking that concern me here.
Many of us have spent our professional lives helping students of all ages think more deliberately and carefully. Learning new things and checking what you know is central to this work, as is developing strategies to find something out when you don’t know it. To have all this violated daily is an affront to education — a statement by example that the fundamental processes of learning and knowing do not matter.