As a political scientist and president of a liberal arts college in Wisconsin, I’m looking forward to the fall. I’ll have a chance to teach 18- to 22-year-olds during the run-up to a historic presidential election. It’ll likely dominate discourse in the classroom, cafeteria and even keg parties.
This raises the question — how should professors talk about Donald Trump? Is there a way to teach this subject in a thoughtful way, pushing beyond the name-calling and apocalyptic predictions? I believe there is.
In conversations with my faculty colleagues, I’ve come to a few conclusions.
First, I think it’s fine for professors to acknowledge Trump’s narrow-minded rhetoric. If Trump were a student, he would have already been called into the dean’s office to explain comments about women, minorities, immigrants, veterans and people with disabilities. My college’s core values celebrate and protect differences of perspective, background and heritage. Relationships on college campuses are supposed to be friendly, welcoming and supportive. (In Trump’s worldview, however, it is precisely this kind of academic environment that has led to the United States’ general decline. “I don’t, frankly, have time for total political correctness,” he said. “And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time, either.”)
Second, I hope our faculty spends some of the fall semester explaining Trump’s political rise to their students, because the real story lies beyond political science. Understanding Trump and his supporters means having a deep knowledge of words like “empathy,” “tolerance,” “power” and “narcissism.” History, literature, economics, philosophy, religion, communications and sociology all offer important insights. One of my psychology department colleagues told me that students will be very tempted to take their newfound knowledge and apply it to the Republican nominee’s bizarre behavior, though the American Psychiatric Association just warned its members not to do so. Another professor in the communications department said she plans to hold a class discussion on Trump’s discourses, focusing on how he speaks to people’s fears and creates an illusion of identification and credibility for voters.* There will be assigned readings.
I know some professors and students think it might be easier to just avoid the subject of Trump altogether. But we need to resist that urge. Professors should dive right into the big question: How can we be open-minded in the face of Trump’s bigotry? How can we extend that empathy and thoughtfulness even to those we disagree with?
We need to extend these qualities to the victims of Trump’s bigotry. But we also need to listen and respect those students and professors who support Trump. That 19-year-old supporter just starting his sophomore year shouldn’t be dismissed automatically as a racist for supporting Trump. He’s a stand-in for our next-door neighbor, your child’s softball coach and my cousin’s spouse. Keeping the classroom open for discussion slows a student retreat to the anonymous online world of Yik Yak, where college-aged Trump supporters troll hate without ever directly engaging their classmates. That means that the possibility of ever broadening their perspectives organically will be lost.
There will be tense points and tempers may well flare. Why are Trump’s most ardent supporters rural whites without a college degree? Why does he belittle those he disagrees with? Where does his worldview and his preoccupation with Vladimir Putin come from? But there is a way to have these discussions in the classroom with respect. It will be up to our professors to defend the right to hold an unpopular position, even one that we strongly disagree with. Because if colleges and universities want to remain a training ground for future leaders, an incubator for new ideas or a place where a future political consensus is forged, civil discourse is a fundamental part of that higher calling.
This will not be an easy task, but it is a crucial one. While professors and administrators need to do everything they can to make sure that their campuses promote free speech, they also need to maintain civility and basic decency. And that’s tricky. Beyond higher education, how the nation wrestles with this same conundrum is important — and not just in the run-up to the election. In the weeks and months after Nov. 8, the country is going to have to understand what Donald Trump and Trumpism means going forward. Win or lose, it is critical that we study and interpret what his candidacy signifies beyond American politics. How the nation’s teachers integrate understanding Trumpism into their classrooms this fall, regardless of discipline, will go a long way toward finding some common ground with the 40-something percent of the voting population that supports him.
* An earlier version of this article misidentified the American Psychiatric Association.