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Perspective | A message for education in an uplifting — and realistic — inaugural

Four years ago, moments after taking the presidential oath of office, Donald Trump conjured up a bleak image of “American carnage.” In the inaugural address, he depicted it as an amalgam of inner-city poverty, rusted factories, crime, gangs, and “an education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge.”

This week, moments after taking the same oath, President Joe Biden delivered a distinctly more uplifting inaugural address, yet rooted in realism. He issued a call for unity, yet recognized that big issues and deep divisions give rise to “a time of testing” in American democracy.

“With unity, we can do great things, important things,” Biden said. “We can right wrongs. We can put people to work in good jobs. We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome the deadly virus.”

The Democratic president did not use his inaugural address to give details of his plans to attack the coronavirus or his goal to restore in-person instruction in at least half of the nation’s public schools in his first 100 days. His aides have offered details in media interviews and briefing papers.

Beyond the immediate emergency and without specifically mentioning schools, Biden’s inaugural contains the makings of a critical educational agenda. He drew on the “painful lesson” learned from the contentious, unfounded defiance of the incumbent president and dozens of Republican lawmakers to the legitimacy of his own election that culminated in an insurrection at the nation’s Capitol.

“There is truth and there are lies, lies told for power and for profit,” he said. “And each of us has a duty and responsibility, as citizens, as Americans, and especially as leaders, leaders who have pledged to honor our Constitution and protect our nation, to defend the truth and defeat the lies.”

After asking for a moment of silent prayer for virus victims, he went on: “We face an attack on our democracy and on truth, a raging virus, growing inequity, the sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis, America’s role in the world. Any one of these will be enough to challenge us in profound ways. But the fact is, we face them all at once, presenting this nation with one of the gravest responsibilities we’ve had. Now we’re going to be tested. Are we going to step up?”

It’s a fraught and formidable question, especially in an era in which polarized Americans disagree not only over opinions but also over facts. They occupy separate zones of what each considers reality. No easy or early solutions are in sight. Who should step up? In addition to public leaders, two major professions have special responsibilities in defending democracy and truth: journalists and educators.

In today’s media maelstrom, misinformation and disinformation travel easily along with reliable, fact-based news as well as research data and scientific findings. Trump and his tweets challenged traditional news organizations, both in-print and online, to reassess their conventional practices, a work still in progress. Professional journalism adhering to verification and monitoring the powerful remains essential, while citizens need to learn to fashion their own media menu of diverse sources.

Schools, of course, are places where young people learn how to navigate the complexities of a democratic and capitalist society. They are places where they encounter peers with differences in background and attitude. They are places where professional educators can guide them through works of history, civics, and literature that form the habits of mind to identify falsehood and pursue truth. Student councils, debate clubs, school newspapers, instruction in news literacy, and more time devoted to history become practical responses to Biden’s question.

“Are we going to step up?”

In North Carolina, the state Board of Education recently adopted an equity resolution to guide its policymaking, and it nears a revision to its social studies standards. Both have sparked debate, somewhat along partisan lines. The Biden inaugural’s emphasis on defending truth and democracy lends more gravity to what may seem bureaucratic exercises.

With the shadow of the departed president in mind, the new president described democracy as both “precious” and “fragile.” The uplifting Biden declared, “At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed.” The realistic Biden cautioned, “The battle is perennial and victory is never assured.”

Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is the Director of the Program in Public Life and Professor of the Practice at the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media, and the Vice Chairman of EducationNC.