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Teachable moments as a fractious campaign concludes

Back in June, during the transition from presidential primaries to the national party conventions, I wrote that the general election campaign “appears certain to become an uncommonly rowdy and tumultuous exercise in politics.” Wow, I sure underestimated how noisy and dismal our democracy could become.

Twice a week since late August, I have followed the campaign through the questions and observations of the 18 lively first-year students in my “Democracy in Action’’ seminar at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They show up on time at 3:30 pm and are still discussing, debating, exploring at 4:45 pm when class is supposed to end.

One day last week I asked the students to think back to high school and to suggest how civics, journalism, and history teachers might handle the inevitable tensions of dealing with uncomfortable subjects that have arisen in 2016: male-female relationships, racial and ethnic fault lines, and agitated divisions in the American electorate. No doubt, it’s uncomfortable, too, for many teachers, who want the classroom to remain a non-partisan space for students, to confront the reality that this presidential campaign has been defined mostly by the incendiary words and character of Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee.

My students agreed without hesitation: don’t ignore the campaign, “embrace it for what it is,’’ as one of them said. Out of them poured a stream of specific ideas:

  • Guide students into how to dig deeper into the history and morals of candidates.
  • Help students to know how they feel about an issue, instead of trying simply to agree with parents and peers.
  • Teach students how to determine what’s credible – and not – amid the torrent of blogs, tweets, websites, cable TV talk. They have come to understand that, in an era when more news is coming through a prism of analysis and opinion, it’s important to read or watch at least two different credible sources of professional journalism for every campaign story.
  • Explain the basics of the election process: the role of primaries, conventions, political parties, the Electoral College.

Now that the TV-staged debates have ended and the Nov. 8 election day is barely two weeks off, I have a few additional thoughts for teachers about topics to address, arising, I acknowledge, mostly from the Trump campaign:

  • Trump has intensified his charge that the presidential election is “rigged,’’ and in doing so raises concerns that large numbers of Americans will reject the outcome as invalid. At the last debate, he said he would keep voters in “suspense’’ about whether he would accept the election results. American history indeed has cases of hard-fought, contested elections. Richard Nixon felt the 1960 election had been “stolen’’ by the Chicago Democratic machine, and the 2000 election-victory was handed to George W. Bush by a Supreme Court ruling that settled the long Florida recount. However disappointed they were, Nixon conceded the 1960 election to John F. Kennedy, and former Vice President Al Gore, Jr. gracefully accepted the court ruling in 2000. Of course we have had tumultuous elections, but still this is a nation that prides itself on the peaceful transfer of power.
  • Hillary Clinton erred in referring to Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables.’’ At the same time, Trump has said aloud, especially about women, what schools would not allow students to say in mock campaign debates. In reflection on what both Trump and Clinton have said, it’s important to teach that America is a place where some citizens from time to time do deplorable acts across lines of race, gender, and politics. Of course, families have a role, but our schools serve as institutions through which America pushes back against racism, sexism, and nativism, against sexual assault of women, against discrimination and injustices.
  • The societal divisions and civic emotions exacerbated by the 2016 presidential campaign will not dissolve in a day, a week, or even months after the election. But this is not a nation that concludes its rough-and-tumble contests for power by sending an opponent to jail. Now is a time to teach that Americans should try to understand what led their fellow citizens to vote this way or that. Citizens, of course, retain the free-speech right to criticize a newly elected president, but it’s imperative that they accept a new president as a legitimately elected leader through the will of the electorate expressed at the ballot box. Americans can see each other as political competitors or opponents; and yet, democracy is too fragile for citizens to define each other as enemies.
Ferrel Guillory

Ferrel Guillory is a founder and serves on the board of directors of EducationNC.