Navigating Alternative Facts and Ad Hominem Attacks in the Classroom
by Andrea Rinard
Full disclosure: I’m not a Trump fan. I woke up on Wednesday, November 9, 2016 with a sense of dread and foreboding. I wondered how I was going to get up, go to school, and be a responsible high school English teacher in this world of Trump.
Like many, I figured I would ride it out. My previous job, at a very conservative school, taught me to keep my head down when President Obama was elected and both colleagues and school families responded as if it were the end times. It was my turn now, I reasoned. Sure, Trump had admitted to groping women, he’d mocked a disabled journalist, done myriad things I found repugnant, but there were checks and balances. How bad could it be?
Well, I’ve now taught one school year that spanned the election and inauguration, and I’ve taught one school year under the Trump presidency. In my perspective, it’s been so much worse than I could have ever imagined — but I have a job to do. It’s a job that I take seriously, and I’ve tried my best to be a responsible educator in the age of Trump. I wanted to share the five tenets I now cling to.
1. Kids need to learn how to be more responsible and canny media consumers
Alternative facts and fake news have become the modern version of “nuh-uh.” If you don’t like what I’m saying, call it fake news. If you can’t refute my assertion with objective facts, do it with alternative facts.
Kids (and adults) read things on social media and take them at face value. We must teach our students how to conduct responsible, ethical means of inquiry. We must coax them out of the echo chambers and help them learn how to discern what is real and what is truly “fake news.” Several infographics have circulated that show the spectrum on which news organizations can fall, showing bias to the left and right, to varying degrees. The most popular, by a lawyer named Vanessa Otero, can be seen below. Although this and other charts have been the subject of debate about the placement of particular news outlets on the spectrum, it can be an interesting starting point for a discussion of how to figure out where to get your news from.
An assignment I gave to my AP English Language kids was to take one event and compare how that one event was covered by four different news organizations. The kids analyzed the diction choices, especially adjectives and adverbs, and what details were included and left out. The kids were surprised by the variations, and I heard more than once, “But… what really happened?”
It’s so easy for kids — or anyone, for that matter — to see something on social media and run with it, regardless of the source. In a May 2017 study conducted by UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education, and Access, 41.0% of the 1535 teachers surveyed reported that “students were more likely than in previous years to introduce unfounded claims from unreliable sources. Many teachers noted a connection between students’ use of unsubstantiated sources and growing incivility.”
2. We must create safe spaces and insist on civility
One of the refrains from the presidential election was the demonization of “political correctness.” Wherever you stand on it, our kids need to understand that a repudiation of “political correctness” does not mean a complete license to speak any unfiltered, unconsidered thought that comes into their head.
According to the same UCLA study cited above, “79% of teachers reported that their students have expressed concerns for their well-being or the well-being of their families associated with recent public policy discourse on one or more hot-button issues.” I can absolutely attest to this phenomenon. My LGBTQ, immigrant, African-American, Muslim, Hispanic, and female students are angry, confused, worried, and just downright scared. The landscape keeps shifting under them, and the loss of stability is frightening.
Moreover, there has been an emboldening of those who have, until recently, quietly nurtured bigoted and hateful ideas about certain groups. I have, in the past two years, heard students using crude, derogatory, hateful terms that have resurfaced after being chased or shamed out of the acceptable lexicon normally tolerated peer-to-peer in high school hallways. What students used to police each other on has now become acceptable, or the kids are just too intimidated to continue pushing back. Some students even feel like it’s acceptable to bring such language into the classroom. I had to have a conversation with a student about why the words he was using to refer to Puerto Rican students who’d come to our school after Hurricanes Irma and Maria decimated their homes were hurtful and would not be tolerated. I also had to explain to him that Puerto Ricans are American citizens (I honestly don’t think he believed me).
I’ve also heard things from parents that I’ve never heard before. At a recent parent conference, a parent said he’d heard there is a Muslim girl in his son’s class and asked if I was being careful not to let her spread “militant Islamic propaganda” during class discussions. I’m sure that over the years I have talked with parents with deep-seated personal prejudices, but never before has a parent felt comfortable asking such a question out loud. I can only imagine what they’re saying in the privacy of their own home in front of their kid, and how that kind of environment impacts that student’s worldview.
I try not to make my marginalized students the spokespeople of their religion, sexual orientation, gender, or ethnicity, but sometimes they take up the mantle themselves. One of the goosebumpiest moments I’ve had in a long time happened when a transgender student explained to his cisgender classmates what the big deal actually was regarding rules about using the bathroom that corresponds to your birth gender assignment rather than the gender with which you identify. There were a couple of students who expressed that they were not comfortable using a bathroom with transgender students, and they articulated their feelings and opinions in a clear and respectful way that shared their viewpoints without attacking anyone else’s. After class I thanked my transgender student for sharing his views, and he shrugged and said, “I may be the only transgender person that any of these guys know. I don’t want them to hate all of us because I’ve given them a reason to hate me because I don’t listen to what they’re saying.”
As much as I would like to deprogram or reverse-engineer kids whose parents have what I perceive to be the wrong worldview, that’s not my role. That leads to the next tenet.
3. We need to focus on teaching kids HOW, not WHAT, to think
I insist on logical argumentation. I have banned the now ubiquitous sentence stem, “I feel like…” and instead insist that students talk about what they think and then support their ideas with evidence.
In my AP English Language classes, we talk about a lot of very sensitive subjects. The kids will come to class in August after reading Columbine and are expected to be able to talk about the role of media in our society, gun rights and gun control, and mental health. Call me a masochist (and maybe a sadist), but I like to throw them into the deep end and get them talking about big stuff from the first day so that I can help them develop the skills they need to engage in meaningful dialogue. We practice active listening so that we are certain we have truly heard what is being said before we try to respond. We ask questions, and we empathize with opposing viewpoints, even if we ultimately disagree.
My students are not permitted to get away with weak thinking. I teach them to recognize and scorn ad hominem attacks like “cuck,” “snowflake,” and “fascist.” They are expected to formulate cogent and logical arguments to support their positions. What results is dialogue. Sometimes students concede points from students with whom they disagree. Sometimes they realize that their viewpoints aren’t very far apart. Sometimes they have trouble supporting what they believe, and we call them out in a constructive way, sometimes pointing out that what they’re espousing could, in fact, be insupportable. We look for solutions rather than insults. We try to formulate open-ended ideas rather than “burns” or “roasts.” We don’t debate toward “winners” or “losers.” We discuss in order to understand all facets of issues.
Sometimes it’s really hard because I have my own hot-button issues on which I feel strongly that there is a right and a wrong position. However, I have to remain neutral and calm so that my students can see that you can discuss emotional topics without being led by emotion.
4. We need to check our personal politics at the door before we enter the school
Teaching during an election year is always interesting. There’s always that one kid who asks for whom I’m voting. They get the same speech I’ve given numerous times: “Asking someone who they’re voting for is not a casual question. You’re asking that person their views on abortion, education, gun rights, military spending, foreign affairs, the role of religion in government, and much, much more. If you want to have that conversation, fine. We can have it, but we’re not going to water it down into a single question.” I know that many teachers simply refuse to talk about politics, and that’s fine too. In my AP English Literature classes, however, being able to connect literature with the current social context is part of the point. A conversation about Othello as a manipulated, minority outsider has particular resonance. Considering the impossible choices George must make in his caretaking role of Lenny leads the class to some interesting places, given the current dialogue about mental health and healthcare access in general.
In my AP Language classes in particular, the political landscape is a rich seam that I feel compelled to mine so that the kids are able to function as responsible members of society, regardless of which political party, if any, they align with. Whether we’re talking about homelessness, immigration, or language inflation, the current political context is relevant.
Even complaining in the workroom or faculty lounge can breed a toxic work environment. Assuming that every teacher is a liberal or conservative, and believing “only idiots think ____” is a sure way to alienate colleagues and create a hostile environment.
I don’t hide my political leanings like a secret identity, but I don’t open-carry them either. I’m mindful that regardless of the fact that my kids are young adults, I am still in a position of power to influence. I will not and cannot abuse that position. Instead, I aspire to help the kids form their own opinions and see the world through their own eyes. If they disagree with me on abortion, mandatory minimum prison sentences, legalizing medical and/or recreational marijuana use — that’s the point. It’s important that we can discuss these issues without them looking to me to know what to think. They need to know what they think, and they need to know why they think it.
One disclaimer, however, is that there are objective facts. It is not partisan to say that something is objectively erroneous as long as there is clear and ethically sourced evidence.
5. We need to understand and accept that there are some things we just can’t combat in one school year
If a kid comes into your room after being raised his or her whole life with flagrantly hateful beliefs, for example, your goal may be to merely plant a seed or two, and get him or her to question why they have those beliefs and whether those beliefs are complementary and compatible with the life that student wants to lead. You can also insist that the student treat others with respect and civility, at least within the four walls of your classroom. That will have to be enough.
Whether you are a staunch supporter of President Trump and his policies or are counting the days until the 2020 election, you and I have a job to do. We need to make sure that we do not shame or harass students (or colleagues) whose opinions we would fight to the death to stamp out of existence. We need to hold the line when it comes to treating one another with respect and courtesy, and we need to teach our students how to engage within the political process and make reasoned sense of what they see around them. Ideally, if we do our jobs and help our students become more informed, logical, discerning, and empathetic citizens, we will begin to bridge the chasm that currently divides us as a country. It’s an enormous responsibility, but I have faith that we’re all up for it.