Last week, I joined former Gov. Ed Rendell in speaking to a few dozen schoolteachers gathered at the National Constitution Center. This was a conference sponsored by the Rendell Center, a not-for-profit that promotes civic education and engagement, founded by the governor and Midge Rendell, a senior U.S. circuit judge. For the last three years, the center has hosted a Constitutional Scholars Institute for social studies teachers from across the United States.
When it was my turn to speak, I told the teachers that I suspected our polarized climate made their jobs more difficult when it comes to teaching current events. The many nods I saw told me I'd struck a nerve. One middle-school teacher in central Pennsylvania raised her hand and shared a story about needing to address one student who imitated the president's use of nicknames by referring to Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) as "Pocahontas." After the session ended, I asked for more details by email.
"Like every school, we have an anti-bullying program where we teach the students not to stereotype, not to use derogatory language toward others and yet, here is a presidential candidate, and now president, who is doing all of these things," she wrote.
"The climate in the community and in the school was so sensitive that many teachers, including myself, felt that any negative comments regarding Trump's behavior would be perceived as the teacher making a political statement."
Still, in "good conscience" she thought she could not keep silent. "I would call out the same bad behavior if it was being perpetrated by Hillary Clinton, [Bernie] Sanders, [Ted] Cruz, [John] Kasich," she added.
One day students were discussing the muzzling of Warren's effort to read a letter critical of Jeff Sessions during his confirmation hearing as attorney general. The letter had been written by Coretta Scott King in 1986 when Sessions was nominated for a federal judgeship and entered into the Senate record. But when Warren sought to reintroduce it this year, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.) found that it now violated a rule or order prohibiting senators from ascribing to colleagues "any conduct or motive unworthy or unbecoming a senator."
Meanwhile, in a central Pennsylvania classroom, "a male student, who is an avid Trump supporter, made a comment about 'Pocahontas' being told to sit down and he laughed about it," explained the teacher. "That is when I interjected and said something to the effect, 'No, that is not appropriate.' His reply was, 'Why? That's what Trump calls her. What is wrong with calling her Pocahontas?' I explained that Trump uses it in a derogatory way. … He is using it [to] demean Elizabeth Warren. The student didn't challenge me, but I knew him well enough to know that his body language was saying that he thought I was making much ado about nothing."
What a sad commentary that things the president routinely says are inappropriate behavior in school.
Teachers already had a tough job. We ask them to play so many roles once filled at home. And now they must do so in the midst of the most polarized political climate in the modern era. Imagine trying to educate about current events without antagonizing any of the polarized parents in their school community? Of course, the primary responsibility for raising good citizens is with parents. And their job has also become more difficult.
Two days before the Rendell Center event, President Trump spoke at the National Scouts Jamboree in West Virginia. He promised not to talk politics and then did exactly that, trashing his predecessor, bragging about the 2016 election map, and treating the 40,000 gathered as if they were a rally in a red state. Some defended the president by accurately noting that he was well-received. I don't doubt that he received thunderous applause, but that's part of our problem. We need to stop rewarding forces of division.
I find it hard to believe that 10-year-old boys were cheering at the mention of the Electoral College, or when told that Hillary Clinton didn't work hard in Michigan. My hunch is that it was their parents, probably their fathers, whose cheers resounded. Shame on them for encouraging the president in front of a nonpartisan, not-for-profit with an oath that commits its members "to do my duty to … my country."
The youngsters might not have known better, but surely their parents did. Shame on them. And good that the leader of the Boy Scouts apologized for the speech, albeit three days later. What a poor example was set for American youth, and all the more reason to be sympathetic to the challenges faced by teaches like those gathered by the Rendell Center.
Never in the modern era has their job been more difficult and more important. Gone are the days when three different civics and government courses were a standard part of the high school fare. The result? In 2015, a survey from the Annenberg Public Policy Center on Civics Knowledge found that one in 10 Americans believes the Bill of Rights includes the right to own a pet. (A great idea, to be sure, but not true.) In 2016, Annenberg found that one-third of Americans could not name a single branch of government.
I'm fast losing faith in the ability of parents and politicians to personify good citizenship. Soon school will be back in session. The teachers might be our last and best line of defense.