A (Not So) Simple Trick

In the wake of the election results, one teacher tries to help students reflect clearly on the voters who decided the election—and to maintain hope. 


Editor’s note: Today, we are posting two educators’ reflections on the presidential election and its immediate aftermath. Find the other blog post here.

The day after the election, I spent time in my classes trying to process the results from the previous night. I have often debated with colleagues the place of politics in a public school classroom. Some people I really respect find fault with my insistence that teachers not only should but must discuss their political leanings with students. Certainly we must ensure that all of our students feel safe expressing their views and prevent ourselves from proselytizing, just as we would when discussing religion. But discuss we must. 

On November 9, my message to my classes was very straightforward. My freshmen had just finished reading Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and I returned to Atticus Finch’s primary message: “If you can learn a simple trick, you can get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” This is a lesson Finch applies to Scout’s schoolteacher, who is telling her to stop reading at home, and to Boo Radley, who is revealed to be a good person rather than the monster rumor has made him out to be. Finch also applies this lesson to Bob Ewell, a violent and racist man who falsely accuses Tom Robinson of rape and spits in Finch’s face. He strives to look at things from Ewell’s point of view despite the fact that Ewell is, as readers know, one of the most despicable characters in literature. Finch reminds us that we should look at another person’s point of view not only when it is easy to see, but even when it is obscured by vitriol and hate. 

I have made no secret of my objections to much of what Donald Trump has done and said. Sexual assault is inexcusable and not something to be summarily dismissed as “locker room talk.” Stereotyping whole groups of people (e.g., Muslims as terrorists, Mexicans as drug dealers and criminals, and women as numbers on a scale of 1 to 10) is also inexcusable. I have grave reservations about a man who has done all these things running our country. But, I can’t practice the same type of stereotyping I so openly object to. I can’t allow myself to fall into the trap of generalizing all of his supporters in this election. Not all Trump supporters support sexism, bigotry and hate; knowing this makes it even more important to understand why they would support such a candidate.

My lesson to my students is that people on both sides of the presidential race need to look carefully at what motivated both candidates’ supporters. We can’t spend the next four years standing on opposite sides of a line spewing hate and blame. The rift is wide, but we must see across it with enough clarity to realize there are people standing “over there.” They have reasons for what they believe. We may not agree with those reasons or think they are valid (in many cases the reasons are harmful), but we do need to see them. As an educator, I know that not being seen leads to anger and disenfranchisement—words that were applied to voters supporting both candidates this year.

So, in the days after the election, I had my high school seniors sit and write about it. I asked them to write what they thought and felt, set it aside for a while, and revisit it at a later date to sort through the complicated realities we face. When they were ready, I asked them to read coverage from across the political spectrum, including commentary from supporters of both presidential candidates. I asked them to approach the election outcome as researchers thinking about the future. What is the history of this type of thinking? Where is it concentrated? How have candidates nurtured loyalty among people who hold this point of view?

I would never ask my students to accept or take a position they didn’t agree with—especially a position that diminished their identities—even as a simulation or an exercise. But I did ask them to look beyond a one-dimensional characterization of each candidate’s supporters. Without the ability to do this, they are in danger of perpetuating the type of intolerance that brought us here.

I also reminded them of another of Atticus Finch’s most famous messages: “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win.” The outcome of the election is an opportunity to teach students not only how to study multiple political perspectives but how to be agents of change. It will be their voices and votes that decide what happens next.

Knoll is a writer and English teacher at a public school in New Jersey.

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