Teaching in a Time of Trump
The distress that students now feel over the election of Trump runs deeper than fear of what the administration plans to do, argues Mark Bauerlein. It signifies the fall of the diversity-sensitive propriety that has guided much of their lives.
A student said she is “terrified” by what might happen once Donald Trump becomes president. That was a few days ago in a class discussion of how the Trump administration will affect higher education.
It wasn’t my class. I was a guest lecturer and didn’t know the student. But the sentiment wasn’t unusual. Lots of people on our campus feel this way. So I asked her, “Terrified is a pretty strong word -- what exactly are you terrified of?” Silence. I continued, calmly, “What do you think is going to happen?”
More silence, until someone else said, “Because of Trump’s comments about other people.” That seemed sufficient explanation for everyone, and I felt no need to challenge it. Many people look at our president-elect and expect the next four years to be a nightmare, but they aren’t prepared to enumerate its predations. They are genuinely alarmed, but it’s hard to pin them down.
One professor in a recent article spoke of “the recent election and its hideous aftermath of swastika flaunting,” while one of my colleagues at Emory University insisted we must develop an “impactful left willing to call out white supremacy, whiteness and misogyny.” Statements such as these signaling so much worry aren't easy to address. I've chosen not to argue over them but only to reply, “Well, we’ll see.” If you read conservative publications, you can find similar quotations highlighted all the time with terms such as “loopy left” attached. But it's best to let them stand by themselves and pass or fail the test of time.
When students express such fears, however, we have a situation that calls for action. It isn’t hard for a tenured professor to let his peers believe what they believe and go his own way. In the humanities, you teach classes and conduct research by yourself, and when you mingle with colleagues at meetings and on committees, you hold up your end, help the team and smile -- even though you may fall on the other side of things.
You can't do that and be a teacher, though. What the students believe and assume affects what happens in their course work. If the outcome of a presidential election has jarred them to the point of horror, they have a mind-set that is bound to show up in their work, especially if it’s in an American subject. It will influence how they read and write about Huck Finn and O Pioneers! So we have to ask where it comes from.
The first job I had was as a dishwasher in a country club restaurant. It was 1974, and my brother and I were 15. The pay was $1.90 an hour, which sounded good to us. We cleaned the storage room, scrubbed pots and pans, and ran tray after tray through the assembly-line dishwashing machine as soon as the busboys started clearing tables once the dinner rush began. By the night’s end, we stank like sewage and sweat, but we didn’t care. One of the cooks, a middle-aged guy who was a star lineman in high school, would sock me on the shoulder every now and then just for fun. My brother and I looked enough alike to make it hard for him to tell us apart, so he called us both “Shithead,” sometimes adding “No. 1” and “No. 2” to his commands. None of that made us want to quit, however, and I never thought of griping to anyone.
At the same time, I grew up with parents who instilled a universalist vision of humanity in their kids. They revered Martin Luther King Jr. and taught us that people are “all the same underneath.” When we started elementary school, we lived in a mixed neighborhood in Southwest D.C. and were best friends with a black kid and his mother and father. It was my parents’ deliberate reversal of white flight to the suburbs.
And so when my brother and I went to the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1977 and lived in the dorms for two years with, successively, Chinese, Mexican, Guatemalan and Iranian roommates, we thought nothing of it. There was the occasional racist remark -- sometimes by an outsider, once in a while by one of the guys -- but we shrugged it off. Too many other things were more important. And it was easy not to take it personally because we were so clear about its stupidity. We knew racial animosity existed just as other animosities did, such as the guys you didn’t like because of the elbows they threw on the basketball court. “He’s a racist” didn’t stand above “He’s a waste case,” “He’s a sleaze,” “He cheats” and a dozen other bad judgments.
I was lucky. The combination of we’re-all-the-same-race at home, getting pushed around a bit at work and enough diversity among friends to realize that diversity works best when we stop thinking so much about it saved me from overreacting to human vices of the social kind. That included attitudes and language that count today as politically incorrect and offensive.
Students in selective colleges who fret over the implications of Trump’s victory had no such formation -- at least, not as far as I can tell. Instead of embracing the universalist thrust of the civil rights movement -- which spoke of “integration” and not “diversity” -- students today are taught to uphold identity differences (e.g., the iniquity of declaring “All lives matter”). We no longer tolerate bullying and harassment in the workplace -- a positive good, of course, but one that frees youths from learning to cope with a jerk in other ways than complaint. And not only the K-16 curriculum but also the entire cultural sphere and reigning political idiom has taught them to remain ever mindful of racial and sexual identity, no matter how liberal and unbiased they are.
They feel the scrutiny all the time. Having seen others punished by the authorities for saying or writing the wrong thing, and watching their peers turn on a dissenter and hammer him on social media, they know the wages of forgetting diversity etiquette. Teenagers can be savage, and when you add political sin to cliquishness, you have a ravenous hegemony. Youths who are ambitious, the high achievers, observe the taboos as though their wariness were a key to success.
And so when Trump says the things he says, millennials are darn certain that something awful is going to happen. A sexist remark that gets out in public means catastrophe. Vengeance must follow; the violator must be punished. But Trump hasn’t been punished. He’s committed a hate crime … and he's become the most powerful man in the world.
The distress that students now feel runs deeper than fear of what the Trump administration plans to do. His triumph signifies the fall of the diversity-sensitive propriety that has guided their academic careers and, among the successful students, their social lives. One of their gods has failed, and even if they didn’t choose and worship that god themselves, the loss of him means that the universe has trembled. It’s disturbing.
The way to help students through this revolution of the heavenly orbs is to provide them with a story: the story of diversity. They have grown up in the diversity era and experienced it as bare, self-evident truth. It is up to us as teachers to explode this ahistorical condition. We must lead students through the genesis of diversity from the melting-pot civics of the early 20th century to the 1978 Bakke decision to today’s diversity bureaucracy and regulations in public and private institutions. We should include in that history criticisms of diversity in its definition and its implementation, along with empirical challenges to the actual benefits of diversity programs in higher and lower education.
Once students understand diversity as a social theory, not a sacred goal, once they see sensitivity not always as a necessary and proper condition, they will alter their expectations. Instead of regarding Trump and the 60 million people who voted for him as a new reign of terror, they will accept them as part of the inevitable swings of political fortune. There are other outlooks available besides diversity sensitivity, and they aren’t apocalyptic.
Mark Bauerlein is professor of English at Emory University.
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