Where We Stand: A Defining Moment for Democracy

Teachers have always had a huge responsibility for the next generation: To teach and nurture students so they have the opportunity to live fulfilling lives. To make our classrooms and schools safe and affirming. To help young people develop the skills, confidence, and sense of responsibility to be engaged citizens.

Today the role of America’s teachers has expanded—they are called on to be guardians of democracy and cultivators of decency because, while our democracy and society have never been perfect, today their very underpinnings are shaken.

President Trump has trampled rights enshrined in the Constitution and waged a war on truth. He has fanned biases that aim to dehumanize “the other” and that erode our democracy. He is enamored of despots, and distances our allies. He has put commerce and greed over human rights.

Trump boasts that the economy is the “best ever,” but nearly all of the benefits of economic growth have gone to the wealthiest Americans and large corporations, while millions of Americans tread water. Forty percent of Americans say they couldn’t cover a $400 emergency. More than 28 million Americans are uninsured. Today’s average wage has the same purchasing power as in 1978. The median American family has just $5,000 saved for retirement. Americans hold $1.6 trillion in student debt. And teachers, who routinely spend their own money on supplies for their students, are paid almost 20 percent less than similarly educated professionals.

Yet Trump is not addressing these problems. Instead, he is stoking America’s divisions in order to exploit them.

Our very moral character as a nation is tested when government leaders portray immigrants and asylum seekers not as people in need, but as invaders so threatening and worthless that the government’s inhumane treatment of them—denying even children adequate food, sleep, and hygiene—is somehow deserved. It is tested when the president attacks the freedoms of his political enemies and calls an entire religion disloyal over political differences.

In a civil society, there is no “both sides” on matters of human dignity, equal rights, tolerance of diversity, truth, or the rule of law. These are not options against which other beliefs can be regarded as equally worthy. But today these values need defending.

Americans must be clear-eyed about the perilous time we are in. We must think seriously about what we can do to take a stand, and about the implications of doing nothing. We can’t ignore Trump’s bigotry and cruelty, or the fact that his erratic behavior is intended to create chaos and confusion. And we can’t assume things won’t get worse.

That is why this summer I gave a speech to 1,200 educators at the American Federation of Teachers’ TEACH conference about the gravity of our situation. While this is not the first time our democracy has been at risk, today educators play a crucial role in its survival. Why? Because our members are at the nexus of public education and the labor movement, which provide direct pathways to broad-based prosperity and pluralism, and a better life.

The fight to safeguard democracy begins in America’s classrooms and schools, where we both embrace America’s diversity and forge a common identity. Our public schools are where young people develop the skills they need to be engaged and empowered citizens—voice, latitude, and the ability to think for oneself. Teachers must have the freedom to teach these skills—which may not be measured on standardized tests, but which are the measure of a vibrant citizenry.

When classrooms are freed from the tyranny of standardized testing and lockstep pacing calendars, there is time for extended classroom discussions and debates—where disagreements are over ideas, not people, and dissenting views are respectfully heard, not shouted down; and where opinions need to be supported with logical arguments and evidence, not simply asserted.

I welcome the exploration of racism in this issue of American Educator, and how our schools can counter bias and help young people value members of other groups. It is especially important in the aftermath of recent massacres—in El Paso, where the shooter drove 600 miles with the intent to kill Latinos; and the targeting of black churchgoers in Charleston, and of Jews attending a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Our public schools play a vital role in creating a more perfect union because, at its best, public education provides a ladder of opportunity, a path out of poverty, and a place where America’s great pluralism is celebrated. Democracy in education has always been the foundation for providing education for democracy.

When this moment in history is written, let it be said that Americans defended what is best about our country, and fought the worst. That hope won against fear, aspiration over frustration, and humanity over cruelty. That we defeated demagoguery. And that our public schools were a sturdy cornerstone helping to preserve our democracy.

American Educator, Fall 2019