“Democracy needs to be re-born in each generation and education is its mid-wife.” —John Dewey If this election were a movie, would it have been directed by Quentin Tarantino or Oliver Stone? Either way, it would most likely be rated R. The rhetoric alone isn’t especially child-friendly. No one is likely to forget these zingers:
“She is a nasty woman.”
“He is nothing but a con artist.”
“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.”
“If Donald Trump hadn’t inherited $200 million, he’d be selling $10 watches.”
So, it is no surprise, that many adults—both parents and educators—are shielding young people from this election. The language, the anger, the name-calling, all of which are not tolerated in schools, form the crux of this election of the 45th President of the United States of America.
Our Children Can Handle the Truth
But I would argue that it is a mistake not to allow our students to see our democracy as is. In fact, the bigger problem is the G-rated versions of history that proclaim the United States as “the greatest democracy in the world.” At best, these fairy-tale versions of U.S. history are half-truths. Too often, they are almost complete works of fiction that totally dismiss the ugly, violent realities that shaped American democracy. In too many classrooms, events from the Boston Tea Party to the Civil Rights Movement are viewed through a highly edited lens to promote the uniqueness and grandeur of the United States of America at the expense of historical accuracy. Many schools are still teaching students that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but it freed the slaves. Or teaching students about World War II and the death camps created under Adolf Hitler while omitting the fact that the United States relocated 120,000 Japanese-Americans into legalized
concentration camps. While the “Diary of Anne Frank” is required reading in thousands of classrooms, how many students reading the book have learned that Anne’s family applied for U.S. visas and
were denied? As a nation, we must decide, do we want our students to learn the truth about American history and American democracy, truth that will show our humanity, both great and terrible, alongside the rest of the world; or will we continue to teach, display, and promote only American exceptionalism?
America Is What It Is
Promoting only the exceptionalism of the United States is dangerous. It’s dangerous not because the U.S. isn’t exceptional, because it is. But in addition to being exceptional, the U.S. also is savage, racist, sexist, and has made a lot of mistakes. There is no check box for what type of country we have, good or bad, exceptional or terrible. Countries, like people, aren’t binary. The United States and its citizens are complex, multi-layered, incongruent, contradictory, imperfect beings. And that’s okay. America is what it is. America’s democracy is what it is. And right now, during this presidential election, our democracy and our candidates are both exceptional and non-exceptional. It is exceptional in that it has the first woman to run for President on a major party ticket and it is non-exceptional in that Hillary Clinton, like her male predecessors, is a highly imperfect person with an imperfect record. It is exceptional that in an American democracy, Donald Trump, a man who has never held political office can rise to the top of a political ticket for a major party and run for President of the United States. It is non-exceptional that Donald Trump has used racist, sexist, inappropriate language throughout the campaign. America's presidential election is full of hateful rhetoric, name-calling, and xenophobia. It would be easier, for both educators and parents, to hide this from children or put on rose-tinted glasses, and tell our children lies or try and keep them from seeing reality. But the reality is we have an R-rated presidential election. Politics, democracy, and civic participation sometimes aren’t G-rated, but our democracy is also not a movie or television show. Democracy is our system of governance and it requires knowledgeable, engaged citizens. The real risk in sheltering students from this presidential election is creating an ignorant, misinformed generation that will grow up to be voters, elected officials, international representatives of our way of life, who have not been formally or properly educated about “real American democracy.” To try and deny that, or shield children from the truth, is way more dangerous than allowing them to learn “new words and phrases” uttered through this campaign that most adults can’t repeat in decent company. If we want a PG-rated American democracy, we need educators and parents to teach our children how to create one by having them study, critique, and actively participate in the current R-rated version. A crucial part of creating “a more perfect union” is to acknowledge and assess the current state of our union. In order for American democracy to continue, it is imperative that schools must educate students, factually, about our American democracy, past and present, and thus prepare them to create its future.
ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson is the mother of two free-spirited, strong-willed girls and has a husband who should be appointed a saint for co-existing in the madness that is their life. She writes on politics, education, current events and social justice. She is also a taco enthusiast, a proud member of the Bey-hive, and truly believes that she will be receiving her letter from Hogwarts any day now.