Helping children understand the Age of Trump

Every now and then I write a post in which I look at current affairs and ask the question “what does someone need to know to make sense of this all?” I wrote a similar post last year looking at the Syrian crisis and what kinds of knowledge someone might need to access a BBC News piece. In this one, I am going to look at what kind of education might have prepared someone to make sense of what is currently going on in America.

There are no shortage of articles written about Trump, but let’s take some that have been written recently about Trump’s clash with the courts over his Executive Order to ban nationals of certain countries from entering the United States. You can read a couple of examples here and here.

For starters, there is a great deal of political vocabulary that it would be useful to know. To be clear, you can get away without knowing some of the following terms, but you probably need to understand a number of the following for the various articles on Trump to make sense.

  • executive order
  • legislation
  • congress
  • senate
  • federal
  • constitution
  • First Amendment
  • authority
  • Supreme Court
  • Republican
  • Democrat
  • customs
  • due process
  • international treaties

Simply knowing a definition of these words is unlikely to be that helpful, though this is probably better than knowing nothing at all. Rather, each of these ideas needs to exist with a few instantiations, illustrations and examples attached to it. Knowing about a previous Executive Order or two will help you make sense of what is normal and what is not. Knowing a little about the ideological fault-lines between the Democrats and Republicans is of great help in understanding their response to Trump’s orders. Someone who learnt at school about a previous occasion or two in which the US Supreme Court came into conflict with the President would better placed to understand the significance of when this happens.

One could perhaps get by here without knowing too much about the USA, but instead recognising the terms from other contexts. Ideas such as ‘authority’ and ‘international treaties’ might well have been encountered in other contexts, and that knowledge could be fairly easily transferred to making sense of what is going on in the USA at present. Such transferability is a good thing, though it can also lead to confusion: a person whose only association with the word ‘senate’ is in the context of ancient Rome will probably be a little baffled as to what is going on in the American Congress! What would be most helpful would be to have learnt these words in the context of American history. Knowing about the construction of the US Constitution and what is sought to achieve would be a considerable aid to making sense of Trump’s clash with the courts. Similarly, knowing about immigration to the USA and how government and cultural attitudes to this changed over the course of the twentieth century would allow a reader to put the most recent events in context.

I see my principal responsibility as a teacher as helping the children I teach understand the world in which they live. For the teacher of the sciences, this means teaching children what an ‘educated generalist’ knows about the natural world. For the teacher of religion, this means teaching children the fundamental ideas, texts and history of the major world religions. And, as a teacher of history, it is my job to ensure that children know enough about the past in order to make sense of the present.

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