As the Donald Trump candidacy unexpectedly evolved into the Trump presidency, Americans were quick to find parallels between current events and classic literature. Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” hit so close to the “doublethink” of George Orwell’s dystopian 1984 that demand for the book surged in the days following her head-scratching remarks. Today, eight months after Trump took office, 1984 still ranks among Amazon’s top 40 best sellers. Others had different ideas. “The best literary precedent for what we’re enduring now is not the static image of Big Brother but the turbulent eruptions of King Lear,” wrote the Washington Post’s Ron Charles in May. Or is it The Handmaid’s Tale, also an Amazon top seller? Or, maybe, Brave New World?
America’s high school English teachers are asking the same questions. After watching the tumult of the 2016 presidential election play out inside their classrooms last year, and after a summer of hate-filled violence, many are retooling the reading lists and assignments they typically give their students. They worry that the classic high school canon doesn’t sufficiently cover today’s most pressing themes—questions about alienation and empathy and power—and that the usual writing prompts aren’t enough to get students thinking deeper than an average cable news segment. “One finds, in literature as in life, that the politics of Trump can be sort of overwhelming and hard to escape,” says Wilson Taylor, an English teacher at a private high school in the San Francisco area, who counts among those switching up the syllabus for the first full school year of the Trump era.
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How did English teachers come to find themselves entangled in politics, while teaching to a demographic that can’t even vote? Are high schoolers—trailing members of the party-defying, vote-skipping Millennial generation—even civically engaged? According to UCLA’s 2016 American Freshmen Survey, they’re more politically motivated than ever: The study found that only 42.3 percent of incoming college students described their political perspectives as “middle of the road,” the lowest number in the survey’s more than 50 year history. Rob Phillips, who teaches high school English in the Raleigh, North Carolina, area—a district where students sporting southern pride T-shirts learn alongside those who have recently emigrated from China and Laos—isn’t surprised. As he taught The Crucible to his 11th graders last year, he noticed juniors skipping over the usual McCarthy-era free speech observations in favor of analogies to the Democratic and Republican parties. And, he says, they debated politics with a fervor that found him acting as referee, something he hadn’t had to do before. “The text hasn’t changed,” Phillips adds, “but how the kids are coming at the text and the passion with which they approach it, it’s intense.”
Taylor noticed the same dynamics play out last year in his classroom, where the annual discussion of Sophocles’ Antigone—a tale of national and familial anxiety in ancient Greece—turned into a discussion about Trump. “Students were eager to discuss questions of leadership, citizenship, political language and rhetoric, and political violence,” Taylor recalls. And they also wanted to talk a lot about gender—“a heightened sensitivity I attribute in part to the gendered language swirling around the 2016 election,” she says.
It turns out that—unlike most settings—the English classroom might not be such a bad place to talk politics. As opposed to history or civics class, where students tackle political issues outright, teachers say discussion-based English seminars allow for sensitive conversations by proxy. “We don’t have to talk necessarily about what they’ve been hearing on the news,” says Ben Smith, who’s taught English and writing courses in the Philadelphia suburbs for over 20 years. “They can certainly bring that in, but the fiction allows them a touchstone to get into that conversation.”
English class, teachers say, can also broaden kids’ perspective. “Literature gets us to engage with characters that are not us, that are frequently not like us and live in a time that is nothing like ours,” says David Gatewood, who’s taught English in St. Louis, Florida and rural Virginia. Natasha Robinson, who teaches English in an all-male, predominantly African-American high school in Chicago, says that reading John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men last year gave her students a view into an unfamiliar segment of the electorate—white, rural poverty-stricken—in the weeks leading up to the election. “I think often times they perceive that black people are the only uneducated people, black people are the only poor people,” she says. “To see that there are other people from different walks of life that have similar experiences as them, that lent itself to a conversation.”
Teachers are now wondering how to channel that vigorous political spirit during a new school year. For some, that means tinkering with their approach to the usual books. Smith says when he teaches 1984 to his AP Language and Composition students this fall, he’ll use the novel’s themes of systemic power and rhetorical manipulation as a lens to talk about fake news, monuments and statues, and resistance movements. He also plans to pair the text with current magazine articles to get his students thinking about how today’s world relates to the one that Orwell imagined.
Other teachers are dusting off less common classics: Taylor says he’ll add Julius Caesar to his Shakespeare course. “Its exploration of political language, political activism and political violence feels acutely relevant and distressing,” he says, noting plot points that resonate today: “Rome descends into an imperial monarchy after the assassination [of Caesar], and Brutus’ high-minded overtures for a representative Rome are turned against him and fail as he, too, is killed.”
As immigration bans and racially motivated violence continue to dominate national headlines, teachers are looking to bring in texts that address hate. Smith taught Lesléa Newman’s October Mourning, a book about the beating and subsequent death of gay college student Matthew Shepard, for the first time last year. This year, he plans bring the national conversation about race and racism to his students with James Baldwin essays and excerpts from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. “The canon’s great, but we know the canon’s pretty narrow in its scope of what voices we’re listening to,” he says. “If this age is an age that’s pretty divisive, isn’t it that much more important to hear as many voices as we can?”
Inviting diverse voices, of course, makes way for diverse opinions—and keeping the conversation civil can prove tricky when impressionable high schoolers take their cues from pundits’ screaming matches on TV. “I think English teachers really have a responsibility to teach their students how to voice their opinions, to write well, to read carefully, to think deeply,” says Julie Jee, a Poughkeepsie, NY-based English teacher. But the shrill cable news ethos, Phillips says, increases pressure on teachers as they try to both model and moderate respectful debate. He’s taken a stronger lead in teaching his students how to have a measured, intellectual, effective response to ideas they disagree with, not, as he calls it, a “3 a.m. Twitter” gut reaction. For him, this means paying close attention to his own tone and language, so that he can be an example to his students, and also taking extra care to coach his students’ rhetorical methods and modes of logic. “I tell them, ‘You may not be able to find this in the real world, but I’m hoping you’re going to see the value of it,’” he tells his classes.
For some teachers, encouraging thoughtful debate means more writing assignments. “When you watch the 24-hour news cycle, you watch people argue right after something happens,” Smith says. “That sort of immediate process is interesting, but writing allows the time to process.” Following last year’s election, Jee rethought how she taught Cormac McCarthy’s The Road—a tale about a father and son trying to survive post apocalypse. “Usually we do a debate on whether America is going to be a better place in a hundred years,” she explains. “It became kind of a loaded question. I had students that fell across the political spectrum, two extremes: Students who were really ecstatic that Trump was president, and students who were almost physically ill that he was president.” To avoid a “free-for-all” that might invite heat-of-the-moment responses and hurt feelings, Jee turned the question into a writing assignment, which curtailed highly emotional responses and allowed for a controlled classroom discussion later. She said the shift was “cathartic” for her students, that writing allowed them to freely express themselves without worrying about social repercussions.
But then again, others are questioning whether thoughtfulness should really be the prime standard by which to evaluate good debate, or good writing. As some have pointed out, the president employs ad hominem attacks, strawmen and other logical fallacies to drive emotional appeal. And it works. Phillips, who asks students to analyze presidents’ speeches in his AP Language and Composition class, says he’s changing his lesson plans to include a deeper conversation about whether abandoning logic and skipping over evidence-based assertions can be effective. “I always said these were to be avoided,” he says, “but now I’m thinking, ‘Well, maybe not. Maybe it will galvanize your base.”