by Arielle Bennett
ABSTRACT. The day before the 2017 Inauguration of Donald Trump, I started teaching the American Presidency to a group of nearly ninety students. As one of the most controversial individuals of this era has taken office and has shaken the meaning of free speech and the value of facts themselves, this is undoubtedly a unique time in history to be both a lecturer and an observer in a presidency course. This classroom offers an interesting case-study on the discussions between the politically engaged youth of America, as well as the debate surrounding the disruptive speech of the alt-right and the “politically correct” reaction to it.
This spring I was given the opportunity to teach the American Presidency to a class of nearly ninety undergraduate students in New Jersey. The 2017 Inauguration was the day after class began; Donald Trump was now President and his Executive actions within his office would have to become part of this course on the presidency. I assumed it would be a controversial semester given the tone of the election, but I had not expected it to be used by some students as a forum for “alternative facts.” Nor did I expect to see students willing to make comments that bordered on bigotry so openly, without thought for the diverse group of people in the classroom. From my experience in political science courses, students are ready to become partisan if the discussion warrants it, but this was my first experience where I was distressed in a classroom; not by the subject of the readings, but by the behavior of some of the participants.
On the first day of class I asked the students to raise their hands if they were political science majors, and most affirmed. I took this measure positively, hoping that the classroom of mostly advanced majors in the field would remain classically “political science” focused, or at least keep to the topic at hand. Then again, my time as an undergraduate during the first Obama-Clinton showdown was a much different one, and while debates between students were certainly heated at that time, I can’t remember ever feeling uncomfortable in a classroom or amongst my peers. In the tradition of most political science courses, I tried my best to make the course “unbiased,” “non-partisan,” and based on historical facts about the presidency. After all, it should be a historical course that looks at each significant presidency week by week. However, I found myself defending the notion of equality itself on a regular basis; I found myself continually going in depth to explain the elements of racism and sexism that were embedded in our nation’s Constitution and were reinforced by the three branches if government; I found myself in what seemed more like a talk show, or a Twitter war, by continually justifying common sense socio-political facts against the faction of those “liberated” by the new precedent of the political rule-breaking of Donald Trump.
The alt-right youths of America were not as distant, or as rural, as I imagined anymore. Some were in my classroom, less than an hour from New York City. The one to two male students who appeared to be advocates of the alt-right somehow seemed like the majority of the classroom because they were the loudest, when in fact the other eighty or more students of every other political persuasion were the substantial majority. The true majority was veiled—their speech was more quiet and rare, and by the end of week four of class any attempt to dispute the eagerness of the alt-right students’ speech had completely withered. It was as though the true majority had a very limited desire to directly and continually confront these outbursts, and only for the first few weeks of class did they attempt it. The eventual silence of most of the classroom in deference to the alt-right students was daunting, and my own persistent attempt to defend my teachings against the alt-right with genuine facts and historical evidence did not seem to be enough. When facts no longer matter to your debate opponent, which party becomes the loser?
After all, for the first several weeks of class we were still learning about the founders and their philosophies, the early presidencies, and the role of the Constitution. By week three of the course, President Trump’s travel ban on seven predominantly Muslim countries had just been released, and on this occasion the classroom was in uproar. It took nearly an hour to bring the tone down between opposing sides of the classroom after that event, and while I hoped to assure the students of how checks and balances worked and remind them Executive Orders can be challenged, it was clear that the classroom dynamic itself was going to be our immediate challenge. Little did I know the majority of the students would be willing to give up engaging with the alt-right just a week later.
In the first month of class, we heard from a farright student that said, “We have always had equal rights in America.” This comment was in response to my presentation about how after the 13th and 14th Amendments were passed, segregation still emerged, later verified by a 7-1 Supreme Court decision in Plessey v. Ferguson, and voting rights were suppressed for African Americans regardless of the 15th Amendment’s clarity. I told the story of Susan B. Anthony’s court case U.S. v. Susan B. Anthony, where she was denied a trial by jury and convicted of illegal voting, and the ruling reaffirmed that women were not full citizens despite what the 14th Amendment might say about general “persons” having equal protection, citizenship for those born here, and due process. Next we heard a student say “the gender pay gap is a myth” (intending to prove that women had “full equality”), and my reply that our R1 university has scholars that research this very issue and that it is a fact women earn less than men for the same work did not convince him. Arguments that deny the history and reality of obvious inequalities were not what I was expecting in my classroom. But, in a world where existing knowledge, fact, and academia are being challenged, it seemed inevitable to enter into a classroom, especially one that is meant to examine our current President. The strangest part of this classroom dialogue was that I rarely heard from students willing to challenge these bizarre claims, even in a very diverse classroom on a very liberal campus.
The lowest point of the dialogue came at the end of the first month of class. I was lecturing on the Constitution, explaining how women and minorities were not included as persons in the Constitution, which is why we have had to struggle to obtain equal rights. A student, trying again to prove that there was no need for more constitutional wordage on equality because he believed equality already existed, literally said to the class, “But we all know there’s no such thing as rape.” Then moments later, he went further to say “there’s no such thing as discrimination either.” In response, the faces of the class dropped; nearly all of us gasped in sync. These comments were so irrelevant to the discussion at hand, yet they were able to take over and create the most somber atmosphere I have experienced in a classroom. I was nearly speechless for that first minute. Never did I imagine having to confront or defend the very concept of rape or discrimination. I was visibly upset, but as someone that spent a great deal of time studying the ills of patriarchy, I used my knowledge of gender-based violence and historical discrimination against sex and race as confidently as possible. As I was attempting to prove myself, I felt how ridiculous I sounded. It was too outrageous and too offensive that anyone would have to make a public attempt to explain common knowledge and historical fact. While I can still see the faces of my students that were disturbed by the offenses, there were only two of them willing to respond to the student that offended them. Neither that was willing to argue back mentioned racial discrimination. The conversation somehow stayed limited to proving there was gender-based violence and discrimination. I was worried that if the conversation had moved one step farther toward debating the existence of racism, we would have heard directly racist comments. While I did my utmost to control the aftershock, the damage had been done by the inflammatory words meant to sting the other for no reason at all, just for the sake of harm. Hearing a public declaration that the experiences of the other did not exist, that they could not exist, was something I never expected in a university classroom in 2017.
I didn’t plan on discussing sexual violence statistics that day, but I told the class that nearly a quarter of all undergraduate students are sexually assaulted. In my most commanding voice I said, “that means over twenty-percent of people at our university right now have been sexually assaulted.” I saw the discomfort in their expressions as I said this, and no doubt they saw the pain in my own. This is a conversation that we should be willing to have in a college environment, but having the conversation in response to those denying it, in a classroom that had nothing to do with the subject whatsoever, was not an effective platform. After I gave the most compelling arguments I could to prove the existence of the reality of rape and discrimination, I ended the class for the day.
On my way home, after calling other faculty for advice, it took several days to recover from hearing unfounded prejudice in my classroom. I decided not to continue open discussions afterward; not by “suppressing” free speech, but by becoming the stereotype of a professor that simply lectures without pausing for the entire length of class. What alternative could I have than to monologue? It was evident in this context that the students would not learn academically by discussing with one another. They may have learned another lesson, as I did, that unduly harsh words are going to be spoken publicly and boldly in this new era, and that the leader of this trend is our current POTUS. While the monologue is not my favorite teaching method, being someone that believes in students learning from one another’s thoughts in discussions, not merely traditional lectures, it seemed that in allowing my classroom to be open, it became closed. When free speech becomes unjustifiably antagonistic in settings that are meant to be scholastic and thoughtful, it harms the beauty of learning. When speech is about disregarding the authority of all those that differ, when it becomes centered on denying the other, it is hardly productive, especially in a classroom.
The silence of the majority of the class continued as I monologued week to week, though the persistent hand-raising of the couple far-right students left me with little alternative but to call on them occasionally, though their comments were more appropriate after the day we confronted the denial of rape and discrimination. When I would ask for their sources since I had never heard of the information they were offering, they would site some organization unknown to me or say sardonically that “everyone knows this.” I also tried group activities where I would select a person that was quiet in class to speak for their group, instead of waiting for the most eager students to speak. I didn’t hear confrontational comments for several weeks after I decreased the open discussions, so I was optimistic that once the class reached the topics of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama it would be possible to see more communication between students once again, since they had lived during these presidencies. Not surprisingly, the students on the left remained largely quiet, and the class didn’t hear student-led approval of President Obama, nor a critique of President Bush. Long before this point in class, few students other than those on the far-right had anything they were willing to share.
As an emerging political scientist, this classroom experience has been a case-study for me. It was what I imagined to be a picture of the politically engaged youth in a typical Northeastern state. It was an incredibly diverse group of students from all kinds of backgrounds, though most are from New Jersey or the tri-state area. On the day I tried to confront the fact that discrimination exists, I asked the class to raise their hands if they were first generation college students; well over half of them obliged in affirmation. This showed that it was certainly not a room of privilege; it was a room of hopefuls looking toward the American Dream. There were mostly what appeared to be diligent students from all realms of the political spectrum left and right, but there were also those couple leaning to the fringe alt-right persuasion that had no trouble expressing themselves consistently throughout the entire semester, while those from all other political persuasions spoke less and less as the semester went on.
The most interesting observation I have about this group of students was that it appeared they were not comfortable with confrontation that isn’t anonymous. Given that these students had to see each other twice a week, I believe it made them more shy and inexpressive then they usually would be at a political event or online dialogue where they could interact with others politically and anonymously. The only outliers in my classroom, those that were willing to speak up to everyone no matter what, were from the alt-right; most likely because their political orientation as an opposition force encourages blatant politically “incorrect” discussion. With nearly all of the comments in class I heard, no matter what the subject at hand was, the first hand to be raised was from the far-right. However, after class was over, the students that came up to me to offer comments appeared to be political moderates or liberals. These students spoke with me privately rather than publicly in a classroom, which in my opinion demonstrated they preferred to express their political opinions specifically to like-minded peers or political “neutrals” (like a professor), rather than in an environment where their comments may potentially be critiqued, ignored, or disrespected.
The left has often been critiqued for its inability to address the alt-right as intensely as it likely needs to, and while this might be partially because it is dealing with a group that discounts the other regardless of its merits, it also could be because the rules of the game are changing. While Hillary Clinton advised us to “go high” when others “go low,” is it possible to win a dirty fight with squeaky-clean methods? While many of us might stay away from the followers of the Breitbart camp and the like, and instead surround ourselves with those of our own political persuasions, it is important for us to also be aware of this group and what is being said. Moreover, it is even more important to confront it in open dialogue. The politically correct manners that have been the custom of traditional political actors may indeed be a model of the past. America has been a community of individualism, free speech, and innovation, and those that test free-speech to limit will not be thwarted by the subtle, yet biting, wit of 19th century “ladies and gentlemen” inclined to take the high ground. Oddly enough, this course reminded me of the 2016 Presidential Debates and Town Halls. On the few occasions the moderate or left-leaning students spoke up in response to the far-right students during the first month of class, they took the high ground and were polite and appropriate (like Hillary Clinton), while those that took the low ground certainly had the most sound bites and floor time (like Donald Trump). It wasn’t the words of sensible solidarity Hillary spoke that the nation remembered months after. Instead, it was the Machiavellian tactics of Donald Trump that we are still thinking about and confronting on a daily basis, as he is now our current President.
Free speech and political activity are evolving, and the election of Donald Trump has proven as much by his unchecked rejection of the traditional politically “correct” dialogue practiced by most political actors. In this era of political upheaval and what will likely be forthcoming partisan realignment throughout the country, the alt-right should not have a moratorium on being the loudest. The numerical majority and all of its glorious types of factions also need to express, to rebel, to be active, to be heard, to inspire, and to disrupt. As this classroom displayed the diversity of the budding millennial generation today, we should also consider what kind of future this group will strive to bring if fear of political incorrectness and confrontation with critics leads to silence. The loudest and most politically-incorrect people don’t always get to be leaders, but the most respectful and reasonable people don’t always emerge victorious either. My hope is that a new generation of strong-willed people emerge that are courageous on all sides, regardless of their interpretation of free speech. Ideally, provocative free speech should not be an exclusive tool of those in the far-right. There must also emerge those of every other political persuasion willing to use free speech to its fullest potential, and to be emboldened and unabashed in their defense of truth and progress, while simultaneously never denying the other.
My classroom should have been a forum for vibrant debate from multiple groups of people represented by New Jersey’s political youth, as a safe space to practice free speech and to learn mutual respect as well as candid self-expression. The students never needed to be politically correct, they simply could have held one another accountable by practicing the art of the Socratic method – by challenging one another’s ideas and taking the time to logically disprove one another’s fallacies so that we could have the opportunity to make the closest approximation to the truth together. Unfortunately, my classroom had no desire to engage in dialogue in the Socratic fashion. In fact, I discovered firsthand that the Socratic method isn’t practicable when one side doesn’t believe in the possibility of undeniable facts, such as the existence of discrimination. The Socratic method has a flaw in such cases as these; “truths” cannot be sought in a mutual dialogue when debaters cannot agree on a baseline understanding of even the questions being asked.
For those of us with the opportunity to teach politically controversial subjects in this polarized era, my advice is simple. If you are willing to discuss current events in the classroom, particularly those surrounding the presidency, be direct as the moderator and be prepared to confront issues of prejudice that may arise. I have learned there are no guarantees that college-level students will practice reasonable partisan debate in political science classrooms. If I could repeat the semester again, to build a discussion I would rely less on students that raise their hands to volunteer their thoughts. I would rotate more between lecture, calling on students randomly from my roster, and student group activities. While some might read this essay and know better ways to manage a classroom or consider my recent semester an anomaly, I predict that my experiences will be increasingly common, assuming political incorrectness continues to become more normalized by President Trump. This experience has shown me why the far-right has gained momentum through their alternative controversial use of free speech. If my classroom inadvertently became a forum for the new alt-right, where a fringe group without strong peer opposition easily dominated a significantly larger majority, I believe it is possible for this tactic to potentially disrupt groups everywhere.
Arielle Bennett completed her graduate degree in Political Science at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where she is also a part-time lecturer. Her research interests are in the history of political thought, feminist theory, and early American gender politics.