Teaching in a Trump World

– Jeanne M. Slattery and Melissa K. Downes

We try to keep clearly-partisan politics out of this page – and sometimes don’t succeed. Whether we like it or not, however, politics is intertwined with almost everything else: influencing whether we fund education, how we fund education, who has access to education and at what price, whether potential students perceive education as something worth investing their time in, and a myriad of other issues.

Jeanne’s cousin, John Burke recently published a book entitled 12 Simple Solutions to Save America. He argued that a college education should be free for all applicants who finished high school, were admitted to college, and fell below the poverty line – and should be a central part of a plan to reduce inequality in the US. In essence, he argued that education is an important investment in our citizenry.

Earlier this year, in a commencement address at Rutgers University, President Obama argued:

In politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue. It’s not cool to not know what you’re talking about. That’s not keeping it real, or telling it like it is. That’s not challenging political correctness. That’s just not knowing what you’re talking about. (Obama, 2016, para. 31)

Donald Trump responded to the Obama speech with the following Tweet: “‘In politics, and in life, ignorance is not a virtue.’ This is a primary reason that President Obama is the worst president in U.S. history.” Regardless of your views of other parts of Trump’s platform and style, this statement should worry those of us who value education.

Trump TweetIn an interview with the Washington Post, Trump (2016) also observed that he [Donald Trump]:

does not need to read extensively because he reaches the right decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.” (Fisher, 2016, para. 5)

Trump’s comments can be seen as part of a larger anti-intellectual climate in the US. For example, in an interview on CNN, Newt Gingrich denied that violence was lower now than in the past (it is significantly lower than seen in the 1980s), based on what “the average American feels” (Camerota & Gingrich, 2016, para. 18). [This can be seen at about 6:14 in the video below.] Gingrich’s reactions to changes in unemployment were also contrary to the numbers, but consistent with his claims about the perceptions of many Americans. Politicians need to be concerned with voters’ perceptions, but their statements should be consistent with the facts.

Why should we want our presidents to read? Why do we want them to think critically about the data? Both of these skills help our leaders contextualize the issues they face, to recognize alternate viewpoints and evaluate them. Fisher (2016) quoted Allan Lichtman, a political historian at American University, who observed, “We’ve had presidents who have reveled in their lack of erudition.” He cited Warren Harding and Lyndon Johnson as leaders who scoffed at academics and other experts. Lichtman continued, “but Trump is really something of an outlier with this idea that knowing things is almost a distraction. He doesn’t have a historical anchor, so you see his gut changing on issues from moment to moment” (para. 9).

In a piece of political satire, Andy Borowitz reported that Reince Priebus, Chair of the Republican National Committee, said:

“This fall, we will ask the American people, ‘Do you want four more years of knowledge, or do you want something else?'” (Borowitz, 2016, para. 7)

* * *

So far we have only discussed rhetoric about education made within an election cycle; this rhetoric is important, but may be more extreme than any candidate’s real positions and policies. What do we know about Trump’s proposals about education?

  1. Trump will fight plans for debt-free education such as those made by Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders (Jaschik, 2016).
  2. Trump wants to move student loans from the government to private banks, where they  can be “marketplace and market driven” (Jaschik, 2016, para. 7). On the other hand, more recently he has suggested that loan payments would be capped at 12.5% and outstanding balances would be forgiven after 15 years (Supiano, 2016). President Obama’s version generally caps loans at 10% and balances are forgiven after 20 years (Kolowich & , 2016).
  3. Trump rejects President Obama’s proposals to make community college free for new high school graduates. As Trump concludes, “community colleges are ‘damn near free’ now, and ‘almost anyone can afford community college'” (Jaschik, 2016, para. 6).
  4. Further, Trump believes colleges should carry some of the risks associated with bad loans. He argues colleges should not be admitting students if they are poor risks for graduating and getting jobs – which might cause some universities to reconsider students applying for degrees in the liberal arts (Jaschik, 2016). This would probably affect other high-risk groups such as students at historically black colleges and community colleges.
  5. Trump has vowed to reduce administrative bloat – although the study that he cited as evidence of such bloat has been discredited (Kolowich & , 2016).
  6. Not surprisingly, Trump would like to attack political correctness on college campuses: “Political correctness — oh, what a terrible term — has transformed our institutions of higher education from ones that fostered spirited debate to a place of extreme censorship, where students are silenced for the smallest of things…. We will end the political correctness and foster free and respectful dialogue” (Trump, as cited by Kolowich & , 2016, para. 15).
  7. Trump also would like to remove tax-exempt status for universities with very large endowments – 56 with more than $1 billion (Kolowich & , 2016). As Trump said:

Some schools are paying more to hedge funds and private-equity managers than they are spending on tuition and tuition assistance, while taxpayers are guaranteeing hundreds of billions of dollars of student loans to pay for rising tuition costs. We want universities to spend their endowments on their students, not themselves. We have to take care of our students. They need to use the money to cut the college debt, and they have to cut the college tuition. They have to do it. (Trump, as cited by Kolowich & , 2016, para. 13).

Jaschik (2016) also described a variety of other education-related proposals made by Trump and his surrogates. Many of these were not yet fleshed out, however, at the writing of that article (May 13th) and appear to be contradicted by his October 13th speech.  Proposals made were not the progressive, education-friendly ones that many students and faculty want; however, they also weren’t as negative in tone as many of the arguments that have made the headlines. What do we know?

  • In general, Trump’s proposals portray education as an individual benefit rather than a societal one (contrast with Burke, 2016).
  • His arguments tend to be from a for-profit, pro-business perspective, which values an open market. He seems to ignore the downsides to privately-made student loans and for-profit universities.
  • Success seems to be defined in narrow job-related terms and appears to devalue liberal educations.

The education proposals outlined here are perhaps less terrifying than we might have imagined. On the other hand, most people will not read either Trump’s original policies or careful summaries of these policies. What they will hear instead will be Trump’s rhetoric about education. They will hear the anti-education rhetoric from our state legislators and the chancellor of our state system of higher education (Brogan, 2016). They will hear these things and conclude that a college education is not valuable and not worth investing in.

Many students – including those not predicted to succeed – gain significantly from their education. Our society also profits from such an investment.


Borowitz, A. (2016). Obama alienates millions with incendiary pro-knowledge remarks. New Yorker. Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/humor/borowitz-report/obama-alienates-millions-with-incendiary-pro-knowledge-remarks

Brogan, F. T. (2016). State System budget hearing – PA Senate. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=waIh6ymvIJU

Burke, J. (2016). 12 simple solutions to save America. Mineral Point, WI: Little Creek Press.

Camerota, A., & Gingrich, N. (2016). Transcript, New Day. CNN. http://www.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/1607/22/nday.06.html

Fisher, M. (2016). Donald Trump doesn’t read much. Being president probably wouldn’t change that. Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/donald-trump-doesnt-read-much-being-president-probably-wouldnt-change-that/2016/07/17/d2ddf2bc-4932-11e6-90a8-fb84201e0645_story.html

Jaschik, S. (2016). Trump’s emerging higher ed platform. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/05/13/trumps-campaign-co-chair-describes-higher-education-policies-being-developed

Kolowich, S., & , A. (2016). Donald Trump actually talked about higher education on Thursday. Here’s what he said. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/Donald-Trump-Actually-Talked/238065?cid=RCPACKAGE

Obama, B. (2016). Full transcript: President Obama’s Rutgers University commencement speech. Newsweek. Retrieved from http://www.newsweek.com/obama-full-transcript-rutgers-university-commencement-speech-460325

Supiano, B. (2016). A closer look at income-based repayment, the centerpiece of Donald Trump’s unexpected higher-ed speech. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/A-Closer-Look-at-Income-Based/238085

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She loves teaching and learning and describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has published three books, Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Translating research into clinical practice; Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy; and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill. She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

Melissa K. Downes is an associate professor of English at Clarion University. She loves teaching.  She is interested in talking about how people teach and enjoys sharing how she teaches. She is an 18th century specialist, an Anglophile, a cat lover, and a poet. She can be contacted at mdownes@clarion.edu

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