November 4 2020

The Day After 

On November 2 2016, I woke up in a London hotel room on a dreary day to the TV blaring “President Trump” at the world. I had gone to bed the previous night, before many polls in the States had closed, secure in the knowledge that the world under Hillary would bump along in its usual fashion – a few victories for social and environmental justice, a few setbacks, but overall moving along towards a better world. And then Trump.

The depression that hit me over the next few days, as I plodded around rainy London, was not helped by listening to academics studying economic inequality. Their research was telling them that one consequence of the runaway inequality many countries were experiencing could be fascism. The “most powerful man in the world” was a fascist – how good was that?  But almost immediately, we started to tell ourselves that it might not be so bad – there is a strong American commitment to democracy with so many checks and balances within the system, and Trump might even rise to fill the role with some dignity and learn to govern. But then, with increasing rapidity, Trump began to overturn all those hopes, and worse. The past 4 years have been a nightmare of watching a narcissistic conman bamboozle his supporters and trash everyone else.

At that time, I blamed the American education system for Trump. Decades of whittling away at the public school system under Republicans and Democrats alike, undermining teachers, focusing on exams and “standards” unconnected to real learning, and encouraging school choice (vouchers, Charter Schools) have created an unequal system where most learning is about how to best raise exam marks. The poorest schools have the furthest to go, so they have the least time and capacity to teach critical thinking, a nuanced view of history or real scientific literacy. And forget about the 21st century skills that have been acknowledged as essential for living in this world – “collaboration, critical thinking, communication, and creativity” (National Education Association). So many Trump voters were incapable of separating truth from fiction, and were taken in. Once they accepted the “fake news” narrative, all else followed. COVID is fake news, experts are fake news etc.

But then, 4 years ago, I was persuaded that many voted for Trump for good reasons – they distrusted Hillary (because she is a woman?), their manufacturing jobs were gone, inequality had left them behind etc. So I waited, thinking that these people would soon have the scales ripped from their eyes – but then last night happened.

And now it’s the day after, 2020. I know it’s not over yet; there’s still hope. But why wasn’t it a landslide for Biden? Why did so many Latinx voters support Trump in Florida? Why did people believe him over Dr. Fauci? How did he manage to equate socialism with the devil? How did outlandish conspiracies, formerly the stuff of the National Enquirer, get to be swallowed by so many?

So I come back to the American education system, which trails most other OECD countries on international education comparisons, including PISA. One of the interesting findings of PISA, which I expand on elsewhere in this blog, is that the best education systems in the world value both excellence and equity – in other words,  it is not enough to have excellent schools (the US has some of the best public and progressive schools in the world), that excellence needs to be shared.  And that is where the US falls down – their public education system has been under attack for decades, and the inequality within it has widened under Trump and Betsy DeVos, Secretary of Education. The charter schools, which she promotes, have contributed to this, and have further undermined the public system (while lining the pockets of many). 

Last night, looking at the vote breakdown on the maps of the swing states, it was a perfect illustration of Trump’s strength with rural voters (where schools, I’m guessing, may be a tad less resourced than urban ones). Pennsylvania, where all eyes are fixed today, has vast areas that are all red, and only a few small blue dots – which happen to be the urban areas with the largest population density.

That the divide in the States is not just rural/urban, red/blue etc but reflects the inequality in the education system became clearer to me over the past few days. I watched and listened as the Canadian media, in its quest for balance, interviewed numerous Trump supporters, many of whom are quite articulate. I’m not talking about the career Republicans or the evangelical/corporate types who support him because he is doing their bidding. I’m talking about the regular Josephines…the 18 year old first time voter or the granny who thinks the economy is doing great with Trump. When I hear them repeat some of Trump’s lies and insults – like Biden is a socialist, Obamacare is bad, COVID is overrated, etc and then go on to build their world view based on this, I realize that they are not applying what should be one of the basic 21st C skills – critical thinking, and  in particular, weighing the relative believability of your sources. We can thank under-resourced inner city and rural public schools who have had to focus on raising test scores to the detriment of teaching 21st C skills for this.

And if Trump wins, he has promised to protect “America’s Founding Ideals by promoting patriotic education” – whatever that means. Heaven help them. And us.