This is the fifth, and final entry (although it will be in two parts—second post coming on Wednesday, December 14th) in our post-election series of blog posts on Teaching Human Rights. In the previous entries we have seen a variety of approaches to teaching on the 2016 election including: trying a “speak out” as a strategy in today’s post-truth climate; teaching Trump from a constitutional law perspective; teaching a non-political course to a very diverse campus; as well as hosting a guest speaker addressing race/class and the election. A theme in these entries has been the threat that the election of Trump endemically poses for minority groups and how teachers, who teach in diverse settings, have grappled with this new reality. Post-truth or not, many of our communities and students have reported that they have felt threatened from what Trump has said/represents. This entry picks up on that theme and applies it to experiential learning, international students, and to the employment of both informal and formal discussions around difficult topics this election raised.
In my job as the Academic Director for U.S. State Department-funded international academic programs I am placed at the heart of cross-cultural dialogue across many different settings. One takes place traveling with students from 10 different countries on a program concluding study tour where we visit sites along the Eastern Seaboard related to U.S. history, centers of governmental and economic power, and, as our program focuses on social entrepreneurship, headquarters of leading social enterprises in the American tradition—such as D.C. Central Kitchen which provides job training in food services to released convicts and homeless in the D.C. area. This fall, that study trip took us on a weeklong journey through NYC, Philadelphia, and culminated with four days in Washington D.C. during election week. Experiencing the 2016 election in D.C. was quite remarkable, especially in the company of students from Southeast Asia from very different cultural, religious, geographic, and economic backgrounds.
One of the key learning objectives of this Obama Administration-funded academic program, Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative (YSEALI) is for students to explore U.S. history, politics, and our economic system. Not surprisingly upon arrival on the campus of the University of Connecticut in early October, the election came up constantly. How to talk candidly to a room full of bright international students about the two major political party candidates and why Trump was receiving such strong support proved to be a challenge from day one. How does one comfortably tell someone of Islamic faith that one of our Presidential candidates was talking about making it much more difficult for them to enter the country, indulging in the idea of putting them on a watch list, and having them endure “extreme vetting” (whatever that means) during each return trip to the U.S.? What do you say to foreigners when, according to exit poll data, 13% of the American electorate said “immigration” was the biggest problem facing our country, with 64% of those who reported voting for Trump? Or when 41% of the electorate said they want to build a wall (apparently the current fence is not big enough) along the entire Mexican border—and 85% of those that want that wall voted for Trump? Because you have to start somewhere, I would revert to the beginning by telling the long American story of racial resentment and strife, economic disparities, and slow, very painful progress made by some groups in the never ending struggle for equal rights under the law. Chronological order was my refuge in trying to answer these difficult questions.
On the left: YSEALI students meeting American teachers at the University of Connecticut—negotiation exercise.
I designed the curriculum to include academic sessions from different speakers on U.S. history—some of which addressed the brutal treatment of the Native Americans—and also sessions on African-American history, freedom of speech and press in the digital age, Asian-American cultural understanding, and economic rights in the U.S. These and other sessions helped to put the current state of racial, economic, and cultural issues facing the U.S. electorate in 2016 into context. However, the students kept a steady stream of questions coming, many raised in informal settings, throughout the program regarding the election and why Trump was getting such strong support from a nation of immigrants that calls itself “the melting pot.” The interplay between informal discussions with students, especially during our study trip, and in class with its formal discussions, led to a dynamic exchange of ideas in a cross-cultural context that might have long-lasting effects on learning via experiential exposure to rights, politics, and history. Check back here on Wednesday December 12th, for the second part of this entry describing our site visits and experiencing the election in D.C.
Part II here.
YSEALI students having fun while doing community service at Foodshare in Hartford, CT.
Follow Teaching Human Rights us on Twitter here.
Author Jack J. Barry, Postdoctoral Fellow, Global Training and Development Institute, University of Connecticut.