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Rod Watson: Trump’s silver lining: Proverbial ‘teachable moment’ in Buffalo schools

Rod Watson: Trump’s silver lining: Proverbial ‘teachable moment’ in Buffalo schools

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As Donald Trump turns his back on the Constitution, it makes for a teachable moment in government classes so that the next generation might be more protective of democratic norms.

It’s almost over … finally … at least we thought it was. 

But as bad as it was, there could be a silver lining beyond just having a sane president in a couple more weeks.

If nothing else, the Trumped-up charges of election fraud so clever that no judge of either party could see it, and the resulting riots Wednesday with mobs storming the Capitol, have heightened awareness of just how fragile this democratic republic really is.

After prior generations fought wars to preserve something current generations took for granted and came darn near close to losing this week maybe the coming generation of voters will learn from America’s close call with an autocrat.

Maybe this is, literally, the teachable moment. Maybe government classes in the Buffalo Public Schools and other districts will be able to use the headlines as textbooks to produce an electorate far less gullible and more protective of democracy than we’ve been.

“They are paying more attention this year,” teacher Melvin West said of the seniors in his Participation in Government class at McKinley High School.

And he and other government teachers say it’s not just because of the presidential election and its unprecedented aftermath, including Wednesday’s futile GOP effort to imitate a banana republic.

There is also the social justice movement epitomized by the demand that Black lives finally matter. There is the removal of Confederate monuments that celebrate subjugation and treason. And there is the once-in-a-century pandemic that has had perhaps the most direct impact on students whose academic and social lives were upended.

“Students are really interested in these kinds of topics,” said Kevin Doucet, who teaches a U.S. History and Government class at Middle Early College High School.

When it comes to the election – which Donald Trump lost by 7 million popular votes, by 74 Electoral College votes and whose outcome dozens of courts have upheld – students are scratching their heads over why the result is even being questioned.

“They don’t get that,” said Zack Smith, who co-teaches the McKinley government class with West.

And because of so much media attention on that, on the pandemic and on social justice issues, students are making the connection between government, their own lives and how such issues are dealt with.

“They are actually seeing government in a new light,” said West.

If that appreciation for what the Founding Fathers created endures into adulthood, today’s political cauldron might produce a generation hardened against the ignorant passions that are government’s greatest threat.

The teachers don’t impose their views. Rather, their goal is to get kids to think and to teach them how to research and cite credible information rather than relying on YouTube or something a friend sent them on social media that may or may not be true.

“Finding reliable sources is huge for them in terms of understanding what’s going on,” Doucet said. “We try to teach them how to vet them, how to figure out if they’re reliable or not.”

Given the disinformation that nearly half the country has fallen prey to, that skill alone will be invaluable.

But will the moment, despite media saturation, actually have a lasting impact? With the Buffalo schools still in all-remote learning, teachers say it’s much harder to get an accurate read on students than when face to face in the classroom.

West said some already had questions because of what happened in 2016, when Trump also convincingly lost the popular vote but nevertheless moved into the White House.

“A lot of them … think the Electoral College is obsolete,” West said. “They question how can we be a democracy when a majority of people don’t pick their leaders. They’re trying to learn the difference between a democracy and a republic.”

But once they learn, will that knowledge actually translate into power? He notes that some students look at what’s happening and think, “Why bother, the system is already stacked against us.”

Others, however, are saying, “This is our time!” West said they look at some of the police reforms already implemented as a beginning and say, “Why stop here?” And Smith notes the top three topics for their research projects – all snatched from the headlines – are the Black Lives Matter movement, police reform and the pandemic.

After quizzing his class, Doucet found a similar dichotomy, with students almost overwhelmed by the torrent of election news. But while some said the false assertions and political bickering made them less inclined to get involved, many others said the issues of 2020 forced them to have a different outlook on the election process and to want to get more engaged.

If that carries over into adulthood, they might well pull us back from the precipice.

If nothing else, they should be more discerning after an age in which the Russian president is our friend, the U.S. Justice Department is our enemy and the interpreters of the Constitution are no longer the courts but a rump group of Republicans intent on overthrowing the government.

“I think definitely they’ll be more critical thinkers and be better at forming an opinion based on credible information,” Doucet said.

As we escape this bizarro world, that kind of critical thinking has never been more critical – or in shorter supply.

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Urban Affairs Editor/Columnist

I write a weekly column, most often about socioeconomic and political issues affecting people of color and the disadvantaged in Western New York.

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