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Presidential politics inspires a teaching moment

February 25, 2016

Presidential politics offer teachable moment

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Presidential primaries are entertaining and instructive. Candidates, voters and media outlets collude to ensure that private and public conversations are flooded with a surplus of outlandish, contradictory and highly improbable claims.

So when Adam, my 6-year old son, asked, “Why is everyone talking about Donald Trump,” and big sister Zoe added, “Yea, what’s up with that,” I rolled my eyes, and paused to consider how I might respond to this more than reasonable question — a question many adults are asking.

Many years ago, I was afforded the responsibility to decide which students earned a passing grade in the American Government classes I taught — and by extension, which students were eligible to graduate from high school.

Much to my dismay, a few years of teaching lead me to the realization that not all teenagers are ready and interested in learning about the complex, abstract concepts of the U.S. Constitution, nor the messy practice of representative democracy.

Likewise, as my youthful idealism waned, I struggled to maintain my passion for the political process, leaving me ill-equipped to inspire young and often uninterested students.

The current presidential primary season has failed to reignite my political passion, leaving me feeling as challenged to inspire Adam and Zoe about the importance of the presidential election cycle as I was with my former students.

Still, before answering Adam and Zoe’s questions about Donald Trump, I wanted to explain the role of the American president in a way that was understandable from a first- and third-grade view of the world. I shared with Zoe and Adam that the president is the leader of the United States in a way that is similar to the principal being the leader of their school.

They appeared to follow my comparison, so I asked them, “What makes a good principal?”

“Someone who makes sure that kids follow the rules,” Zoe answered, and “someone who lets us do what we want, like have extra recess,” added Adam.

And there it was, Zoe and Adam had clearly identified the central tension of the American political process — the tenuous balance of rights and responsibilities.

The presidential primaries have a way of bringing this perennial conflict into sharp relief, in rather spectacular fashion this season. Voters collectively demand a list of rights, which are improbable for most and acutely absent for far too many, while at the same time assigning responsibilities to others, especially to those who are deemed different or less deserving. In turn, candidates desperately seek to reassure everyone — voters and themselves — that they can protect rights and hold others accountable, better than anyone else.

But we live in a very complex world, where the intersection of domestic policy, international relations and ecological realities mean that no president — no human being — can effectively deliver on this agenda. So, we are chronically disappointed in our candidates and presidents, asserting that we deserve better.

Meanwhile, Adam may not get extra recess as often as he would like and Zoe is sometimes disgruntled when her peers do not follow the rules, but, in their own way, they have both learned that their school community works best when rights and responsibilities are shared by everyone.

In this way, Adam and Zoe have not only experienced an example of effective leadership in their principal, but have begun to participate as members of a political community.

As their world expands and becomes more complex, our role as parents includes helping Zoe and Adam remember that while they have certain political rights, they also have a responsibility to help ensure the rights of others.

As for Donald, my responsibility to public reasonableness, trumps my right to free speech.

John Engel of Florence is a consultant and director of the Healthy Men and Boys Network. He can be reached through his website

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Raymond Paquette permalink
    February 25, 2016 5:41 pm

    Great column, John. But I don’t know why you would say that your “my responsibility to public reasonableness, trumps my right to free speech.” I suspect that your implication is that there is nothing reasonable that you could say freely. In this I respect your restraint.

    However, reason left Mr. Trump’s conversation long ago. Because of this, much of what can be said in objective response to him will sound unreasonable. But it is most likely quite reasonable. I cannot think of ways to talk about him that do not sound extreme. But that is his doing, not mine nor yours.

  2. February 26, 2016 10:40 am

    Ray – great to hear from you! Thanks for your reply/post. Indeed, my closing comment was a bit of sarcasm as I struggle to say anything reasonable about Trump. And I very much agree with your claim that reason is not part of Trump’s presentation and he needs to be called out on this – consistently. Interesting that in last nights debate, according to the morning paper, Marco Rubio has started to do this. It all reminds me of the bully on the playground who torments as everyone cowers. Then one day someone stands up to the bully and calls him (yes, usually him) out and that is it – game over for the bully. The deeply human part of me sees Trump as a very insecure person who feels strong when he makes others appear weak. I do not favor making him feel weak but I do hope his opponents call him out on his rhetoric, again and again. Best to you and your family, Ray.

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