Teaching about Rights in Uncertain Times: Trump’s First 100 Days OR How I Learned to Embrace Uncertainty and Keep Teaching

This is the second blog post in our series about teaching about human rights in the first 100 days of the Trump presidency. Whereas the first post in this series presented a course design aimed directly at this topic, I am approaching the issue more broadly. As those who teach about human rights, especially in classes that are not always explicitly human rights focused, finding ways to integrate current events, or respond to recent legal and political developments, can sometimes be challenging. In this post I am going to talk about the challenges of teaching about rights in a time where the current politics threaten to upend various legal protections for many different rights.

This semester I am teaching a class about civil liberties in the United States. While the course is primarily focused on the development and enforcement of law within the United States, the course also counts for my school’s minor in human rights advocacy. One of the primary challenges I am encountering is not integrating current events, but rather trying to teach knowing that some of the topics I am teaching might be radically altered before the semester even ends. Already since taking office President Trump and his administration have repeatedly attacked journalists, stretched the bounds of facts and empirical reality, tried to remove the suffering of the Jewish people from the Holocaust, implemented an executive order banning refugees and immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, questioned voting rights and the legitimacy of the US election, supported anti-LGBTI officials, moved to eliminate crucial environmental protections, and taken steps to further violate indigenous rights. This is not a comprehensive list, and we are nowhere near the 100 day mark of this new administration. While it is likely not all of these changes will remain or be enforced, this certainly creates uncertainty regarding our politics, our rights, and our teaching about these subjects. So how does one teach about even a few of these subjects when faced with so much uncertainty?

It seems that one of the first things we need to do, as educators, is to put these events into historical context. When it is within the area of focus for our classes, we need to be sure to explain where we were, where we are, and how it is that we got to the current (albeit unsettled) position. Knowing where we were, and why we are where we are with respect to what rights are protected (and how) can help us better assess the changes that are coming down from Trump’s administration. Knowing about the history of immigration into the US, and perhaps more importantly the history of restrictions on immigration, allows us to provide the context through which our students can evaluate and assess the changes that are happening. This not only fosters our students’ critical thinking skills, but allows them to see for themselves the malleability of politics and the enforcement (or non-enforcement) of rights protections.

Another way we can aid our students in processing current developments is to highlight the existing institutions and norms surrounding rights and the laws meant to protect these rights. If the much-promised but misleadingly-named First Amendment Defense Act is reintroduced (as Senator Ted Cruz has promised) understanding the history and development of the US’s protections for religion, and the protections from an intermixing of religion and politics, will be important for evaluating the merits of the new law. Knowing about the long, slow development of protections for LGBTI rights in the US, and the work that needs to be done yet to fully protect these rights will also help serve this purpose.

A third element to teaching about rights and politics within the current political climate is to also bring in a broader international focus. The most direct way that many of us reading this post (or the one of us writing it) can do this is by discussing the connections between our extant rights, Trump’s various actions, and human rights. By bringing human rights, international law, and global political developments into the conversation, we can allow our students to see how Trump’s proposals fit not only within current US law and politics, but also past US law and politics, global developments, and a broader human rights regime. What does Trump’ executive order on immigration and refugees do regarding US’s obligations under various treaties? Is this executive order a violation of human rights? What are other countries doing regarding the refugee crisis, as well as in response to Trump’s actions? These are questions that we might not be able to answer for our students, but they are absolutely questions that we can be openly discussing with our students.

Given the uncertainty of how our laws, institutions, and rights protections are changing, there are likely to be more questions than answers in our courses. I think this is something we need to embrace. While we do not (and arguably should not) scrap all of our lesson plans or course content to address what is happening now, we owe it to our students to try to help them process and understand what is happening. We need not lecture to them about our own political views or opinions. We can, however, try to address their concerns, talk about how our courses’ content areas relate to what is happening, and how things might be changing regarding what we are teaching. We can point out where various changes are sharp breaks from our norms, traditions, and laws, and also indicate where other changes are mere policy preferences. We can embrace the uncertainty and our own concerns while trying to guide our students through not only what is happening, but how to find out about what is happening. In a world where we now need to talk about “fake news” and “post-truth” it is important that we arm our students with the tools they need to survive this brave new frontier.