November 8, 2016 solidified my dislike of Twitter and the dissolution of our societal discourse to 140 characters or less. Donald Trump settled on a slogan with just about 25 characters, which slogan ended up carrying the day with almost half of all Americans — enough to win him the American Presidency. “Make America Great Again” is a slogan that resonated with my five year old who had become a fluent reader by this election cycle. He read yard signs and bumper stickers and asked me many times, “Mommy, why don’t you want to make America great again?” So I have spent the past many months, attempting to dive into a conversation with my five year old son that helps him understand that “great” is a subjective word. Now, for a five year old this is almost like trying to say “it depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”. (Yes, I too think that period was close to a nadir in our presidential history.)
My point is that for many people, young and old, “great” has a clear and very positive visceral meaning. Unless we sharpen critical thinking skills and prioritize understanding of subjectivity and perspective in how we educate, we will lose the ability collectively to think critically in the face of distilled “slogan” discourse. And this is partly the fault of American education (though the rest of the world is doing no better.) American education has been distilled to teaching reading, writing, math and coding (which is just another way of writing!!) These are not supposed to be what we teach by Elementary and beyond. . .these are merely foundational tools. Alone they shouldn’t really be given more weight than teaching typing or keyboarding! We need to be teaching history as a study in ideas and human reactions, geography as an influencer in human reaction, science as an issue of human partnership with the natural world that sustains us, engineering as a reflection on differences between human and machine, etc. But, look at a typical 4th or 5th grade class schedule these days. Reading, writing and math is what you will see. We are not providing children the ability to think critically about a slogan like “Make America Great Again”. . .which means we cannot take for granted that adults will be able to think critically about it.
I acknowledge that Donald Trump had an economic message behind “great” that resonated with many Americans. For example, as an entrepreneur I agree that ObamaCare is a disaster for many of us, imposing staggering burdens on employers and employees alike. I do think that Americans have for some time been the hardest working people in the world and I know that many of us don’t feel like we have much to show for it.
However, economics is not the only “race” Donald Trump ran. He ran a race that attacked my very definition of America. Regardless of his intentions, he made statements fostering a culture of contempt and fear for a host of ethnicities. For those of us who see America as the land of opportunity and freedom, historically and far into the future, his ends do not justify his means. Even if his rhetoric changes — and it will — he cannot disclaim responsibility for the images and rhetoric by which he defined a “great America” for almost half of Americans. Those beliefs may long outlast a Donald Trump presidency.
Don’t get me wrong. . .even while I founded and run a school that teachers Arabic, Mandarin and Spanish language and culture, I am as much of an American patriot as they come. Toby Keith’s American soldier gets me every time . . .I turn it way up in the car and I tear up to its refrain of “Freedom don’t come free. . .When Liberty’s in Jeopardy, I’ll always do what’s right. . . .” Here’s the thing, though. . “freedom”, a noun, might be as subjective a word as the adjective “great.”
Right now most schools in America might teach children to identify the “noun” and the “adjective”. I am proud to stand with a group of teachers who feel the burden of creating a generation of students who can convincingly expound upon the subjectivity of the word “freedom.” We won’t get there without teaching children independence and perspective thinking from Kindergarten onwards. I don’t care whether they become Democrats or Republicans. . .in fact, if we teach them well, I hope they split roughly 50-50 but I just can’t stomach a generation of slogan voters. Reading and writing are important tools because they open a child’s ability to independently dive into a world of information but to fully understand what I mean when I say reading and writing are just tools, remember this: Reading alone, as my five year old showed me, can allow you to be quite satisfied and convinced by a 4 word slogan. That slogan is already reshaping the world.
Kristen Mansharamani is Founder and Executive Head of School at Torit Montessori School in Boston, MA. She holds a BA in Ethics, Politics and Economics from Yale University and a JD from Harvard Law School. She practiced public finance and corporate litigation prior to opening Torit.