The Election, One Year Later: Fear and Mixed Blessings at a Midwestern High School

Anthropologist Max Altman was observing students and educators at a Midwestern high school when the 2016 presidential election occurred. He witnessed firsthand how they responded and followed up this winter to see what had changed in the last year.

Every day in schools across the country, anthropological researchers are at work studying K–12 classrooms. Conducting interviews and observations, these researchers work, according to the American Anthropological Association (AAA), “to advance scholarship on schooling in social and cultural contexts, and on human learning both inside and outside the classroom.” 
Our short article series “The Election, One Year Later” presents excerpts from the findings of four members of the AAA’s Council on Anthropology and Education who were working in schools during or shortly after the 2016 presidential election. This winter, they returned to check back in. These “snapshots,” drawn from their notes, provide an outside view of the election’s effect on students and educators—in the days and weeks after its announcement and in the weeks leading up to the anniversary of the inauguration.

Fall 2016 through January 2017

In an interview in early 2017, a principal told me about her experience bringing voting-age students to the polls in November: “I took a group of kids to vote. It was their first time voting; they were our seniors. … I said, ‘I’m not trying to get political, but do you guys want to talk about the voting or what has happened and things like that?’ And they have a lot of fears. The group I was with, and there was about 12 kids of every ethnic background, was fearful of the new presidency.”

In this mid-sized Midwestern city, this fear was tangible from before the election through the conclusion of my data collection in January 2017. In November … a social studies teacher had used the same word—“fearful”—to sum up her own students’ feelings. If anything, she was understating; when I observed her racially, religiously and politically diverse AP class two days after the election, my sense was that her students were terrified. Gone was the relaxed classroom I had grown used to. In its place were anxious whispers, worries about rights, debates about whether the country was on a path to failure, concerned looks in the direction of a Muslim classmate and questions about basic safety.

… Perhaps part of the reason for the fear I sensed among students was that the new presidency represented the rare occasion when even experienced teachers found themselves struggling to provide guidance. … One teacher told me that in 12 years of classroom experience, he had never before struggled to keep his own political opinions out of his teaching.  “… I have no idea,” he said. “I’ve been fudging it as I go along and it’s getting the kids frustrated, because they’ll say ‘Trump’s a racist.’ And then I’ll feel like I have to say, ‘Well, I mean, let’s stop. You don’t know him; you don’t know what’s in his heart. Give me specific examples …’ And I’ve never had to deal with it like that before. I’m kind of groping in the dark to find ways to build the kind of citizens I think we need and not explicitly say, ‘This guy’s against civil liberties in 13 different ways.’” Another participating teacher was led to question his own politics, telling me in an interview, “I’m a strong Republican, or at least I was until Trump came along.” 

In December, when I asked one of the teachers which social justice issues (the focus of my study) were most relevant in her own classroom, she first mentioned Trump by name and then continued: “The tenets of democracy, of inclusiveness, of civil rights, [are] appearing to be threatened, and what do we do about that? … [I]f you study the constitution, equal opportunity for all, equal rights for all, and there are interest groups that try to infringe upon that … What can we do about that? How can we change it?”


December 2017

About a year after the election of Donald Trump, I asked the teachers and principal I had worked with for their thoughts on the impact of the election and accompanying political climate on their schools and classrooms since our work together last year. At a school level, the principal told me that she had noticed three major differences: the founding of an LGBT club that quickly developed a solid following, an increase in marijuana use among students and an increase in violence. “Discipline in the way of fighting is at its highest in my four years here,” she said. “For three years we made steady declines, but this year we spiked way up.” She was careful to add that she could not directly link these changes to the election, but that she had certainly noticed them since it took place. 

I spoke with two teachers who noted specific differences in their classrooms that they were more ready to attribute directly to the election. … One, who taught social studies, described the first year of the Trump administration as a “mixed blessing”: “… I’ve never had a year where students have been as engaged in the theory and structure of our federal government,” he explained, “but there’s been a darker side to that interest: a level of fear and nervousness in my school that I’ve never seen, and an emboldening of students who now feel comfortable expressing retrograde opinions.”

He elaborated on each of these. In terms of student engagement, he said, the new presidency “has been a godsend.” … However, he told me, “Were these the only effects I see of the Trump presidency, I’d look on all of this as a pretty serendipitous moment that’s produced a more engaged young citizenry. But then I look at what’s happening in the margins of my classroom. When students ask me questions about these current events, there’s a worried edge to them. Many of these questions have an urgent undertone, and the majority of students seem to understand the stakes of the game: ‘Could the president really pardon himself, and short-circuit the justice system?’ ‘Will we end up in a nuclear war?’ In the case of a number of my Hispanic students, ‘Can he really target our family for deportation?’”

… He wrapped up our conversation by discussing a recent classroom event that had greatly troubled him: A student had publicly questioned whether the Holocaust had taken place. …
He elaborated: “In 14 years of teaching—much of which has been spent teaching classes dealing with World War II—I’d never, ever had a student deny the Holocaust happened. I found myself wondering over the weeks since, how many other students over the years have also questioned it, but just not felt bold enough to actually say it? This one event has stuck with me, day in, day out, since it happened. I’m still not sure which upsets me more: the fact that kids think this, or the fact that they now feel comfortable enough to say it out loud.”

Altman holds a Ph.D. in Education Policy, Leadership and Innovation. A researcher at McREL international, Altman has taught at both the high school and the college level.