By: Jamie M. Gregory
The 2016 Oxford Dictionaries word of the year was “post-truth.” Oxford Dictionaries defines post-truth (adjective) as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” It is most often seen paired with the noun politics, signifying growing irrelevance and distrust.
In an age of increasing rejection of mainstream and established sources of information (see: human influence on climate change, anti-vaccine communities, “fake news”), educators are struggling to teach critical thinking skills. How does society learn to distinguish facts from opinions in a post-truth society? There is still a need to clearly distinguish truth from falsehood, of course. But how to teach these thinking skills in public schools is not an easy choice when faced with backlash from parents and administrators, paired with the Trump administration’s increasing attacks on mainstream media, making long-established credible sources of information appear fake, even dangerous.
Teachers and school librarians may be more wary of the materials they make available to students in classrooms and school libraries, not wanting to appear biased, cause complaints, or even be censored by school officials.
Being interested in intellectual freedom in school libraries, I was delighted to receive a copy of Unpresidented: a Biography of Donald Trump (Starred review, School Library Journal, Winter 2018) by Martha Brockenbrough at the ALA Midwinter Meeting this past January in Seattle, WA. I’d read reviews and was intrigued by her factual approach to providing young readers with a broad view of President Trump’s life in an attempt to provide context for current events. As she writes in the forward, “My hope is this book gives readers a broad and deep understanding of Donald Trump and his place in the past and present, an understanding that is both fair and accurate.” I recently interviewed Brockenbrough as a way to exemplify this post-truth struggle in education and school libraries, particularly in terms of politics. Below are excerpts from our conversation, which have been edited for length.
Did it feel overwhelming to take on a project like Trump’s biography, particularly for young people?
Writing any biography is a major undertaking. The central task is to understand the person’s life in its totality, and to distill a coherent, true, readable account. Writing one for young readers adds a layer; the key here is to provide the context that makes a life resonant for people who don’t have quite as much life experience. The challenge for me was to keep track of new developments, which happened daily, and to see how they fit with his long-term patterns. To do this, I used a giant spreadsheet of events, noting my sources of information. My goal was to create something that would still be relevant in 20 years’ time.
Did you feel like it was particularly important to include as many endnotes as you did because of the intensified “fake news” phenomenon created by this presidency?
My Alexander Hamilton biography was also extensively footnoted. Not quite as many as the Trump book, which has more than 1,400. But I am all about transparency of sources, and I absolutely want readers to know where they can go to find more information. […] Here, I want people to continue believing in such a thing as facts. Trust in this is the entire basis of the social construct. There is no rational discussion without a shared set of facts, and it is absolutely possible to establish one. It is evil to pretend no such thing exists. There is no factual relativism. And while reasonable people are sometimes misinformed, goodwill can correct this. Disinformation, on the other hand—something we are seeing happen today—is a tool of tyrants.
The “fake news” charges Trump levels against the media are devastating. As I mention in the last chapter of the book, this is straight from the playbook of Hitler and Stalin. Just writing this is uncomfortable. But it is also a fact. The courageous response to uncomfortable facts is not to deny them, but to accept them and then decide how to respond.
In the book, you spend a good deal of space defining and providing examples of disinformation, misinformation, propaganda, and the drawbacks of human intelligence—how do you think teachers can address these issues with students in such a divisive political climate without appearing biased?
Bias is NOT talking about these things. Here we have someone (and his enablers) trying to redefine reality. So talking about this looks like a biased act, but it isn’t.
And as long as we stick to factual information, we can do this without worrying about what people are saying about us. This is what courage looks like. It’s doing what you know to be right and letting people have whatever opinions they will have. And optimism is about believing that facts matter, that there is such a thing as truth.
Practically speaking, though, a lot of teachers can’t do this. But they can certainly bring up Hitler’s words. They can certainly quote Stalin. They can certainly show these patterns in history. They can read the works of experts like Timothy Snyder. Students will be able to draw their own conclusions, which is what we want, anyway.
Have any teachers or librarians shared with you stories of censorship related to President Trump? Or reluctance to engage in learning about and discussing the presidency?
I’ve encountered a fair amount of this, starting with reviews. The New York Times, for example, included it in a roundup of “political” books. All of the others were picture books, which as we know are meant for a much younger audience. The reviewer lamented the existence of the book and wished it could have been more positive, and something that explained how we got to this point. That’s all good and well, but without telling young readers truthfully where we are, why should they be interested in how we got here? This is an example of wishful thinking on the part of adults. We wish we didn’t have a president who lied. Who said outrageous things about people of color. Who described white supremacists carrying torches and shouting racist and anti-Semitic slurs as “very fine people.” And yet, these are the facts, and I believe young people—many of whom will be voting for the first time in 2020—deserve to know them. That it makes adults uncomfortable is irrelevant. I serve young readers. I don’t want to coddle grownups.
I also had a librarian reach out to me personally saying some of her colleagues opposed adding it to the collection because it was “political.” This is a factual book. It is a negative portrayal of Trump. That’s what the facts warrant. Let’s not politicize reality.
On the flip side, before the book came out, I was in Virginia at a book festival. I had a copy of the book and I showed it to an audience of hundreds of middle schoolers. Hands shot up. They asked me earnestly to read it to them, and I did read some excerpts. These kids are hungry for the truth.
What do you hope young people learn after reading your book?
I hope they learn the difference between image and reality. Trump has an image of being a successful businessman. But by objective measures (his performance vs the rest of his industry), he is not. I hope they learn to trust factual information so that they can make a reliable, supportable judgment.
I had a school visit canceled this week because some administrators were worried UNPRESIDENTED might offend some of their “constituents.”
— Martha Brockenbrough UNPRESIDENTED (@mbrockenbrough) April 17, 2019
In the process of this interview, Brockenbrough received word that a scheduled school visit had been cancelled. The school librarian reported that the school administration felt she would be an inappropriate visiting author, and that Unpresidented may offend some of the district’s constituents (Brockenbrough has written 9 books, including books for young adults such as Alexander Hamilton, Revolutionary [Starred review, School Library Journal] and The Game of Love and Death [a Top Ten Book of the Year for Kirkus and Publishers Weekly]. She also provides writers’ workshops to students). Brockenbrough responded:
“There is nothing in the book that is an unsupported fact. So, schools need to decide whether facts are too uncomfortable for them to teach. That really is a community value. I know I believe kids need accurate information, but not every adult working in service to young people does.”
She dedicated Unpresidented in part to “the Parkland Generation: You know what to do.” Coincidentally, the 2017 word of the year was “youthquake: a significant cultural, political or social change arising from the actions or influence of young people.”
Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media working in her 6th year as a school librarian at James F. Byrnes High School in Duncan, SC. Previously she taught high school English and French for 8 years. Her academic interests include book censorship and academic freedom in K-12 schools, inquiry-based learning, information literacy, and literacy in high school classrooms. She is an active member of the South Carolina Association of School Librarians serving as the 2019-2020 Chair of the South Carolina Book Award committees. When she is not reading or researching, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two sons cooking, traveling, playing board games, and going to Iron Maiden concerts. Find her on Twitter @gregorjm.