It’s an interesting day in politics to be an English teacher.
“No matter how good I do on something, they’ll never write good,” Trump said of the New York Times.
Social media has been abuzz, mocking Trump for his poor grammar, largely quoting him out of context as simply saying of the newspaper, “They don’t write good.”
I’m an English teacher who grew up with a father who quit school in fifth grade and spoke with a heavy Appalachian dialect. I didn’t learn to speak Standard English until I made the decision in college to become an English teacher. But, thankfully, my teachers recognized that I could think. I’ve known many smart, clear thinking people who don’t necessarily follow the rules of grammar when they are speaking off the cuff, as Trump was. While I find humor in Trump’s comments, I could, perhaps, forgive his grammatical errors.
I’m far more concerned about a larger issue that has gone mostly unnoticed in the laughter about his usage. Taken in its whole context, Trump’s message seems to be that even when he does good things, the media refuses to write about those things. But this was definitely a case where the errors obscured his meaning.
Any English teacher worth her salt learns to focus first on whether a student is clearly expressing his thoughts before using the red pen to mark all the errors. While grammar is important, the ability to think clearly and convey those thoughts coherently is the primary purpose of language.
Measured by that standard, Trump has considerable work to do.
Hillary, too, was in the news today. In reporting on how Clinton developed her economic plan, Washington Post economics reporter Jim Tankersly describes the thoroughness with which she does her homework. She constantly reads a vast range of research on the economy, discusses what she’s read with a host of economists, and asks pointed questions to be sure she understands all the factors affecting the economy. And in preparing for this election, only after doing the background work did she draft an economic policy—one that is nuanced and detailed. And, as any good English teacher will appreciate, she sought feedback from a wide range of economists and revised her plan based on their feedback before she presented it to the voters. Of the process, Tankersly says, “The effort amounted to a research project.”
Reading these two stories today reminds me of my tenth graders, who were required to research an issue and write an objective paper exploring the complexities of the issue. Once they understood the complexities, they wrote and delivered an argument, taking a stance based on what they’d learned. My team and I stressed to students throughout the process that the best arguments—and the most difficult ones to write—are those that lie not at the two extremes but those that recognize the many varied factors that cause these issues to be a problem in the first place.
When I compare Trump and Clinton, I’m reminded of just how much we demand of teenagers—holding them to a standard that many adults haven’t achieved. Hillary reminds me of the students who reveled in the research before writing a clear and thorough paper and a convincing argument. But these are not always the students whose delivery draws their audience into their enthusiasm for the issue.
Trump, on the other hand, reminds me of nothing so much as the loudmouth students who loved the attention of standing in front of the class but rarely put much effort into preparing for that moment. Their essays were poorly researched, and though they were tasked with exploring complexities, their papers leaned heavily toward the opinion they had when they began the paper. And when they stood before the class to deliver their speeches, any astute English teacher would recognize almost immediately the lack of substance in their arguments.
Many of my students, too, would see through such bluster and challenge such speakers’ thinking. But sometimes a few students were swayed because the speakers voiced their opinions with such passion and such utter certainty that their perspective was the “right” one.
Because they were young and still learning the power of rhetoric, I rarely had a student who was gifted at every aspect of this assignment. The perfect combination of a well-read, clear-thinking student with the charisma to sway the entire audience was rare.
I don’t doubt that Hillary is often the smartest, clearest thinker in the room, but she doesn’t have the charisma of Kennedy, Reagan, or Obama.
But Donald Trump has none of these qualities. He is the windbag blusterer who intimidates people into agreeing with him or keeping silent. And, sadly, those bullies sometimes win in the short-term.
I hope that will not be the case in November. So now that our journalists have had a little fun with their red pens, let’s talk about what really matters. Given the choice we have in this election, I’ll go with the girl who does her homework.