The Miseducation of the White Man: How Our Education System Failed White Voters

Reflections on the 2016 election by a former kindergarten teacher.

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My first job after college was teaching kindergarten. For a decade I worked as a kindergarten teacher and then as an elementary school principal. Now I am a professor charged with preparing teachers and administrators.

The 2016 presidential election is the first time that every one of my approximately 2,000 former K-12 students are of legal voting age. Roughly half of these students are white. That means at least a thousand of my white former students will join the more than 95 million white voters who voted in 2012 and might again this year.

But polls show that a great many white people (more men than women) support GOP candidate Donald Trump’s racism, xenophobia, misogyny and hatefulness, leading me to wonder, how is it that so many of our white citizens have missed essential parts of their education?

As an educator, I believe that there’s a greater need for soul-searching, that we must go deeper than simply seeing those who hold racist, xenophobic or misogynistic views as “stupid,” or only blaming the Republican Party (deserving of much blame) for this crisis. There is a troubling tendency by many Trump haters, myself included, to avoid taking responsibility for the many ways that we may have contributed to this Trump phenomenon. As someone who believes that children and adults can learn, and that education can be the most powerful tool against hate, this moment has given me pause.

In this moment, our nation is showing an increasingly hostile climate for immigrants and refugees. Our Muslim community experiences rampant Islamophobia and discrimination. Trump threatens to jail his political opponent and refuses to accept the results of the election unless he wins. Millions of our white citizens (more men than women) who graduated from our schools seem not to understand the following:

  • The basic principle of this nation is that every single person in this country who is not of 100 percent Native American descent comes from immigrant (by choice or force) or refugee families.
  • One of the central reasons for founding the U.S. was the idea and practice of religious freedom.
  • One of the cornerstones of our democracy is the peaceful transfer of power.

I wonder, where have we failed in teaching our white students social studies?

We are witnessing a growing disregard for science—natural and social sciences. When a scientific community is largely in agreement over climate change, how do millions of our white citizens (more men than women) who graduated from our schools appear not to understand the value and basic principles of scientific research?

Politicians, pundits and citizens alike make claims that do not resemble anything that can be factually verified. Millions of our white citizens (more men than women) who graduated from our schools appear to disregard the difference between fact and fiction. I ask myself, how can we do better in teaching science or critical literacy to our white students?

In recent decades, science and social studies have been relegated to diminishing parts of the daily school schedule, resulting in less and less time devoted to these subjects, particularly for young children. Covering content and memorizing facts have been prized over developing critical literacy skills used to investigate the world around us. Is the diminished role of science and social studies, or the methods we use to teach them, partly to blame for the miseducation of the white man?

We are also witnessing a critical moment in our nation around issues of sexual violence. Yet millions of our white citizens (again, more men than women) who graduated from our schools appear to dismiss sexual assault as just “locker-room talk” or “boys will be boys,” and oppose it only in the name of the women in their lives. What kind of values does someone who dismisses sexual assault possess? Sexual violence is not wrong because I have a sister or a daughter; sexual violence is wrong (period). I am left asking, how could we do better teaching our white students values or building their character?

For decades, there has been much public finger-pointing about the problems with the “values” and the “character” of students and communities of color, with no discussion of questionable values found in scores of white people. For decades, character development has been taught in schools as a list of prescribed ideas for children to adopt—“say no to drugs,” “abstinence only,” “work hard,” “be nice,” etc.—instead of as the process of building an authentic community where children discover the need for such values as part of a moral compact with fellow humans.

Decades of rolling back school-desegregation efforts have left more and more white students, white families and white communities devoid of the immense societal, social and academic benefits of living and learning in multiracial, economically diverse schools. Are the ways that we segregate our schools and our approach to character education part of the miseducation?

I know that the best teachers are loving demanders who get students, regardless of age, to deeply engage in content, to question and reflect on that content while working with, listening to and appreciating other people who do not look, think or pray like them. When we relegate subjects to the margins—science, social studies, art, music, etc.—we leave wrestling with critical questions about who we are and why we are here as a luxury of the “liberal elite” and not the work of the masses. As we spend increasing time in racially and culturally homogeneous, like-minded echo chambers, we distance ourselves and our children from the full benefits of a pluralistic democracy.

I know that part of what we are seeing in this election is millions of people reacting to their experiences of feeling left behind and threatened. Yet I learned, while teaching kindergarten, that our educational institutions succeed when we develop an authentic sense of love and belonging in each student.

The kindergarten teacher in me can’t help seeing the words of Carter Woodson’s 1933 Miseducation of the Negro in relation to our white students today: “The mere imparting of information is not education. … The only question which concerns us here is whether these ‘educated’ persons are actually equipped to face the ordeal before them or unconsciously contribute to their own undoing.” Sometime between attending kindergarten and crossing the graduation stage, we failed to equip enough white men for our increasingly diverse society. As I think about my former students heading to vote this November, I am hoping that we didn’t miseducate them too much.

George Theoharis is a professor and the department chair of the teaching and leadership department at Syracuse University. He was previously associate dean for Urban Education Partnerships.

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