The Elephant in the Norwegian Classroom

Tonight, as I was buying my bus ticket, fumbling with the credit card machine, my luggage and directions, the driver could tell from my accent that I am American. "Which state are you from?" he asked enthusiastically. I told him Vermont, to which he replied, "Ah yes, and your state capital is Montpelier!" I was a bit taken aback that this man in Bodø, a small fishing town above the Arctic circle, knew not only where I am from, but the state capital to boot. "American, huh? That president of yours is having a rough week." I nodded in agreement and knew next question was coming: "So, what do you think of him?"

And so it goes. In almost every single classroom, at dinners with teachers and new friends, and on public transportation, it's the same question everywhere: What do you think of Trump?

Overwhelmingly, Norwegians have a negative view of President Trump. When students ask me what I think, I first ask them about how they think he is portrayed in the Norwegian media. Answers range from "incompetent" to "arrogant", and only occasionally do students cite specific criticisms of his policies. In December 2016 the Norwegian newspaper VG published a cartoon of Trump as a baby in a soiled diaper, pulling at an American flag tablecloth, the a globe atop the table tipping precariously. They imagine a dangerous and unpredictable man in the White House.  With this image looming, Norwegians desperately want to know how and why he appeals to so many Americans, and how he was able to win. More often than not I feel like I fail to deliver a concise explanation. In the words of former rover John Hanson, "Too often I cannot give an answer. Responses I can offer, but answers have been few." 

Parliamentary elections were held in early September here in Norway, and classroom walls displayed the research projects students had done on various candidates- from eight major political parties in all! I asked teachers if they tell their students who they are voting for, and their answers varied. Many said they at least told them how they personally feel about some issues. One teacher replied, "I told my students who I am not voting for." I wrestled with the knowledge of these cultural norms and how they should inform the degree to which I share my views.  

In my teaching job at home I regularly use current events to teach about the past. It's one of my favorite things about teaching: helping students analyze facts to think critically about issues that affect Americans across the political spectrum. I enjoy teaching students to use their knowledge of history and understanding of diplomacy to look for patterns over time. I remind them of checks and balances, requiring that they read primary sources and consider issues from multiple perspectives. Together we compare and contrast documents to identify reflections in attitudes and policies from eras gone by. And I coach students in identifying their own biases, and confront intolerance when it creeps into the classroom. 

But did I tell my American students who I was voting for last November? I did not. A discussion of how I vote has no place in my American classroom. 

But this year is different. In the classes I teach here in Norway I say very clearly, "I did not vote for Donald Trump."  But I side-step the emotion-laden question how do you feel about Trump and I provide my perspective on the policy agenda he proposed and is working toward. If we're going to talk politics, this is the requirement: we stick to the issues. 

Here's the gist of what I say: I did not vote for Trump for several reasons. I'm really concerned about the cost of heathcare in my country. It's just too much and too many people live in fear of getting sick or injured. You might also know that in America college is very expensive and student loan debt is crippling my generation, so I want to vote for a candidate with a plan to make college more affordable. I also want America to be a safe place for minorities and new Americans. Part of what makes America great is that we're a diverse nation of immigrants, and I believe we can continue to allow people from all nations to seek safety and make a home in America in a way that protects our national security and keeps our economy strong. We do not need to build a wall to accomplish that. And I believe that we should work with other nations to find solutions to global problems like climate change and terrorism.

I tell them who I voted for to foster a bigger conversation about the policies that affect Americans because that's just not coming through in Norwegian media.

But it's not an isolated phenomenon. In the 2016 debates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump spent less time discussing policy than Barack Obama and Mitt Romney did in 2012, and they spent less time on the issues than Obama and McCain in 2008. We're satiated by the latest breaking news, and I am afraid that we fail to dig much deeper than soundbites and headlines. Sure, the media has a responsibility to tell the truth, debate moderators must be fair and balanced, but average Americans, myself included, ought to share in the responsibility as well. We control the discourse in our homes, churches, book groups, social media, and yes, even in our classrooms. We can choose to be distracted by the latest superficial scandal, or elevate the issues that undoubtedly will impact our realities. Here, I'm trying to do the latter. 

I've wonder how Senator William J. Fulbright would respond to the questions I'm asked in today's political climate. In returning to the very purpose of this program, as he said it, I think he would support my decision to be candid. 

Educational exchange can turn nations into people, contributing as no other form of communication can to the humanizing of international relations. Man’s capacity for decent behavior seems to vary directly with his perception of others as individual humans with human motives and feelings, whereas his capacity for barbarism seems related to his perception of an adversary in abstract terms, as the embodiment, that is, of some evil design or ideology.

One purpose of this grant is to help Norwegians put a real face to America and add breadth and depth to their understanding of American history. For example, most Norwegian students are surprised to learn that Hillary Clinton actually won the popular vote by over 2.5 million votes! Providing counter narratives has been a crucial role of Fulbrighters since 1949 when the program began, but I think it's critical at this moment in history. We are living in a time when the experience of 300 million could easily be deduced to a headline or a tweet. If we allow the extreme, clickbait-worthy to define us, we are bound to be misunderstood.

Ultimately, this is the beauty of teaching history-- there are rarely answers.  The learning is in the thinking and imagination, in cultivating empathy and practicing critical thinking, which is the very purpose of my workshop on the 2016 Election. In order to think from the perspective of Americans, I have Norwegian students view three campaign videos, one from each of the major candidates, plus Bernie Sanders.

While we watch the videos students consider the following: Who is the video speaking to? What specific issues is the video addressing, and what is the picture of America portrayed by this candidate? What is the tone of each video and how does that impact your feelings toward the candidate?

From there, students do independent research by candidate and issue, in order to think more deeply about why each candidate might be appealing or concerning to Americans from all walks of life. 

To end, I ask students to choose a candidate and write him or her a short letter explaining why he or she would, or would not, get their vote. Below you can scroll through examples of what my Norwegian students have said. 

Still, it can feel strange to discuss my political views so openly with these students. My aim, however, is to present an accurate and balanced portrayal of why each candidate was appealing to Americans, while at the same time being candid and honest about my own experience. All in about an hour and a half. It's not easy.

If you are an American student, colleague, or friend reading this I hope you will help me. Please consider sharing your perspective on the current state of American politics, perhaps more specifically how your personal life experiences shape your views. What policies are concerning you right now? What should our country do about our nation's most pressing problems? How have you been impacted by the 2016 election and the presidency of Donald Trump? I want my work here to reflect a range of American voices, not just my own. Regardless of where you sit on the political spectrum, please, please share if you can.

us.rover@fulbright.no