In Why Read the Classics? one of Italo Calvino’s definitions of what makes a work a classic is that it is a “book which has never exhausted all it has to say to its readers.” When it comes to books and films that have yet to exhaust all they have to say to readers about the 2016 elections, a few come to mind.
Does this story sound familiar? A candidate rides a wave of popular support into office only to immediately encounter significant obstacles. While this might sound a lot like the current administration’s dilemma, it’s also a central conflict in one of Shakespeare’s plays.
Here are some other classic themes that sound like they’re straight from today’s campaign coverage. A candidate promises to redistribute wealth by changing tax laws on corporations and the rich. A society allows civil liberties to be slowly eroded, to the point where individual privacy is ultimately sacrificed for security. Government leaders advocate torture as an acceptable practice, not only inflicted on enemies but on citizens alike. Foreigners are vilified.
I understand that we teachers can be reluctant to discuss politics in our classrooms, but sometimes we forget that a lot of books and movies that have stood the test of time provide natural segues to contemporary political issues.
Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar tells the story of a leader who, after a huge victory, rides a wave of popular support but must soon deal with other officials who feel that Caesar is overstepping his powers. Shakespeare leaves it open to interpretation whether Caesar’s opponents are feeling slighted, themselves simply hungry for power, or whether they really do think they have the interests of their country at heart. The 1953 film adaptation of the play was nominated for multiple Academy Awards.
George Orwell’s 1984 details a society where an individual’s privacy is constantly under surveillance by the government, torture is legal, leaders are extremists, and xenophobia is rampant. In Politics and the English Language, Orwell argued that “political writing is bad writing…. the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy.” A careful examination of a candidate from any party or any elected official’s language is another way for students to improve their own writing by finding the faults Orwell identified decades ago.
Advise and Consent was the 1960 Pulitzer Prize winning novel whose title was based on Article II of the Constitution: “[the president] shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consults, Judges of the Supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States.” Although the conflict in this novel is set during actual confirmation hearings (and not about whether to actually hold confirmation hearings), it still resonates today.
Other books and film adaptations are at least in part inspired by Huey Long, a former presidential candidate who has been viewed by some as a champion of the poor but by others as a demagogue. The goals of the Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements at least in part align with Long’s “Share Our Wealth” program that advocated for a redistribution of wealth through reforms that would restructure taxes on corporations and the rich so that the poor and working class aren’t unfairly burdened by taxes. Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (winner of both the Pulitzer in 1947 and the Academy Award for best picture in 1949) and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here both have populist candidates who are enthusiastically embraced by an adoring electorate, yet both turn out to be less than ideal public servants. In Lewis’s novel a newly-elected president promises to return America to its traditional values and renewed sense of patriotism but instead becomes a dictator.
Much of the electorate this season is dissatisfied with the establishment, and candidates who promise something different are getting a lot of traction. Both Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Peter Sellers in Being There play similar roles.
These movies, books, and multimedia also allow for cross curricular connections. For example while social studies teachers are discussing the political significance of a candidate debate in their classes, ELA teachers can have their students analyze the rhetorical strategies in that same debate using an application like Hypothes.is. Looking at this speech through the lens of two different perspectives can deepen students’ knowledge.
Another resource to explore is the Letters to the Next President 2.0 initiative, co-hosted by KQED and National Writing Project. This effort to mobilize youth voices around the 2016 presidential election offers a rich array of informational texts, curriculum, and media-making activities designed to foster civic engagement, informed argument writing, and critical thinking about the political process.
If one of the goals of schooling is citizenship, then we should provide our students numerous opportunities to examine political language. Especially now.