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Offensive Trump image a learning tool, not propaganda, at Loch Raven High School | COMMENTARY

President Donald Trump arrives for a news conference in New Delhi, India. Republican lawmakers in Baltimore County are upset over a lesson in an AP History class at Loch Raven High School that included images of President Donald Trump and Nazi and communist symbolism.
President Donald Trump arrives for a news conference in New Delhi, India. Republican lawmakers in Baltimore County are upset over a lesson in an AP History class at Loch Raven High School that included images of President Donald Trump and Nazi and communist symbolism.(Doug Mills/The New York Times)

If you listen to some Baltimore County Republican lawmakers, an Advanced Placement history course at Loch Raven High School exposed students to biased propaganda that has no place in any reputable school environment.

Those lawmakers — including Del. Kathy Szeliga, who posted about the incident on Facebook — are highly misguided and turned a potential learning moment into a polarizing political episode.

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The picture that caused the uproar shows President Donald Trump and images of Nazi and communist symbols: a swastika and a hammer and sickle. The sentence “Wants to round up a group of people and build a giant wall” and the phrases “been there” and “done that" are prominent on the image.

The lawmakers and others who criticized use of the picture argue its very existence is pushing a particular political viewpoint and putting children in an uncomfortable position.

“It is horrific. It is educational malfeasance,” Ms. Szeliga said. “What is going on in our the Balt Co Public Schools????" she asked on Facebook.

“A piece of propaganda” that doesn’t belong in a classroom, said Baltimore County Councilman Wade Kach.

The lawmakers are right that the photo was highly controversial and presented President Trump in an unflattering, offensive light. It’s understandable why Trump supporters and others would be turned off by the image. But does it belong in the classroom? It all depends on how it is used.

The Baltimore County School System said the image was not intended to make a political statement, but “was used in the context of teaching skills needed for analysis, discussion, and media literacy. In our AP classes, which are college level courses, we expect and encourage analysis and discussion around historical and current events, even if they are considered controversial."

The image could have been used in a number of ways to talk about the current election, Nazi history and Communist history — all without endorsing the image and what it stands for. It could have led to discussions about the use of social media and memes in the current election, or to a debate about the history of propaganda in politics. Whole courses exist on media images and how certain groups of people have been portrayed over the years. Pictures of blackface are used in African American studies classes to talk about its origins and why it is so offensive. Negative tropes and dog whistle politics are valued topics in university lecture halls for the lessons they provide.

In its statement, the school system said the topics typically covered in the AP history class were: “World Wars and the attempts by some leaders throughout history to limit or prevent migration into certain countries." This photo could certainly spur discussion around those issues.

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It is disingenuous for some to say the AP teacher’s lesson associated Mr. Trump with Nazis, as many did. The image is one thing; the lesson is another.

AP classes are college-level courses meant to make students think deeper and hone their analytical skills by discussing complex and controversial topics. One could easily argue that Mr. Trump and his policies fit the bill. No matter one’s views on the president, there’s no question he is a polarizing figure in the country and the topic of many heated conversations. These are bright kids who should be able to handle such discussions.

If these students choose to major in political science or history in college one day, we guarantee they will be presented with images like this to discuss, analyze and debate. They better be prepared to have tough and uncomfortable discussions. And instructors should be prepared to allow them, without imposing their political views on students.

The College Board oversees Advanced Placement standards and exams, but doesn’t provide curricula, though the school system suggests resources and a framework. The Trump slide was not among the provided material, but it should be understood that good instructors will create lessons that touch on the most current events.

The Baltimore County lawmakers appear to care more about defending the president on a public platform than about the education of the students, who deserve to learn careful analysis of controversial topics, rather than defensive, knee-jerk dismissal of them.

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