High School Literature: The Trump Syllabus

7 Examples that Connect High School Literature to Trump's Politics

Literature read in English class may be more relevant to the news in politics today
Literature read in English class may be more relevant to the news in politics today.

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On May 18th, 2017, in response to questions about contacts between 2016 presidential campaign officials and Russian officials, President Trump posted the following tweet: 

"This is the single greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!" 7:52 AM - 18 May 2017

Leaving partisanship aside, teachers can use this tweet in the classroom to make the study of Arthur Miller's play The Crucible more timely. The play, originally written by Miller in 1953, uses the concept of a "witch hunt" as an allegory for the politics associated with McCarthyism. The Cold War of the 1950s was a time when the United States government investigated Americans and their ties to Communism using the  Committee on Un-American Activities created by the House of Representatives. 

Students can decide if the term "witch hunt" as used by President Trump has a different meaning today because as political situations change, the reading of the play may also change.

Using literature in this way can help shed light on today's political climate for students of all ages. From the works of Shakespeare to the essays of John Steinbeck, there are a great number of fictional works that can provide insight into the presidency in a way that the historical perspective of social studies cannot. The novelist E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime, The March) noted in a 2006 interview for TIME magazine that, "The historian will tell you what happened, [but] the novelist will tell you what it felt like.” Teaching students how to develop their feelings, especially an empathy for others, is the role of literature. 

The titles below are usually taught in grades 7-12. The list includes suggestions on how teachers might connect these literary texts to connect to the political events of today. 

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Shakespeare's "Macbeth"

Macbeth book cover

Macbeth, or The Scottish play, covers themes that are familiar to readers of Shakespeare: love, power, regret. One theme, however, is particularly strong—the theme of ambition and its merits or dangers.

Key Quotes: 

  • "To prick the sides of my intent, but only
    Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself
    And falls on th' other" (1.7.25-28)
  • "They have tied me to a stake. I cannot fly,
    But, bearlike, I must fight the course" (5.7.1-2)

Questions for classroom discussion: 

  • Think about some mistakes you’ve noticed the politicians of today make? How have you noticed them either successfully “vault” a crisis or “fall” as a result? 
  • In what ways are Macbeth and President Trump similar? Different? 
  • Is ambition a good driving force for a political? Why or why not? 

Recommended for: Grades 10-12. 

of 07

Margaret Atwood's "The Handmaid's Tale"

The Handmaid's Tale Book Cover

The material in The Handmaid's Tale is for senior high school students only as the events in the novel require mature readers. The novel includes descriptions of gruesome group executions, prostitution, book burnings, enslavement, and polygamy.

The novel is set in a future America and features the audio recordings of her protagonist, Offred, who describes how the women of this fictional society lost their rights.

Key Quotes: 

  • "This might not seem ordinary to you right now. But, after a time, it will. This will become ordinary" (33).
  • “When we think of the past it's the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that” (41).
  • “Better never means better for everyone... It always means worse, for some” (211).

Questions for classroom discussion: 

  • What examples can you suggest of extraordinary events from the past that have become ordinary over time? 
  • Atwood setting of this conservative sect is on the Harvard University campus. What might be Atwood's reason for setting the action on this "elite" liberal arts institution?
  • A number of signs at the Women's March in January of 2017 stated "Make Margaret Atwood fiction again". What political proposals from the Trump Administration have created such concerns? 
  • According to the author Margaret Atwood, "I didn’t put anything into the book that has not happened sometime, somewhere." Research when and where events in history connect to events in the novel. Predict whether these events could happen.

Recommended for: Grade 12

of 07

T.S.Eliot's "Murder in the Cathedral"

Murder in the Cathedral book cover

T. S. Eliot’s play Murder in the Cathedral centers on the murder of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, (1170 CE). The murder was initiated by his friend, King Henry II. Popular belief is that King Henry uttered words that were interpreted by his knights as wishing to have Becket killed.

While his exact words are in doubt, Eliot uses the most common accepted version in the play, "Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?" 

At the end of the play, Eliot has the knights defend their actions as being for the best. With Becket gone, the Church's power would not exceed the power of the state.

Historically, however, Henry II's removal of Becket backfired and the king had to confess and do penance publicly.

Third Priest: "For ill or good, let the wheel turn.
For who knows the end of good or evil?" (18)
Becket: "Human kind cannot bear very much reality" (69)

Questions for classroom discussion: 

  • Debate the statement that "Human kind cannot bear very much reality"? What does human kind prefer to reality? What evidence can you find for your opinion?
  • In what ways could the impulsive behavior of Henry II be compared to the actions of politicians who remove "turbulent" figures in recent history? Consider:
    • President Nixon's firing of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox in 1973, called the Saturday Night Massacre, during the Watergate crisis;
    • The removal of the FBI Director James Comey by President Trump in May 2017.
  • In several speeches, President Trump has referred to terrorists as "evil losers in life." What is your definition of evil?
  • Debate whether (as the Third Priests asks in the play) there can be an end to "evil" in the wold.

Recommended for grades 11 and 12.

of 07

F. Scott Fitzgerald's & "The Great Gatsby"

Great Gatsby book cover

The Great Gatsby, one of the great American novels, captures the contradictions that are tied to the American dream, with its magic and its emptiness.

Fitzgerald's hero is Jay Gatz, known as Gatsby, whose money is suspect , coming from his affiliations with gamblers and bootleggers. Gatsby's newfound wealth allows him to throw extravagant parties as he pursues the married Daisy Buchanan, his childhood sweetheart.

While not overtly political, Fitzgerald's metaphor at the end of the novel could be used to illustrate how the public or the electorate waits expectantly for the promises of their politicians:

Key quotes:

  • “Can’t repeat the past?…Why of course you can!” (117)
  • "....the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And then one fine morning-    So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (180).

Questions for Discussion:

  • How does Gatsby's statement about the ability to "repeat the past" compare to Donal J. Trump's campaign slogan, "Make America Great Again"? Do you think Gatsby would agree or disagree with Trump?
  • Is the American Dream within reach for everyone? Prioritize the factors that you believe are most important for someone to achieve the American Dream.

This novel is recommended for grades 10-12.

of 07

Shakespeare's "Julius Ceasar"

Julius Caesar book cover

The most recent machinations of both political parties in Congress can be seen through the lens of Shakespeare's political play Julius Caesar. This play is a popular choice for high school students in grade 10 or grade 11 who are also taking a civics course.

Shakespeare portrayed the general population as often ill-informed or politically immature. I This can also be an opportunity for a politician who has the ability to control a crowd and promote a position or idea.

For example, the contrasting speeches after Caesar's assassination between Brutus (Caesar was a tyrant ) and Marc Anthony (Caesar was an advocate) highlight how easily a crowd of people can be manipulated through language, taking them into a full blown riot.

The play is ripe with reports of conspiracies on both sides, of leaks, of betrayals. Those who are determined to bring down the mighty Caesar in the play are obsessive as evidenced when the Senator Cassius describes Caesar in hyperbole:

"Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs, and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves"

Other key quotes:

  • "Men at some time are masters of their fates. The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars But in ourselves, that we are underlings." (I.2.139-141)
  • "The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones; So let it be with Caesar." (3.2.79-83)

Questions for classroom discussion:

  • There are three ways to seize power: inherit, conquest, or usurpation. What evidence supports  the consequences for each? How do these ways compare with America's democratic elections?
  • Does Shakespeare's view of the general public as a large group that is easily manipulated still ring true today?
  • In this play, the crowd riots and quickly descends into violence. Debate this question: Is there an increase of violence brought about by political beliefs or is our awareness of violence increased? 
  • What politicians today use the strategies of Brutus in their speeches? What politicians today do you think use the strategies of Marc Anthony in their speeches? Which of the two strategies do you think is more successful for today, and why? 
  • What do you think Shakespeare means in giving Cassius the line, "The fault lies in ourselves"? Do you think President Trump would agree with Shakespeare? What evidence supports your position?
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George Orwell "1984" or Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World"

1984 book cover

Immediately after the Presidential Election of 2017, there was an uptick in the sales of two distinguished political novels1984 (1949) by George Orwell as well as Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley. Both of these 20th Century novels predict dystopian futures where the government's control over peoples' lives becomes nightmarish. 

Both 1984 or Brave New World are often included as selections in English curriculum. Despite their origins as mid 20th Century novels, their themes can be connected to trending political matters.

Key Quotes:

  • "Accompanied by a campaign against the Past; by the closing of museums, the blowing up of historical monuments... by the suppression of all books published before A.F. 15O.''(Brave New World, 188)
  • "But that's the price we have to pay for stability. You've got to choose between happiness and what people used to call high art. We've sacrificed the high art." (Brave New World, 28)
  • "The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command" (1984, 5).
  •  “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength” (1984, 6)
  • “Doublethink means the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them” (1984, 214).
  • "If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—forever" (1984, 267)

Questions for Discussion:

  • What promises from the 2016 presidential campaign could you offer to support the statement that there will always be a "price for stability" (Brave New World)? 
  • Analyze the role of the social media in rejecting the "evidence of your ears and eyes" in the novel. Analyze the role of social media in rejecting or accepting the "evidence of your ears and eyes" in real life. (Brave New World)? 
  • What criteria would you apply to examine what is "fake news"? How does the term "doublespeak" compare/contrast to the term "fake news" ? (Brave New World)? 
  • What current events contain the types of contradictions that you can use to compare to the quote:  “War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.” (1984)
  • How accurate are the predictions in either novel to real events today? (1984)
  • Do you imagine the future will be like a "boot stamping on a human face?" Why or why not? (1984)

These novels recommended for Grades 9-12.

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John Steinbeck's speech "America and Americans" (grades 7-12)

America and Americans book cover

Students may be most familiar with John Steinbeck's social politics through his novel Of Mice and Men. His 1966 essay America and Americans, however,  shows more clearly the contradictions that sometimes dominate politics. Every election cycle, politicians call attention to the damage done to American democracy by political opponents while at the same time praising the effectiveness of American democracy. 

Steinbeck captures these contradictions in the essay in his thesis: that Americans balance their values.

Key Quotes:

  • "We proudly insist that we base our political positions on the issues —and we will vote against a man because of his religion, his name or the shape of his nose..."
  • ". . . we seem to be in a state of turmoil all the time, both physically and mentally. We are able to believe that our government is weak, stupid, overbearing, dishonest, and inefficient, and at the same time we are deeply convinced that it is the best government in the world, and we would like to impose it on everyone else." 

Questions for Discussion:

  • How much of Steinbeck's "state of turmoil" in 1966 can be seen today?
  • Much was made of President Kennedy being a Catholic in 1960. How did religion complicate campaigns of presidential candidates in the past? What factor does religion play today in presidential elections?
  • Would Steinbeck agree with Trump to make America "great again"?
  • What examples are there in current events  to support Steinbeck's accusation that Americans "will vote against a man because of his religion, his name or the shape of his nose"?

An adapted version can be used at multiple grade levels. 

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Bennett, Colette. "High School Literature: The Trump Syllabus." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/trump-presidency-high-school-literature-4140604. Bennett, Colette. (2021, February 16). High School Literature: The Trump Syllabus. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/trump-presidency-high-school-literature-4140604 Bennett, Colette. "High School Literature: The Trump Syllabus." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/trump-presidency-high-school-literature-4140604 (accessed March 8, 2021).