How my students gave me hope in the aftermath of Trump's victory

Curt Rice's election night party turned sour, but the morning after provided much-needed reassurance

November 29, 2016
Anti-Trump demonstrators holding placard
Source: Getty/Sonja Balci – HiOA

The university I lead in Norway hosted the traditional “Americans in Oslo” election night party this year and with it, we brought together several hundred engaged Americans and Norwegians to celebrate a great democracy and the peaceful transfer of power. 

With our election night event, we took an educational approach and had a series of seminars leading up to the day, as well as a series of lectures and debates on the night. 

It was a great party, full of energy, with American food, drinks, music and even cheerleaders. Democrats, Republicans and Independents were all present. It seemed like half of Norway’s government was there, too. We were on national television many times throughout the night and we in turn were glued to the US stations being broadcast throughout the venue. 

It’s six hours later in Oslo than Orlando, so we knew we were in for a long night.

The event by tradition would end with breakfast and congratulatory speeches to the winner. For half the night, we jokingly said: “May the best woman win.” By the time breakfast rolled around, however, the shock was mounting. 

I spent the rest of that day trying to convince myself that I’m in the business of hope, with the idea that such a belief might give me a path to feeling it myself. But it was hard. 

I mean, education is about hope. That’s not difficult to believe. Education lifts people out of poverty. Education creates the middle class that is so dominant in Norway and so threatened in the US.

Education moves societies forward. We need more education and better education. We need it to have highly skilled professionals who can improve the standard of living in our country and our world. 

When I think like that, I can convince myself that education does create hope: hope for individuals, dreams for their families, the promise of betterment for society. 

But on 9 November, as I left our breakfast event, I just couldn’t find it. I couldn’t find hope or dreams. I had just witnessed the ambassador of the US making a speech in which he felt it necessary to reassure those present that good relations between the US and Norway would continue. I had just heard a prominent American guest say privately to me: “You’re lucky; you have a permanent job here.” 

This isn’t the language of “business as usual”. It isn’t the language of “this, too, shall pass”. It’s instead the language of deep concern, and maybe even fear and angst. 

As I left that breakfast meeting, I went down the stairs from our grand ballroom, which is in a building that houses our Faculty of Education and International Studies, and I walked towards the door out to the heart of our campus. 

On my way out, I met dozens of students on their way in, headed to the first class of the day. A flock of 20-year-olds who have made the choice to educate themselves to become teachers. Think of the hope that is behind such a choice. Teachers. For schoolkids. Shaping the future. Today’s one- and two-year-olds are going to have these students to follow them through the beginnings of their education. 

We’re talking about a 100-year perspective here. I met the students who are going to teach kids who are going to be alive in the year 2100. In fact, at the ends of their careers, they’ll be teaching kids who are born in 2050 and who might see 2150. That’s closer to a 150 year perspective about what happens in a classroom right here in the heart of Oslo today. 

As I thought about this, I did start to feel hope. I did start to believe that there will be a future. But that future, which begins right now, is going to have a rough start.

Donald Trump is not a friend of education. He is an anti-intellectual, he is sceptical of the content in schools and he engages in conspiratorial thinking about scientific issues such as climate change. In other words, he believes that the path to understanding is not cleared with knowledge and research. For him, it seems to be padded with beliefs and power struggles. 

Because I’m basically an optimist, I don’t want to get stuck focusing on this rough start. I don’t want to be numb, or depressed, or panicky. I don’t want to participate in the cult of hatred. I want to find a way forward. And after I had met those students on their way to class, I went home and I found two inspiring quotes and tried to ask myself what they mean for me now, with the looming Trump presidency. 

The first one that spoke to me comes from Martin Luther King Jr., who said: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” 

What does that mean for me today? I feel strongly about the rhetoric of the Trump movement. It’s dark and murky. How do I find the light that Dr King wants me to use? How can I live by his words? 

The second quote comes from Michelle Obama. She, too, is a powerful moral voice in today’s world. Maybe you heard her speech this summer. Remember her motto? "When they go low, we go high.” 

I’m still reflecting on those quotes, trying to figure out what they demand of me. I offer them here, in the hope that you, too, will accept this challenge for yourselves. 

Like I said, it’s hard. But one thing I know is that my students have hope. Their adult lives are in front of them. They don’t want to hate; they love kids. They don’t want to go low. They want to engage, to argue, to influence.

They feel called to teach, and through their teaching, they want to drive out darkness with light. I feel so lucky to live my days around these students. Perhaps now more than ever.

Curt Rice, an American, is rector of Oslo and Akershus University College. 

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