Faculty Spotlight

Politics in the Classroom: Globalization and Free Trade

Professor of Practice Jane Hughes shares the adjustments she has made in the current climate.

Can you tell us about your article, "Teaching Globalization in the Time of Trump"?

This article was inspired by a negative student evaluation. A student commented that I had been dismissive and negative toward President Trump and his policies in my class. It was only one evaluation out of 35, but I was troubled to think that I had shown disrespect to the views held by a student, and it pushed me to rethink my approach to teaching certain topics in these difficult political times.

I realized that I had to re-frame my approach to matters of economic and financial policy that have become hot political potatoes and to present varying points of view as fairly as possible. After all, our country elected President Trump and there are good reasons for some Americans to feel downtrodden by the globalization and free trade policies exemplified by NAFTA. It is important that I make the classroom an open space for all of these perspectives.

At the same time, it is equally important that I present facts and truth when they are available. There is empirical evidence, for example, that the benefits of NAFTA have far outweighed its costs; and there are ways to support those who are damaged by free trade without throwing out free trade itself. It is also true that virtually no mainstream economist supports Trump's position on free trade and tariffs—in particular, no one thinks that a trade war is a good idea. And yet...two presidential candidates from opposite ends of the political spectrum (Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders) fervently espoused trade protectionism—so what are we to make of that?

My job in the classroom is to allow an open and honest airing of opinions, while guiding students to understand the difference between fact and opinion. As I like to tell them, we're all entitled to our own opinions—but not to our own facts. In this political climate, it's not always easy to distinguish one from the other.

What vital ideas do your students need to keep in mind, given the current political climate?

Most important, I think they have to understand that there are facts—knowable facts—and that facts should remain the basis for decision-making. With a political climate largely dominated by extremists at all ends of the spectrum, and with “truthiness” rather than truth often dominating the airwaves, it's more important than ever for our students to know how to ferret out the facts, and to act on those rather than bias, prejudice, and opinion.

Anything else you would like to share?

The election of Donald Trump, and the high level of support that his party held in the recent midterm elections, remains a shock to me. It is a wake-up call as well—reminding me that there are many people in this country who feel deeply disenfranchised by globalization and its poster child, free trade. It is absolutely true that there have been losers in the highly globalized economic order that has dominated the past three decades: workers in industries like textiles and steel, and non-college-educated people, in particular. Not surprisingly, this is Donald Trump's base of support. Those of us who have gained from globalization—the highly-educated, for the most part—need to be more attuned to the losses of others and work harder to understand their needs and support them.

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