high school

Unpacking the Strangest Scene in Esquire’s Cover Story

Photo: Esquire

There are countless head-scratching questions surrounding Esquire’s recent cover profile of a 17-year-old white male Trump supporter living in rural West Bend, Wisconsin — not least of which is the one regarding why the magazine chose to release the cover during Black History month. But perhaps the moment in the article — which was the first of a series about “growing up now” — that most gave me pause was when journalist Jennifer Percy accompanied her subject, Ryan, to his government and law class. There, teacher Adam Inkmann had the students do a quiz to gauge where they landed on the political spectrum, and had them sing songs about being liberal or conservative with lyrics like “in liberal land this other man could marry me” or “I hate social programs, they really make me want to puke, I would rather use the money for a two-ton nuke.”

It’s been a while since I was in school, but I find it difficult to imagine that learning these stereotypes — and then applying them to oneself and ones peers — is productive in a time when politics divide us so deeply. Dr. Eric Sundberg, a curriculum associate for social-studies department at a school in Long Island, agrees that the songs could be problematic and lead to name-calling or reductive thinking. “What we’re supposed to be teaching in high schools is how to identify bias and to come away with the understanding that within individuals there is some complexity,” said Sundberg.

“Research shows, and my opinion strongly is, that we need to have very deliberative classrooms that avoid saying you are this or you are that, which is what’s dangerous about some of the techniques I saw in the article,” added Sundberg.

We called Adam Inkmann, who teaches the government and law class featured in the story, to ask him about his teaching methods and what he thought about the piece. He also shared the full text of the songs, written by fellow teacher Mike Kieser, which, in addition to the aforementioned lyrics, also include lines like “I’m conservative and I’m near the end of my little song / but did I tell you, I hate gay marriage and abortion’s wrong?” and “If I were a liberal liberal, life would be so great / Wouldn’t ever need to work lots of free food found on my plate.”

What did you think about the Esquire article?
To be honest I kind of skimmed most of it, I haven’t had the time to sit down and read all of it.

Did you see any of the reaction or criticism?
My mother-in-law sent me a message this morning and said that it was mentioned on Fox and Friends, and some of the local talk radio around here were talking about it, but I haven’t had time to dig around. I’m not on social media. It seems more about the race issue as opposed to anything that had to do with me in the article.

People were critical of Esquire’s decision to devote such a long profile and a cover to a white 17-year-old boy who supports Trump as opposed to the many other people it could have featured. What do you feel about that kind of criticism?
I didn’t think much of it at the time. None of it was really explained to me ahead of time other than the fact that they were going to do some story on the kid and something about the political spectrum and stuff, so I said sure, yeah, you can come and watch. I guess I was pretty naive to a lot of it.

The songs you guys teach are interesting. 
They’re kind of fun.

They’re kind of fun, but do you worry about the reductive stereotypes in them? Or about having the kids label themselves into simplistic categories?
There could be problems. I’ve been doing this I think 17 years so a couple of parents have said something but it was never specifically about anything from class. Mostly it was them stereotyping me and just calling me, kind of guns blazing assuming a bunch of things, like they need to come in here and straighten me out. Do I worry about backlash? Potentially but it doesn’t worry me because I show so much on both sides, at least in my class. I would agree with what you said to how there was some major stereotypes, that’s definitely true, but I think I’m presenting major stereotypes on both sides, so in terms of being biased, I don’t think that’s an issue. You ask if the kids are worried that maybe they’re going to get the wrong impression and kind of put themselves in a box, I definitely could see that as a possibility.

One line in the song talks about being gay. I’m wondering whether you worry about using gay identity as a marker of political division when there are presumably gay kids in your classes. Has that ever come up as a concern? 
It has not.

But does it…
Is it a concern of mine? There are many disclaimers that go out about those songs; yes they’re overly stereotypical, but we present both sides. I mean we’re obviously not making fun of that, but are the songs are kind of funny? The kids get a kick out of them, that’s the big reason we do it. If somebody was insulted by it, that was not the intention.

Political conversations have become so divisive since the election. Have you seen a change in your students’ reactions since Trump took office, and has it changed the way you teach?
It doesn’t necessarily change how I teach it. It just gives us more information and more examples. Have I noticed a big change? I suppose there are more kids who have seen Trump on TV and maybe echo some of the things he would say. I don’t even know if they actually echo it because they believe it, I think they’re just doing it because it sounds interesting or maybe they heard it from parents or they’re just doing it to get a rise out of people. I’d be willing to bet most of the people I hear say those things when really asked about and grilled and kind of pressed might not really know what they’re saying or believe it.

Social sciences are often about teaching kids to identify bias in media and use objective sources; how do you teach these subjects when there are so many biased or flawed news sources the kids could be watching or reading?
There’s no way I can get ahead of it. I can only present the information I can present and try to show them as much on both sides as possible. There’s no way I could attempt to fix everything that social media presents to them or try to prove them wrong. My class is just a regular semester of government class, so the normal student in my classroom is like a sophomore or a junior and they’re probably a C student. I’m getting a lot of kids who don’t want to be here but have to take government because they need to graduate. I would imagine the conversation is very different if you talk to our AP government teachers. Only one or two of the kids I teach watched the state of the union and I’ve got 60 students. Most of them didn’t even know it was on.

How much of your teaching is concerned with teaching kids to root out what is real and what is fake and what sources can be trusted?
In terms of my class specifically, it’s very little.

Do you think it should be more of a focus?
It certainly could be. During this specific political spectrum unit it definitely would come up but the other 80 percent of my class is local government, state government, and historical constitutional stuff. I’m willing to bet they get a lot more of that in their current-events courses or mass-media courses.

How do you manage to keep your own political views and biases out of what you teach?
I kind of try to stay as objective as possible and I explain it to the kids too that philosophically some things might make a lot of sense, but all of a sudden when it becomes personal, now that theory doesn’t work out so well and that situations change all the time. So I’m kind of practicing what I preach in a lot of those cases. I’ve voted for Democrats and I’ve voted for Republicans.

This post has been updated.

Unpacking the Strangest Scene in Esquire’s Cover Story