Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Perspective, Empathy, and a Teacher's Responsibility

It's been a while since my last post, but that does not mean that I have been under a rock, oblivious to the realities of the world.  And if one reality were to be the most clear after this summer, it would be that this may be the hardest time ever to be a teacher of history and government.  As someone who has long maintained an approach geared towards presenting doors to students rather than pushing them through one, I was frustrated to read a recent article published on a Philadelphia-based website by David Horowitz and Mark Tapson.  The thesis of the editorial, titled "To restore balance in schools, teacher code of ethics needed", was that a left-wing conspiracy had developed amongst educators to warp children's minds in a liberal fashion.  Although this sort of teacher-bashing has become the norm, I'll admit...I was left more than frustrated by the contents of the article.   Fortunately, less than a week after the editorial was published, I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion amongst fellow teachers on the subject of social justice, and what we should be doing to encourage and ensure this crucial quality in our classrooms, and I was buoyed.  And now, after a few days to digest both, a discussion of what I believe our country is missing, and what we as teachers can do about it.

Last week I sat with a room full of US History teachers, and the conversation turned towards social justice, a term which I have come to define in our classroom as every student having an opportunity to succeed, to look at every student for the individual they are and designing an experience which best gives that individual the chance to learn.  Clearly, however, this term refers to a much larger idea when applied beyond the walls of the school.  And we as teachers have to realize that.  To say that we have a responsibility to serve our students justly in the classroom is obvious (or it had better be).  But we have to understand that what we teach our students is not just for the classroom; it is for the real world as well.  And how we teach them is often as important as what we teach them.

You see, as frustrated as the Horowitz editorial made me, I have to admit that there are, without a doubt, teachers who push an agenda (from both sides).  So, if the point of the editorial was to suggest that there are teachers who ignore balance in their classroom, then point taken.  But I know far more teachers who have only one primary concern in their classroom:  the kids, and their well-being.  As a history and government teacher, I will admit that I have an agenda.  I want my kids to emerge from their secondary school experience as willing and engaged citizens.  If that somehow fits me into the Horowitz and Tapson definition of a teacher-conspirator, then so be it.  But I believe in the potential of this country, of these kids, too much to give up now.

That word, "potential", is one that so significantly applies to this country.  Americans tend to forget that, in the grand scheme of world history, we are but infants.  In some ways, our country is going through its awkward teenage years, still struggling to find our identity, still trying to come to terms with the responsibility that comes with having freedom.  But our potential as a country lies in my favorite period of American history- it's founding.  Something I try to stress to my students is that, for as much pedestal-sitting as we like to do for our Founders and Framers, these were imperfect men and women.  They were agenda-driven, stubborn, and in some cases, slave-owning.  But they were also brilliant, and their brilliance shines in the fact that, at a time in our country's history when we were dealing with some of the biggest challenges we ever will, these individuals were able to emerge, on two separate occasions, with founding documents which still stand as the backbone on which this country is built.  The Declaration and, even more so, the Constitution were far from perfect, and few, if any, of the men who signed it left those conventions happy with all of it.  But, they believed in the potential of this country, and endeavored to achieve compromise built on discourse.  How far have we fallen?!

When trying to identify the "big problems" facing our country, a friend and colleague, who also happened to be in this discussion of US History teachers, talked about a lack of empathy being the disease inflicting the country.  My answer:  that we have lost the art of discourse.  The reality- they really are not much different.  At the core of empathy lies understanding, and that can only come from experience.  We have become far too comfortable with our small zones of understanding, and have become disconnected with the realities of our fellow Americans.  I'm reminded of that classic line from To Kill a Mockingbird, when Atticus tells Scout that "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
In a world in which humans have more access to other humans than ever before, we have become content to turn our eyes away from others and stick to what we "know."  We have become confident in our "rightness", confidence which is only fueled by our increased access.  If you believe you are right, a simple Google search will turn up something to verify your point, regardless of how short-sighted that point may be.  And I am as guilty of allowing this kind of confirmation bias to affect me as anyone.  But it seems to me that the only way things change for this country is if we take a page from the Founders, and talk.  I've come to hate it when someone says something along the lines of "We just won't talk politics so we all get along."  NO!  Talking is not the problem; we need to change the way we listen.

In response to Mr. Horowitz and Mr. Tapson, I do have an agenda.  An agenda to encourage discourse, to encourage empathy in my students.  I will do this by loving each of my students for who they are, not who I think they should be.  I will understand that each student has walked a unique path, one that has molded them through life experience into the person who sits in our classroom.  I will provide opportunities for each student to interact with multiple perspectives of historical events through resources like primary sources, and even news articles such as your own.  Including the views of a Howard Zinn or James Loewen is not indoctrination, it is a perspective.  It is not "revisionist" to discuss that Helen Keller was a socialist when she was, or that Columbus' voyages had devastating consequences because they did.  This is "reality" history. I will encourage perspective by asking students to answer questions from their point of view, and from point of views different than their own.  I will encourage perspective by ensuring that multiple viewpoints are heard, even if I have to argue them myself.  I will check my own perspective at the door in the realization that each student deserves the opportunity to craft their own, and should never feel like their teacher is telling them how to think.  I will never ask my students to agree with a perspective, just to appreciate that it exists.  

For all the talk of "founding principles", it seems clear that this country was, undoubtedly, founded on the principle of deliberation, which places far more emphasis on listening rather than talking.  When we debate, we listen to find holes in another's argument.  When we agree to deliberate, we listen to appreciate the other perspective before giving ours.  How can we ever expect to realize the potential of this country if we cannot sit down with someone who has a different point of view and talk, without leaving the conversation angry?  Is this an easy change- no!  But it is an effort that we have to model at home, and we have to model in our classrooms.  Let that be our agenda.

1 comment:

  1. Now that is an agenda (I hope!) we can all get behind!