The Cleavers, Jim Crow, and Engaged Citizenship

Educators take the social mission of their work seriously. Regardless of where on the political spectrum a teacher may fall, we see our work – educating young people – as essential to the future of our communities, our country, and our world. It’s one of the reasons education is at the center of many political debates. The stakes are high, near-term for individual students, and long-term for us all. This has never been more true than now.

In the United States we are living in unprecedented times. Well, perhaps not completely unprecedented, but more on that later. Perhaps it is more accurate, if understated, to say we are living in times of great change and uncertainty, with a cloudy future. Headlines are full of examples: This morning’s news about unprecedented rises in atmospheric CO2 reiterates that human-caused global warming is making our planet less habitable for all. Ethnic nationalism again rears its ugly head at home and around the globe. The United States continues a 17-year war (Afghanistan), a conflict where it is unclear who is actually profiting from the hordes of dollars we spend, with no resolution or realistic closure in sight, assented to an apparently indifferent citizenry. Black Americans as a group (and other ethnic minorities) continue to be oppressed, incarcerated, segregated, poorly educated, and victimized way out of proportion to their numbers. Nuclear confrontation looms in our peripheral vision. We are represented by a president who is antagonistic to the disenfranchised in our society (a partial list: women, Puerto Rico, immigrants, Muslims, poor people who seek health insurance, the disabled, free speech of the press and individual citizens). Assaults on the dignity and bodies of women are still tolerated in many parts of our society . Neighbors are ravaged by storms and wildfires made worse by energy policies and practices that enrich a few corporations, impoverish our planet, and poison our children’s future. Others of our neighbors are threatened with deportation, and still other neighbors live in perpetual fear of violence, while our tax dollars are spent on a stagnant war instead of lifting up and educating the vulnerable and disempowered in our communities. Working class neighbors are becoming the chronically underemployed. Science is undermined. Facts are intentionally obscured; compromise and bipartisanship are shouted down.

I think many are concerned about where we are headed. We seem to be living at a time, akin to around 1961, when “Leave it to Beaver” coexisted with Jim Crow, a metaphor for the contrast between the stories we like to tell about ourselves (via entertainment media), and our passive complicity with ongoing injustice. We are years into a strong economic recovery, but the harvest of that recovery is drawn in mostly by a privileged slice of society. We binge-watch the latest hot TV drama, eat paleo, and exorcise our stress demons at yoga/zumba/spin classes. We indulge consumerist urges with a few mouse clicks, anesthetized by a delusion of choice, while we filter out news and information containing differing viewpoints and uncomfortable images. Those of us in positions of power and influence are cozy, cocooned as we are in our comfortable homes, with delivered organic groceries, in our adjustable beds, plugged into our highly filtered and superficial social media. We are disengaged. We have silenced the alarm bells that might otherwise move a soporific citizenry to action.

I see parallels between where we are now as a country, and where we were in the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s. It is an imperfect comparison, but we seem to be on the cusp of a major shift in society. We can’t see the direction this shift will take, but we are writing the script now via our actions, or lack of action. What can we learn from past points of cultural inflection?

What should a conscientious independent school educator do today, to help today’s youth engage with the world’s problems and empower them to constructively engage with an increasingly overheated and polarized world? If I were a school administrator in the 1950’s/early ‘60’s, what would/should I have done then to help students who were staring down the barrel of a widening Vietnam war, watching Selma, Joe McCarthy, Duck and Cover, and George Wallace on the nightly news? What does “Let your Lives Speak,” our Quaker school’s motto, mean in this context? Are we willing to make ourselves and others uneasy by speaking out against hate speech, amoral leadership, and other acts that mire our journey towards a more just and democratic society? How do we educate and empower students, while avoiding the pitfall of coercion? At what point does intellectual nonpartisanship become complicity?

The questions can be paralyzing, but paralysis cannot be our response. I claim no wise answers, but below are a few steps that I think help nudge us in the right direction. These may not seem like hard-driving political advocacy, but they serve as steps away from isolation, distraction, and inaction, and towards engaged citizenship:

As educators:

  • Model compassion, curiosity, a uncompromising reverence for truth, and a willingness to get out of our own comfort zones.
  • Don’t tell students “Don’t worry, it will be okay.” They are also students of history, and they know the good guys don’t always come out on top.
  • Encourage students to value and respect leadership but to be skeptical of authority. This is an essential dimension of democracy.
  • Create school environments that model the best aspects of a democratic and respectful society. Make school a laboratory for engaged citizenship.
  • Sometimes the best way to empower students is to answer their questions with a question: “What do you think?” “What do you believe should be done?” “How would you decide if you were in charge?” “What would you like to see happen?”
  • Organize a field trip to: a courtroom, a town council meeting, a school board meeting, a public hearing, or other window into the machinery of civic processes.
  • Don’t suppress or shy away from student activism. It has been a critical element in most every social movement in history. Work to help make their activism an informed activism.

As a citizen/member of society:

  • Watch/read/listen to the news, but only once per day. Perpetual immersion in the news is paralyzing, reduces the very real misery of others to entertainment, and cuts into essential time to reflect on events and the other steps below.
  • Every now and then, listen to a news source that’s completely different from our usual sources. Seek to understand “the other side.”
  • Limit one’s exposure to shows and movies misaligned with the people we strive to be. Be alert to these tropes that perpetuate a mindset of oppression: vigilantes as heroes, hypermasculinity, subjugation and humiliation of others masquerading as humor, American exceptionalism, incompetent female (or Black, Asian, “foreign”) sidekicks, and extreme violence as humor.
  • Sit on the front porch now and then instead of the back deck.
  • Make it a habit to walk or bike around our neighborhoods, sans earbuds. The goal is to experience and engage with our own neighborhoods and neighbors. Say hello and talk with people. Each month widen our circles a bit more.
  • In a public location, pIck up some trash, sweep up some broken glass, or plant some flowers. Better yet, get two neighbors to do it with us.
  • Give one night per month to an organization that brings us in touch with people with different life experiences and opinions than our own. This could be, for example, a faith-based group, a volunteer organization, a cultural/arts organization, or a hobby/interest group.
  • Go to locally owned stores often enough that we get to know each other. Think of the few extra pennies in the price as a form of community support.
  • Find the local, municipal meeting(s) that pertain to an interest or concern and attend a few meetings.
  • Learn the names of our local, state, and national representatives. Write/email one of them about issues we care about. Next month, write someone else.
  • Vote in every election. We sit on the sidelines at our own peril.

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