So, every year in my US History classes when we get to the discussion of slavery, or Civil Rights, politics, or current events, inevitably one or more students begins a dialogue about how bad race relations and/or social justice is in America today. I have always welcomed that conversation. “Yes, I can agree to a degree” I’ve been able to reply, “things are far from perfect, but boy they are so much better than they were.”This usually elicits a debate about past and present. My argument has been partially formulated on the fact I have seen first hand the changes in America from the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s to today. I lived through the marches led by Dr. King and the non violent tactics of the Freedom Riders and others. I remember the fraction in American society during the “race riots” of Newark and Watts.The emergence of the Black Panther Movement and “Black Power” I can recount with distant memories of segregated swim clubs ( yes even in New York) and places only “The Coloreds”would /could” go. I frequently would tell my students that they have the advantage of having a teacher for whom, this wasn’t history but current events. I was secure in telling them that things were so much better now in America then when I was younger.
However, what do I tell them now? Since I last saw my classes Alton Sterling was killed in Baton Rouge, Philando Castile was shot in Minnesota (and streamed live online). Then just a few days later Police Officers in both Dallas and Baton Rouge were killed in retaliation when peaceful protests turned violent and Police Officers ( specifically white) were targeted. Even the controversy over the protest of these events, such as not standing for the National Anthem has become a polarizing action.
Have we as a nation forgotten the deep history of (and right) to protest?
Is this things getting better? Can I really look my students in the eye and honestly say “Things are better today than in the past?” I am stumped and confused. I have always believed in the process of America, that we as citizens had the power and the responsibility to change the injustices and the wrongs of our society. Change is more often than not evolutionary as opposed to revolutionary, it’s slow and takes the people buying into the need for the change.Up to now I have confidently pointed to the progress we have made. Yes, it’s slow. yes it’s not enough, but compare where we have come to from where we were.When I look at the events of the past year or two, I am losing confidence that we are moving forward. The gulf between sections of America, Black and White seem to be drifting further apart. The trust that change for the better can and WILL happen has eroded on both sides.We have become a nation of 20 second sound bites and 140 character summations. The problem is so much larger than a headline.Serious dialogue and discourse is being replaced by slogans and violence.Each new action begets finger-pointing back and forth and only increases the distrust and shuts down opportunity for any real conversations that may lead to positive changes.
This frightens me. What do I say to my students? My teaching has always stressed the power of the student. They are the voice and instrument of the future changes. I still strongly believe in that. However, What will be the base they start with. It’s not fair to sugar coat these events. Today’s students must see the world for what it is. But, is it all doom and gloom? Is there a foundation I can show them that they can build on? Can I honestly expect them to feel they can have a positive influence on the future if what they see today is a backsliding in trust and respect? My confidence is being chipped away in large chunks. I have seen so much progress and always believed that although we as a society had so much more to go, we were on the right road.One of the aspects of teaching that motivates me is the knowledge that I have the opportunity to prepare my students for that change. That I may have a small part in helping them find that power they have inside them to implant the necessary advances we as a people must make.
I am saddened by my diminishing faith in our people. Now more than ever, today’s students need to be prepared to face an increasingly hostile world. To serve my students I must dig deep and find the way to show them that we as a nation, as a society, are bigger than the current events. That we can rise above the lowest common denominators and the hate mongers. These current events for our students today will become the history they will teach their children. What do I tell them? How can convince them they are the instruments of change for the future?
I am not certain what I am going to tell them, but I promise the dialogue will continue. It is paramount that we as educators ensure our students have an avenue and platform to learn about what is happening in our society and that they have a say in what happens so that we may again become a more united nation. We have a strong history of conflict, but that conflict has often lead to positive changes. Let us hope we can continue our steps towards a postive and future we can all walk together.