Drawing a Line
I’ve been in a bit of a post-Thanksgiving tailspin and I think my husband is tired of my ranting, so here I am. I listened to Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime (and loved it), and haven’t been able to stop thinking about the importance of empathy in our schools. (At some point in his memoir, he talks about how empathy is/isn’t taught in certain countries - read the book for more context or just take my word for it.)
From what I can tell, we teach empathy in both covert and overt ways. Our students hear countless talks about bullying and more schools are using restorative discipline techniques that require students in conflict to communicate with one another. It may also be a talking point in some classes, particularly in language arts. After all, stories can be great mirrors for societal issues. But I don’t think we do enough, particularly at this time of year. We have to draw the line between empathy and reprehension.
What has been happening in elementary schools across the country this month? There has likely been talk of pilgrims, turkeys, and American Indians. Maybe feathers have been tossed about and there has been some mention of the peaceful meal shared by settlers and local Indians. But at what point do we introduce the idea that what we (Americans in the 1600s) did to the Indians was wrong? Like really, really wrong. As a whole, I don’t think we do.
Most state curriculum standards require that we teach students about colonization. In those same standards, we may even see something about helping students view an event from multiple perspectives. Well, all “sides” of an event are not always equal, and should not be taught as though they are. Our students need us to stand before them and tell them the truth. Sure, we can discuss why we wanted to take the land from the Indians, why we were fleeing from English control, all of that. But we also need to be sure our students understand that what we did was wrong.
I recently read this Ted blog post about the required reading of students around the world. What can you infer from this list about the values of each country? It really is fascinating. I was not at all surprised that To Kill a Mockingbird took first place in the United States, and think it absolutely deserves a place in our literary canon. However, I worry that we use this text as a way to atone for the way African Americans were (and have been) treated for years by privileged white people. (This is a generalization, not an absolute statement about all African Americans and all white people.) One of my concerns is that the way we have addressed the issue of racism is too under the radar. We read the book, discuss it deeply, and move on.
But when do we, as teachers, stand in front of our students and say, “Racism is wrong.” When do we provide them with examples that range from using a racial slur to believing racial stereotypes, and then tell them that these actions are wrong? Both of them. Period. There is no gray area, no multiple perspectives.
When we talk about Thanksgiving with our students, or when American colonization is taught in middle and high schools, do we stand in front of our students and tell them that what the colonists did to the indigenous people of this country was wrong? If we want our students to be able to reflect on mistakes they have made in order to change future behavior, we have to show them very clear examples of this. And that is rooted in the truth of our history - even the ugly parts that bring us shame.
I know that we believe in the importance of empathy, and that we want our students to truly understand the feelings of other people. But I don’t believe we can get to that real place where character changes are made if we aren’t willing to tell our students the definitive truth of our history. And that starts with understanding where the line of humanity should be drawn.