22 August 2010

Teaching Citizenship: We have to do better.

Photo: James Estrin for The New York Times (I went to high school with "Jimmy")
I am scared.

The opposition to the Park51 Islamic Cultural Center project is a frightening step over the line for the United States, reminiscent of the days in the 1920s when the KKK marched through Washington DC proudly.

Racism on the March, America in the 1920s: Anti-Immigrant, Anti-Catholic, Anti-Jewish.
Anyone remember Al Smith running for President?
See, this is not a protest against anything that is any kind of threat - not a real one, not an emotional one. There is, rather, no difference between this mob...
Photo: James Estrin for The New York Times
and this mob...
Kristallnacht - 9/10 November 1938 - Germany
Why do I say this? I am not "Hitlering" the American Right here. I think one could oppose religious buildings in any community for a number of reasons. I, for example, might oppose the building of any church in any town which says that "business type x" cannot be located within a certain distance of a church. In this case, in my opinion, the church's religious right to build wherever they want infringes on the rights of others. Or, I might object to a synagogue built on a wetland. A gigantic mosque on a residential street? I could oppose that too.

And, well, ignorance is ignorance. It is sad, it is unfortunate. But I understand. If you know nothing about Judaism, or Catholicism, or Buddhism, or Italian food, or Haitian food, or whatever, I accept that you can be uncomfortable with being face-to-face with any of those things. You shouldn't be proud of it, but I understand that ignorance can breed discomfort.

But when pure ignorance drives hatred and masquerades as legitimate political action, you get Kristallnacht, or the kind of riots which slaughtered Italian immigrants to America at the turn of the 20th Century, or the New York City Civil War Riots. You get the toxic mix of ignorance, hatred, and citizens who are completely wrong believing that they are acting "as citizens."

And that can be the beginning of the end of civil society. And that is very scary.

In the United States today you have "legitimate" people - including candidates of major political parties - who will advise denying rights to American citizens on the basis of who they love or how they worship. But much worse than that, they will use this language of ignorance and hatred to push ignorant people into a place of such total fear, that they will burn the rules of our society - our constitution - in a desperate effort to make themselves feel safer.

As someone who considers himself an educator, I think we, educators, have an essential mission to stop this. Not because those opposed to the Park51 Project are dumb or easy to mock. They're claiming the former site of a Burlington Coat Factory as sacred, after all. But because they know so little about their own nation, their own system of government, their own national history, that they would sell all they truly have of value for a vague promise of security. If we're talking "lack of critical thinking skills" - this is evidence exhibit one.

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The Bill of Rights is the most sacred thing Americans have as a shared belief. It is the document which makes Americans Americans. It says that the majority cannot terrorize the minority - not in speech, or via the press, or with religion, or even with prosecution. Majority rule was not a new idea in 1790 - plenty of votes had occurred in humanity before that, plenty of mob decision-making had gone on. What was new was the limits on that majority. The concept that you might disagree, or live differently, or worship differently (or not at all), or even be accused of a crime, and yet remain a person and a citizen with your rights intact.

This is so fundamental, and yet it is clearly not something enough are learning in our schools. So, we have to do better.

"Civics," "Citizenship," seems a boring subject so often, but we treat it that way at our peril. We need our students engaged in rule-making and rule-applying in increasingly complex and critical ways. We need to stop making classroom or school rules, and we need to shift that job to our students. We need them to practice, and make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes before they are a mob holding signs threatening other Americans.

We must let them practice other government systems as well. We must let them compare and study in "real" situations. How many American schools elect student governments with other than "First-Past-The-Post" voting systems? How many American schools have parliamentary student governments? Do American students know how an Irish citizen votes? An Australian? A German? Are there advantages they see? Do they know how other nations protect rights? What are those disadvantages? And most importantly, perhaps, do they understand what being "in power" and "out of power" really means? No, most importantly, they need to know that if they can "vote down" a mosque here, I can vote down a church "there." And that if they can stop these two adults from marrying, I can stop those two adults from marrying - and that what I stop might be their church, or their marriage.

We have to do this because we need our students to understand democracy, understand it in a really deep way. Not lip-service democracy. Not bumper sticker democracy. And not Athenian democracy either. But real, messy, frustrating, ultimate power resides in the people democracy. The future of any democracy depends on that.

- Ira Socol


Chad@classroots.org said...

Messy, frustrating, ultimate democracy is what I hope to foster in my classes this year.

Somehow, our responses to the unknown, the unknowable, and what we might not want to know have conflated into fear masked by righteousness.

It should be an aim of our schools to teach all kids how to protect the minority from the majority and how to be comfortable with ambiguity and inquiry even while in the majority.

Do we ever ask our students to compare what's right and wrong about our country? Our cultures? Do we get into wrong and right in class anymore?

Sure we do, at some small scale, thanks to some brave students, but the scale of that work is not protecting our democracy or - by extension - any of us.

I'll come back to this post every time this year I feel anxiety pushing me towards teaching something easy.


Dan Callahan said...

When I was leading a discussion at edcamp Keene about the direction of education policy, I noted how President Obama consistently refers to Education as either "the economic issue of our time" or "the civil rights issue of our time" (by which he still means economic). My response: Education is the citizenship issue of our time. Good, passionate, caring citizens will figure out a way to handle the other stuff, no matter how messy it may be.