Reflections on President’s Day, Tyranny, and the Nature of Being Human:
“Soon we will find out if breaking the law is illegal” (Stephen Colbert, February 2020).
Apparently, it is not. This is not a political piece although seeming so. This is a narrative on our culture’s systematic divestment of the humanities in education; note, the word, human, is in it. Studying history, literature, and the arts informs us that there are universal truths; there are universal rights and wrongs. Why are these words so hard to say in 2020? Right and wrong; good and evil; kindness and compassion over power and corruption. Are we in the proverbial heart of darkness treating these words as obscenities, especially within our educational, medical, and government institutions? “The mind of man is capable of anything—because everything is in it, all the past as well as the future” (Conrad, 1902, Heart of Darkness). Some actions are not relative and subject to interpretation. Many historical events are simply unethical and immoral. If you question this perspective, consider this three-word rebuttal: children in cages. We have seen this before, but have our children?
On the cultural stage, there are heroes who dare to spark the revolutionary concepts of right, wrong, good, and evil: Chris Cuomo, Ronan Farrow, Rachel Maddow, the late Cokie Roberts, Stephen Colbert, and Anderson Cooper, to name a few. There are events that are right and wrong, universally so. Same as the universal truth that the human spirit is resilient, “Hope springs eternal” (Alexander Pope, 1773, An Essay on Man). Underneath it all, human beings have an innate capacity for kindness and resilience. As educators, we shortchange our students by underestimating their humanity and craving for inspiration regarding the principles of empathy, ethics, and altruism. The cost of silence is now part of the collective. As recently as February 7, 2020, Colbert recited Martin Niemoller, a Lutheran pastor who survived the Holocaust after speaking out against Hitler’s regime:
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me —
and there was no one left to speak out for me. (Niemoller, 1946, First They Came)
We cannot afford to ignore why Niemoller’s words are forefront in the Nation’s mind. In 2020, people are more empowered and emboldened than they have been in decades to publicly espouse hatred, exclusion, and discrimination as if justice will not be meted out by punishment. It is not hard to imagine where they got that idea. And, just as importantly, why would I, a career educator, be fired up about what is happening on the world stage? Many may respond with a “stay in your lane,” or “it’s not your business,” because, after all, what does this have to do with finding our way back to the humanities? Everything. Niyi Osudare’s poem, Not My Business, informs us of the insidious personal and collective cost of unfettered tyranny. In fact, it is an aspect of terror.
What business of mine is it
So long they don’t take the yam
From my savouring mouth?
And then one evening
As I sat down to eat my yam
A knock on the door froze my hungry hand
The jeep was waiting on my bewildered lawn
Waiting, waiting in its usual silence. (Osudare, 2012, The Radical Truth)
It is my business, and it is yours, too.
If you are wondering what is next, we are already there. On Friday, February 7, 2020, we saw “insurgents” being marched out of the White House in a deliberate act of humiliation and terror on the next who dares to speak the truth aloud. This is a universal story that has globally played out over the last several thousand years. To loosely paraphrase the courageous and bold, Greta Thunberg, “Where is the outrage?” Attempts to silence her were blasted throughout social media by the President. Trump’s cruelty cannot be underestimated; in a Tweet, he admonished her to “chill.” The rest of his derogatory rant will not be dignified by reprint here; that is why Google was created. Make no mistake that this was a deliberate act to humiliate and silence a 16-year-old environmentalist who has moved the world.
Human beings have always been invested in having an “other.” That is the original concept of oriental as foreign and taboo, while occidental is close and familiar. By looking through just the last two hundred years of American history, it is easy to see who the other becomes and remains. The purpose of an education is to develop an individual’s moral compass while also creating stewards of the world. Its design is to cultivate compassion of worlds and lives not our own. It is to develop an understanding that despite all that seems to separate us via global boundaries, ethnic wars and genocide, socio-economic differences, race, culture, gender, and so on, we must also see what universally unites us. The heart of being human is resistance, resilience, and heroism.
It is bewildering that in 2020 it is not a universal truth that a Commander-in-Chief heard laughing and talking about sexual assault with the — in this situation — unfortunately named, Billy Bush, who received massive career backlash, is egregious. Or, alternately, silencing Stephanie Clifford/Stormy Daniels with campaign money to influence the election is morally repugnant. Again, you may ask, “What does this have to do with education and curriculum?” My answer remains, everything. Unfettered tyranny tears at the moral fabric of institutions. Revisionist history is an insult to those who survived struggle and for future generations contending with the long-standing cultural implications of tragic historical events. Unabashedly teaching uncensored literature and history means going through the slave narratives and showing on a large screen, Whipped Peter (1863), the picture of the slave with scars as thick as ropes on his back that resembles a tree; that picture is worth a thousand words. It means discussing the Chinese internment camps; showing films of what happened at Pearl Harbor and Hiroshima; teaching the Holocaust narratives and showing concentration camp liberation films, along with the piles of cadavers, shoes, hair, glasses, and teeth representing the over 11 million people who died in the camps. Otherwise, our compassion is impaired. Currently, that is our reality.
We cannot deny it. There is more to the exclusionary divestment of the humanities in our schools than the cover of political correctness or a “lack of funding.” It is strategic. If anyone questions the power of education or literacy, one must simply look at why some states and school systems ban books. If they are just typed words on pages – just things made from trees– that have no power to change or influence individual’s minds and hearts, then why are even the most progressive school districts sending notes home asking if words should be blocked out of books? To educate, one must know historical truth through its cultural artifacts. To understand that words of hate have power, and that the inverse is also true, we must be able to say them in the right context of educating a mind, cultivating a moral compass, and instilling a much-needed humanity. Censorship and a President who remains unscathed through almost weekly and progressively worse ethical violations is why hate speech and violence have increased. It is not because students read unedited versions of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain, 1884), Invisible Man (Ralph Ellison, 1952), The Color Purple (Alice Walker, 1983), The Diary of Anne Frank (Anne Frank, 1952), The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros, 1984), and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou, 1969), to name just a few “controversial” books. What are we afraid to hear? Academic freedom in the form of a lack of censorship and non-revisionist history is to peek into struggle from behind the privileged positions from which many of us sit. It is the only way to understand why parents of black young men are afraid to let them drive on their own and teach them protocol for hands on a steering wheel should they be pulled over as a regular life lesson. We cannot forget the worst of humanity throughout history or we are destined to repeat it. This is why in Jewish culture the words, “Never forget,” are profound and sacred. How do we know what we are seeing if we have not seen it before? We learn of people’s internal lives, struggles, pains, and triumphs by reading about them in books; watching unedited films of history, including the Nuremberg Trials (1945-46), the world’s universal outcry against evil. Students must know of The Tuskegee Experiment (Tuskegee Study, 1932), and, regardless of how disturbing, be taught to not look away. We integrate this into our own heart of darkness to see the potential for good and evil in all humankind and to know our own shadow (Carl Jung, 1933, The Relation Between Ego and the Unconscious).
Today, it is clearer than ever that asserting right versus wrong is a crime punished with retaliation and retribution. Simply look to the news to see that we are now condemning people for their truth, loyalty to country, and the Constitution. If no one teaches the Constitution in elementary or high school, we cannot expect students to understand that threatening a country we promised to protect by withholding aid money unless they interfere with our democratic presidential electoral process is a catalyst for war and genocide. Are we not embarrassed as a nation for watching people being marched out of the White House like it is the Salem witch trials or the Nazi’s clearing the Warsaw ghettos? The message is strong. Be silent or you may be next. Most disheartening is hearing students not understanding that what is happening in front of them is part of a pattern that has played out for millennia; that is, the struggle for power and control and to oust the ones who object to tyranny. America’s investment in the other seemingly continues. “Cruelty is contagious in uncivilized communities” (Harriet Jacobs, 1861, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself). Jacobs’ words could have just as easily been written today rather than in 1861. The timeless– and timeliness– of these great pieces of literature does not indicate that we are inclined to remain apathetic. On the contrary, teaching the humanities within the fabric of society initiates a movement toward an education where we are free thinkers and informed consumers. It ensures that we recognize events unfolding for what they are. Find something to move your students, and they will elevate beyond their current understanding.
There is a heart of darkness and a way out of it. A place of learning seeks to move students out of their comfort zones, to knock them a little off kilter by challenging paradigms of otherness and exclusion. To learn of struggle is to learn of the human spirit’s resilience even at moments when, “The world had taken a deep break and was having doubts about continuing to revolve” (Maya Angelou, 1969, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) – ahem, November 2020 anyone? To look back is to look ahead with hope and conviction. As educators and leaders, in all the many forms that may take, we must lead the charge and be unafraid to say that there is right from wrong, to compare love to hate, peace to war, and find our universal humanity. After all, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all” (Emily Dickinson, 1862, ‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers).