As I craft a unit focusing on civil disobedience and ask my students to consider the Transcendentalist views of Henry David Thoreau and his influence on Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela, I have been taken aback by a few recent events. Before I continue, let me first lay a rather superficial foundation for my thoughts in the interest of space and time. Thoreau was clearly a man of principle who believed that an individual’s purpose and rights could be perverted by the “social mob.” He talked about how “majority rule” ignored the rights of individuals in matters that should be ruled by conscience. His thoughts have been associated with non-conformity, not as rebellion, but as a way to conscientiously object to unjust laws and stand for his individual conscience and moral principles.
This discussion has been going on in my American literature classroom after our study of Gerda Weissmann Klein’s memoir All But My Life. A Holocaust survivor, Klein recalls her experiences in Nazi forced labor camps and her survival of the three-month long, wintry Death March. Her experience was horrific, yet touching and inspiring. It allowed my students to investigate more deeply and personally the impact of Nazi persecution on individual, actual people. My students were astonished and shocked by what they learned.
We connected these ideas by looking at how society forms stereotypical views based on a local, national or global crisis. We continue to examine the impact of these stereotypical views on INDIVIDUALS. We shy from big numbers. We could talk about the 6 million Jews who were exterminated during the Holocaust, no doubt a staggering, though incomprehensible number. But stereotypes are easy to apply to large groups because in large groups people lose their individual identity. Examining these topics through the eyes of individuals has shed new light on the impact of stereotyping for my students.
Now, what we have been studying through literature, reflective writing, and discussion has compelled me to comment on topics that have been the focus of several Twitter discussions and blogs I’ve been following.
1. Scroggins v. Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak
The messages communicated by Scroggins via his attack on Anderson’s YA novel, Speak, are insulting and demeaning to many who have found Anderson’s book to be powerful and necessary. Scroggins is guaranteed the right to his opinion by the First Amendment; however, he ignores the rights of readers and authors across the country based on the very same principle. As a Christian, I am appalled that he believes he speaks in my best interest. His opinion potentially radicalizes Christianity in a way that I believe is inaccurate and repulsive. The resulting stereotypes would ignore my INDIVIDUAL belief and right to choose for myself and my own children reading that I believe will be meaningful and empowering. He has also infuriated my many students who have CHOSEN to read Speak. They each took from it a unique meaning and significance, but they agreed that the book was, indeed, one of the most influential and powerful books they had ever read. Scroggins has overgeneralized, marginalized, stereotyped people and underestimated the reaction he would ignite when he equated rape with soft core porn. He ignored the individual. He ignored the world teens live in every day. He ignored the many women, rape victims themselves, who have found their own voices thanks to Anderson’s book. He instead chose to demonstrate “Christian” values as those which equate recreational sex with rape. Where is his conscience? Where is his value of the human spirit and human dignity? Where is his recognition of wrongdoing? Where is his empathy for victims of sexual crime? He was loud, selfish and inaccurate–a dangerous combination.
2. Politicians, Media Ratings and Rich People v. Teachers
Now there’s an even match. When will our culture stop vilifying teachers? When will people realize that politicians invent education “issues” to win votes? School is one of the few compulsory experiences in the US; therefore, politicians can instantly broaden their appeal when they focus on “fixing” the “shortcomings” of American public education, which translates: fire teachers, close schools and make them profitable factories by which students enter as individuals and are either spit out as cookie-cutter copies of one another or altogether alienated from learning. When it comes to matters of children and money, they have the public’s immediate attention. The problem is that when politicians, media sweethearts and billionaire dropouts have conversations about quality education, they intentionally leave out the voices of effective teachers and education leaders. They fail to acknowledge that in so doing, they stereotype teachers as “bad” and ineffective. They ignore the MANY “supermen” and “superwomen” who are in the trenches every single day, overworked, overwhelmed and under-appreciated, who love working with children and seeing them grow both socially and intellectually, who somehow insulate themselves against mass firings, finger-pointing and the growing harangue about “broken” schools. They ignore both new and veteran teachers who do more with less every day, who work tirelessly to prepare students to function in a digital world when they have few digital tools at their disposal, who became educators without thinking for one minute about how much they would be paid, and who work through the summer months reading, learning and preparing at their own expense to become better teachers for their next 150+ students. These public figures equate ALL teachers with the most ineffective teachers they had when they were in school 30 years ago. Their overgeneralization has taken a deeply emotional toll on hardworking, effective teachers who toil in classrooms across the country every day because they were born to be teachers. For shame! They claim to represent and advocate for under-represented people. I am here to say that their self-righteous efforts have resulted in a monstrous attack on some of the most selfless INDIVIDUALS in the American workforce, essentially rendering them silent by leaving them out of their conversation. If they want to know what really goes on in schools across the country, if they want to see how real teachers want to reform education in a way that makes sense, they need to step out of the spotlight and step into American classrooms and engage some professional educators in real conversations about school reform.
Public figures must stop feeding the “social mob” through misrepresentation and distortion and start recognizing the value of individuals. Instead of tearing people down, perhaps, like Gerda Weissmann Klein, they could build on hope, heart and faith to lead an effort to overcome the obstacles we all face. Must we destroy to create? Can we not collaborate to improve? Shouldn’t real reform be a victory for every individual and not just a biased, quick-fix political stunt?
Powerful voices must first listen carefully and consider the lives, the sacrifices, the rights and the experiences of individuals, human beings, before they SPEAK.