Thought for the Day: Education
Parker J. Palmer, American author, educator, and activist who focuses on issues in education, community, leadership, spirituality and social change, notes:
“I have thought often and painfully of the education I received — in some of the best colleges in this country — about the history of the Third Reich. I was taught by good historians, some of them award-winning. But I was taught the history of Nazi Germany in such a way that I felt as if all of that murderousness had happened to another species on another planet.
My teachers were not Holocaust revisionists. They weren’t saying it didn’t happen. They taught the statistics and the facts and the theories behind the facts, but they presented them at such objective arm’s length that the inwardness of the events was never revealed to me. All was objectified and externalized, and I ended up orally and spiritually deformed as a consequence.
There are two things that I failed to learn from my history courses on Nazi Germany — things that I should have learned, and did learn painfully in later years. One was that the very community I grew up in, on the North Shore of Chicago, had its own fascist anti-Semitic tendencies. I grew up in Wilmette, Illinois, and if you were a Jew in the Chicago area, you didn’t live in Wilmette. You didn’t live in Evanston or Kenilworth, either, because there was fascism at work. I should have been taught that. Had my life been connected with history in that way, it would have helped me understand my own time and place, and my own involvement in the same evil. Without that knowledge, there was no way for me to grow morally.
The second, even more deeply inward thing I didn’t learn is that there is within me, in the shadow of my soul, a little Hitler, a force of evil that, when the difference between you and me gets too great, will order me to kill you off. I won’t do it with a bullet or a gas chamber but with a category, a word that renders you irrelevant to my universe: ‘Oh, you’re just a [fill in the blank].”
(“The Grace of Great Things,” September 1998, quoted in The Sun, June 2019, p.46).
Palmer doesn’t even mention the separation of Poles, Italians, Chinese . . . , but especially the Blacks and Whites in Chicago, where I was born and lived until when I was four years old, when my family moved down state. I returned after I had earned my Bachelor’s degree – at Southeast Missouri State College in Cape Girardeau, birth place of Russ Limbaugh. I don’t remember any Blacks or Latinos in any of my classes in the late 1960s – although that has changed now.
After graduation, my first teaching job was in an inner-city Chicago public high school. The students were smart enough; the education opportunity not so great. My ninth grade students could read 1st to 10th grade level – all in the same classroom. In that first year with minimal training and no experience, I taught classes for English, history, geography, and EMH (Emotionally & Mentally Handicapped – not a really good label for anyone). The administrators thought I was a good teacher because my students stayed in my classroom. I probably worked harder than I had ever done before or since; I loved my students, but I wasn’t well qualified, and many of the students had huge challenges. Several of my girls were pregnant or already had babies; at 14, they said they wanted someone finally to love them.
One of my biggest shocks as a teacher was when we were covering WWII in my history class; several of the students said they had never heard of our U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki!!! They didn’t know about the U.S. use of atomic bombs that struck mainly civilians and had medical ramifications for generations after the attacks. Of course, they learned about it in my class.
If we, in the U.S., can not admit to how things have been, how can we prevent them from happening again? If we can see only positive aspects of the U.S., how can we change the bad aspects? In Michael Moore’s movie, Where to Invade Next, he looks at great practices in other countries: Italians get lots of vacation time; the French public school children serve each other at small round tables and practice conversations as they eat healthy, several course lunches; in Germany, students are taught the bitter truth about the Holocaust and the Third Reich.
The rise of hateful voices in the U.S. would not come as such a surprise if we had really been paying attention to fringe groups and learning why they believe and act as they do.
One group working to provide accurate history and insights that will help us make good choices is –
Facing History and Ourselves, a non-profit empowering teachers and students to think critically about history and to understand the impact of their choices. <https://www.facinghistory.org>.
“There are acts that oppose the flow of life and growth and human dignity. They must be dealt with courageously,” said Stephen R. Schwartz in “The Prayer of the Body III.”
Much is good about our world, but much needs to change.
Moral growth is essential: for ourselves and our nation.
Banner photo from Facing History website.