Saturday, January 3, 2015

Which Line to Tow?

by Dan Bruno, M.Ed., NBCT

I hope this post offends no one, but, given the subject matter, that is highly unlikely. I have been troubled lately about the unrest that seems to be rippling across the country and wondering what role we, English/Language Arts Teachers, have to play in it. There are a number of rich themes that any one of us could spend an entire year teaching: Freedom of Speech, Race, Violence as a Way of Life, Public Service, Corruption, the Power of Fear, etc. As Secondary Level educators, I feel like we have an even more urgent responsibility than our cousins at various other points in the educational spectrum. Elementary schools are generally concerned with building foundational skills and teaching young children who really cannot think deeply on moral puzzles of this many jagged, disjointed pieces. Middle schools could begin to broach the topic in civics courses, but the students still may not be ready to full understand the topic or fully empathize with all of the individuals involved. By college, students generally have a very specific way of seeing the world that they developed in high school.

No, we are the stage at which the most higher-order moral development occurs. In the development of identity, students begin to decide for what they will stand and for what they will fight. They develop fully formed images of themselves as certain types of people. To paraphrase Kohlberg, high school students are postconventional moral thinkers. Mix in the hormones and physical changes of adolescence, and that postconventionality becomes highly significant. The way they see the world colliding with their own moral principles and how they react to these collisions are things we can teach through the medium of literature. But should we? If we should, which works should we choose?

Something there is that subverts the common order. Oftentimes, teachers are forced to mend the very social walls that hem in their practice, silence their hearts, and limit the ways they can serve the students with which they have been entrusted. But these walls are important, too. Not all teachers have the best interests of students at heart: some wear their students down until they mindlessly accept the teacher's view of the world; others are just not worthy of the responsibility of teaching young people. So where does that leave the rest of us?

The truth is that I don't know, and the fact that I don't know is the truth. This personal conflict is what we as teachers should model. I have friends and colleagues whose friends and family are police officers. To expect them to take a counter-cultural stance that excoriates their loved ones is myopic and naive; however, if they spoke about the way the current unrest affected their lives, we might be able to communicate something distinctly human to students in the midst of a social storm that has gone far beyond the control of its progenitors.

Isn't the human what we teach? Don't we ask our students to have literary experiences with us to try on the shoes of another, not find a comfortable pair and go for a walk in isolation? There has been tragedy and death, grief and anguish, shame and a loss of faith. What has shocked me is that there hasn't yet been a voice offering sincere condolence, a gesture of real human reconciliation, a brief moment of mutual understanding. Instead, death is answered with death. Reconciliation is met with silence. And our students must be sitting there wondering why the adults who taught them to play nicely together cannot seem to learn the same lessons.

So, as the media outlets publish stories about Macklemore's impending child and the ways in which Downton Abbey can teach fiscal responsibility (seriously, that is a real story on CNN.com as I write this), I am renewing my commitment to showing my students the way to understanding other people's journeys, of living up to the promise a literary experience can deliver. But I have to be careful not to simply make intellectual clones of myself. In fact, I think Kahlil Gibran said it best:  "The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and his lovingness. / If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind." I only hope that we can be examples in this tough time through our faith in what we teach and our love for our students.