What alarmed me most, however, was what I saw in student eyes from up on that stage. Those who wanted the event to take place made eye contact with me. Those intent on disrupting it steadfastly refused to do so. It was clear to me that they had effectively dehumanized me. They couldn’t look me in the eye, because if they had, they would have seen another human being. There is a lot to be angry about in America today, but nothing good ever comes from demonizing our brothers and sisters. ~Allison Stanger
These are the words of a professor who participated in an attempted campus event for Charles Murray to speak (attempted because chanting, chair/window-banging, fire alarm-pulling, etc. ultimately prevented his voice from being heard).
Most, if not all, teachers I know advocate for the principle that we teach our students how to think, not what to think. They invite debate, research, critical thinking, and civil discourse.
So, what is happening here? What is getting so broken when assumptions and hatred win over open-mindedness and compassion?
I believe it comes down to dehumanizing those that seem on “the other side,” even as we work to dispel intolerance. And while I want to make it clear that I don’t believe teachers are to blame for this occurrence, I believe there are some important questions we can ask ourselves to ensure we are, at the very least, not contributing to the problem:
- Do our students get the sense that there’s a “right answer” when discussing social justice issues?
- Do we make more room for social issues that align with our personal ideology than with a wider scope (ie, issues facing only one group, a specific political agenda, etc)?
- When there are misconceptions, do we work to familiarize our students with the individuals around whom those misconceptions center? (see a great example of Pernille Ripp’s class Skyping with a refugee).
- When we direct our students to research material, do we ensure it is as neutral as possible, or at the very least, balanced?
- When we disagree with our students’ (and usually their parents’) opinions, how do we respond? What measures do we take to ensure a safe exchange of ideas to promote learning for all (see lessons I learned when parents of one of my 5th grader started pulling their student early each day to miss our read-aloud that involved race)?
- And perhaps most important of all: When we encounter opinions that sharply clash with our own, do we ourselves start to define that student/parent/colleague more by that opinion than by their humanity? In other words, do we fixate more on how we differ than how much we share in common?
As I have continued to ponder this matter, I realize that I keep seeing this message again and again — that there is genuine power in focusing on what makes each of us human. Here are a few examples from recent resources:
#1: From “Why do Labels Matter?” by SoulPancake
“If we get curious about each other and don’t stick in our bubble, I think that actually can save the world…Because that is where you get to the unifying things…You realize, oh, someone who has been criticized their whole life for what they look like — all of a sudden I remember the places where I’ve been criticized and I go, We have common ground there. So in a sense, we are all the same, but it’s through the differences that you get there.”
#2: “Drawing a Line in the Sand” from Seth Godin’s blog
Problems aren’t linear, people don’t fit into boxes. Lines are not nuanced, flexible or particularly well-informed. A line is a shortcut, a lazy way to deal with a problem you don’t care enough about to truly understand.
#3: “The Tough Work of Improving School Culture” by Brendan Keenan
#4: Trailer for Accidental Courtesy by Daryl Davis
“For the past few decades the black musician, actor and author has made it his mission to befriend people in hate groups like the Klu Klux Klan by calmly confronting them with the question:
“How can you hate me if you don’t even know me?””
Even when we vehemently disagree, there is room for us all. Because of our humanity. And this is a message our students deserve to have both protected and modeled in every classroom.
featured image: DeathToTheStockPhoto