When I became a history teacher, my job was to help students think for themselves: to look at multiple perspectives and to make sound and reasoned judgements based on evidence. Today’s political climate makes it very difficult for educators. We are trying to help create the future of our nation and yet our jobs are being made more difficult by a government that is modeling irresponsible behavior for our young people. Government officials are speaking words of hatred for others; denigrating the free press; calling people who disagree the enemy; and supporting racist candidates for positions of power.
This divides the nation and teachers like myself must ask, where do we draw the line of common decency?
We work to teach our students that kindness, compassion and diversity matter. Young people are not born hating. They are taught to hate, they are taught to see differences. Our job as educators is to help young people see the possibilities for good in the world. We are tasked with creating a space that is physically and emotionally safe for all. We build community that is created through a balance of intellectual and emotional development for individuals and societies. Additionally, our job is to teach students to think critically, collaborate and make themselves socially adaptable in a global society.
Violence does not quell violence. Silence does not silence hate. Common sense and civilized discourse create understanding as well as thought provoking, bipartisan problem solving. This is what our country needs right now. It is what teachers are trying to evoke in our classrooms—civilized discourse that is reflective of evidence-based research and an understanding of our nation’s history.
We teach children to learn from the mistakes of the past: to investigate what worked and what did not work; to view the world through multiple perspectives so as to understand how our actions might impact others; and to understand that civil discourse and compromise are a better means to a positive outcome. As President John F. Kennedy so eloquently spoke to the Congress on National Health Needs in 1962: “For one true measure of a nation is its success in fulfilling the promise of a better life for each of its members. Let this be the measure of our nation.”
As educators, our goal is to help students acquire the skills needed to navigate this complex world in which we live. We need them to understand that helping those in greatest need is just as important to a nation as economic growth. A nation is made stronger and richer by the diversity of her people and ideas. Our Constitution is the base for the tapestry that creates our tomorrow. But, our present must define who we are through positive energy and creativity; understanding through rich and ongoing experiences; high expectations for behavior and performance; and above all else common decency. A peaceful world requires this of all people.
Color, race, gender, ethnic origin— these should not define us, but in our society we are judged on these aspects of our being daily. Realistically, these things are part of who we are but, in the end, we should be defined in history by how we treat others. Educators have a responsibility to embrace our diverse world, to teach students that civility and the Constitution must guide our interactions as a nation. To quote Martin Luther King, Jr.: “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”
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