“Don’t mistake dissent for disloyalty.”
from the song “The American in Me” by Michael McDermott
Early in the first semester of my upper-level literature courses, I warn my students that my job is to challenge them to question everything they’ve ever held as “right, true, or good.” I go on to say that if I do not offend them at some point during the course, I will have failed as their teacher.
My purpose is NOT and I DO NOT attempt to tell them what they should believe or where they should put their faith, and I certainly DO NOT try to foist any of my personal beliefs upon them. That is what demagogues and pedagogue’s do, not teachers – at least not the good ones. Rather, my purpose is for my students to try their beliefs in the crucibles of reason, common sense, and historicity. More often than not, the result is that their belief systems are actually strengthened as – for what is for many of them the first time – they are being asked to consider earnestly and to defend the legitimacy of what they’ve been more-or-less programmed to accept as fact.
In today’s political climate, teachers like me, who subscribe to independent thinking and thrive on thought-provoking dialogue with students, are being threatened by politicians looking to score quick points in their own “Wag-the-Dog” culture wars. These same politicians are recruiting well-intentioned but illiberal-minded parents and school board members across the country to join in their crusade against anything that runs counter to their typically ultra-conservative worldview or that may force our young children to confront notions and historical truths that may make them uncomfortable. God forbid.
George Orwell’s novel 1984 is far too often invoked as a knee-jerk accusation aimed at those who make even the slightest attempt at governmental oversight. Today, however, I feel justified in alluding to Orwell and his seminal work in response to the establishment of an online “tip-sheet” by the newly-inaugurated Republican governor of Virginia, Ralph Youngkin.The tip sheet is designed not only to allow but to encourage students and parents to inform on any teacher who engages in what he calls “divisive” teaching. I can’t help but point out that the teachings of Jesus were considered “divisive” by both Roman and Jewish authorities of his day. Had such a tip-sheet existed in his time, Judas may have been a user.
Of course, Youngkin’s stated purpose is in line with the political Right’s ongoing manipulation of its base by ginning up its moral indignation and leading a crusade against a straw man named Critical Race Theory, which is an approach to teaching history and contemporary reality with a sensitivity to the historical truth of the damage done by systemic racism in this country. The rub of it is, however, that the number of teachers utilizing CRT in the classroom is statistically nearly nil and the number of people who actually understand CRT – teachers and politicians included – is nearly just as low. Even more frightening is the Republican governor’s goal of rooting out “divisive practices” within his state’s schools. If that doesn’t chill you to your American soul, you might want to brush up on your Constitution.
What type of America are we living in when students and their parents are being asked to inform on their teachers through an anonymous tip-sheet? If horrific images of one of communist Russia, China, and Cuba’s worst practices do not flash through your mind, you’re either ignorant of those dystopian worlds, you’re not paying attention, or you have swallowed so much of your own ideologically-poisoned Kool-Aid that common sense and indignation at the proper threats to our democracy and children are beyond your ability to perceive. In fact, such an insidious practice of anonymous naming has already occurred in America in the time of the Red Scare and the formation of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the era of McCarthyism in the 1950’s.
America is without question the longest-sustained, large-scale liberal democracy the world has ever seen, and it is arguably the greatest country to have ever existed, but that greatness was built on the diversity of its citizenship, its allowance of a diversity of thought and beliefs, and a willingness to acknowledge and learn from its mistakes and self-inflicted atrocities. The greatest threat to America’s continuation is any group’s insistence (Right or Left leaning) on unanimous adherence to a monolithic worldview, a teaching of a jingoistic version of its history, and the denial of its national sins. Just as it is appropriate and necessary to teach of the glories of America, it is equally imperative to teach of its shame.
In the movie Wall Street in his defense of capitalism, Gordon Gecko, somewhat surprisingly and certainly against the most basic of Christian values, asserts that “Greed is good.” I’d invoke the spirit of his ironic claim by suggesting that “Guilt is good.” As a lifelong Catholic, the notion has certainly been deeply ingrained in my psyche, and I can attest to its role in helping me to avoid repeating past sins.
We should not be sheltering our children from the inherited guilt of our American sins, namely the abduction and enslavement of millions of Africans, the once explicitly-stated and implemented policy of the extermination of indiginous peoples, the internment of our fellow Americans of Japanese descent, the subjugation of women to second class status, the abuse of our labor class, the demonization of the LGBTQ+ community, the aforementioned Red Scare, and our occasional war of specious justification. Just as my guilt and shame over my own sins help me to avoid repeating them, as a nation, we need to own our sins in order to become even better as a people and to be a true and worthwhile exemplar of liberal democracy on the international stage.
Trigger Warning for the “snowflakes” like Youngkin and his ilk: In the past, I have taught; in the present, I do teach; and in the future, I will teach such texts as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huckleberry Finn,The Jungle, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, The Awakening, It Can’t Happen Here, MLK’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” The Things They Carried, Beloved, and “woke” (That ought to piss off a few folks.) short stories too many to count.
I will continue to teach these seminal texts until shortsighted alarmists (notice my avoidance of referring to them as fascists) like Youngkin and their “thought police” break down my classroom door. At which point, America will have been reduced to a failed experiment and teachers to propagandists. In the words of Melville’s Bartleby, the Scrivener, that fictional American subversive, “I’d prefer not to” teach at all.
Whoever believes, as the character played by Ali McGraw says in the movie Love Story, that “Love [or Patriotism] means never having to say ‘you’re sorry,’” has either never been in love or they are a complete narcissistic moron.
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