There’s a scene in The Great Debaters when debate coach Melvin Tolson, played by Denzel Washington, requires his students to work on enunciation through the following call-and-response:
Tolson: Who’s the judge?
Students: The judge is God.
Tolson: Why is he God?
Students: Because he decides who wins and loses. Not my opponent.
Tolson: Who’s your opponent?
Students: He doesn’t exist.
Tolson: Why doesn’t he exist?
Students: Because he is merely a dissenting voice to the truth I speak.
This dialogue conveys a notion so important to Tolson he has the students repeat the recitation again and again and again: There is truth. It matters not how it is framed by others, nor how complicated it might be, but how close what one is saying to God’s understanding. Tolson believes in an objective truth, that one can articulate what something is, what is happening, and why it’s happening.
This notion, which comforts me, also seems anachronistic in 2017 when many, both philosophically and intuitively, believe objectivity impossible. There are too many interests, too many angles, too many subjective experiences. This point of view–one I share to a point–can can be used as excuse. My concern–for both students and adults–is that we increasingly allow this underlying belief to excuse our incomplete conclusions, to justify our simplistic positions, and to question even the pursuit of truth. The consequences are severe: not only will we not strive for accuracy, we can’t imagine a truth beyond what we already believe.
We aren’t different than previous centuries of humankind in this regard. It is historically the norm to not see–or refuse to see–truth. To see the world accurately can highlight the need for change or sacrifice that, unmotivated, the powerful likely want no role in. (The pursuit of truth also illuminates the the majesty and magic of our lives; I personally believe that a meaningful life comes from pursuit of truth.) In her article on the truth and mythology of the Underground Railroad, New Yorker journalist Kathryn Schulz writes:
One of the biases of retrospection is to believe that the moral crises of the past were clearer than our own—that, had we been alive at the time, we would have recognized them, known what to do about them, and known when the time had come to do so. That is a fantasy. Iniquity is always coercive and insidious and intimidating, and lived reality is always a muddle, and the kind of clarity that leads to action comes not from without but from within. The great virtue of a figurative railroad is that, when someone needs it—and someone always needs it—we don’t have to build it. We are it, if we choose
To say, “We are living in a crisis” takes a courage that most don’t have. Because we only live one life, we cannot compare how “crisis-y” our era is to another. (Maybe things aren’t that bad? we wonder, and hesitate.) If privileged, it’s particularly challenging to declare a crisis because one may very well be benefiting from it. To claim a crisis often means pointing at crimes one would rather ignore, and the 5th does not work on your soul.
There is also power in identifying a crisis. A crisis has need. Strong leaders point out crises in ways we cannot deny, which imply something even more significant: this needs your help, your best efforts, your mind. Right now.
Thus, to use truth to effectively declare a crisis, one will both unnerve people and motivate them. One will animate people.
In this regard, our educational system is not only failing young people but failing a society that desperately needs them. Crises surround us. Most schools–and most educational leaders–aren’t spotlighting them.
As I finish this school year–I’m literally typing this one hour before summer break begins–I am dismayed at the marginalization of education. I use marginalization in a different way. We see crises (climate change, gun violence, the opioid epidemic, unheeded consumption). We assume groups out there are working on these crises: the police, non-profits, Bill Gates. Faraway from the crises–in fact, on the margins–is education.
Not only will my state of Washington likely perpetuate the new norm of underfunding schools by not doing its constitutional paramount duty, but by not fully funding schools, their inaction has already conveyed an insidious message: either young people in public schools aren’t all that important in addressing the crises of our times, or these crises out there aren’t crises at all.
In fact, public education isn’t of paramount importance.
This mindset costs not just kids but us: by admitting we aren’t putting all we should into education, we also cede our right to ask for much in return. We ask kids to pass tests instead of asking them to improve the world.
The lack of vision is impacting how some young people view the purpose of education. While having choice in classes allows students to follow their interests, I see more often students basing choices on what will look best to colleges and what will be easiest rather than what is most important. Two of my most disheartening quotes from students this year were: “I signed up for this regular class because I thought it would be easy” and “What do you think this is, Mr. Riley? A private school?”
The tenor must change. Educational leaders–superintendents, principals, teacher-leaders–must mount the courage to say, “The world is in a crisis, and we need you young people to get as smart and collaborative as you possibly can, as quickly as you can. We need your questions, your voices, and your energy. Students in Moses Lake, we need you to accurately understand what is happening to the climate, what is happening with guns in the United States, what is causing an increase in opioid overdoses. Students in SeaTac, we need you to talk with people with different political views, identify inaccurate news, and write arguments that inspire action. Students in Forks, we need you to write poetry that lifts souls, calculate measurements to help energy efficiency, and make healthy meals that bring people together.”
If we make clear the crises of today and the role young people must play, the students–unnerved, motivated, and animated–will rise to the occasion, apply their standards-based skills, and have purpose.
As our schools become more collectivistic, I see young people forming and living by an ethos similar to my grandparents’ of the Great Depression and World War II. Colson Whitehead describes it perfectly, “Freedom is a community laboring for something lovely and rare.”
I think that what is lovely and rare–a nation that is more united, more just, and more truthful–could be the next phase of America.
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