Listening, Hearing, Changing

Steven Volk, November 30, 2015

Some people find this moment of  ferment on our nation’s campuses confusing, particularly as important principles that have defined the academic community are seemingly under assault. Safe space competes with academic freedom, intellectual diversity with political orthodoxy, and so on and so forth. It will take some time to sort it all out, particularly as not every protest seems well thought out and students, like all of us, are learning from their mistakes. But tumultuous moments such as the present also provide a way to hear things that, previously, we might have ignored. This week’s “Article of the Week” offers two such learning moments, one arising from the protest demands and the second, from a teacher’s reflections on her own practice.

Renaming: The Case of Woodrow Wilson

I am no longer surprised with how quickly protests have jumped from one one campus to another, for the underlying causes of concern and anger have been present – and unheard – for a long time. Student protests that recently have called our attention to the stubborn persistence of racial injustice both on campus and off have hopscotched from Yale to Ithaca,  Occidental to Princeton, Amherst to Brandeis, Lewis and Clark, and Western Washington. What started at the University of Missouri did not stay at Mizzou, as students, faculty and staff seized on potentially the most promising opening for change in a generation. Among demands that have been raised by students of color are for the renaming of buildings that honor individuals who were particularly notable in their defense of slavery or, after the Civil War, segregation and racism.

Student-Protesters-Princeton

Protesters at Princeton University (Photo by Mary Hui for The Washington Post)I

Among these, the case of Woodrow Wilson and Princeton stands out. President Wilson’s relationship to Princeton was anything but casual. He was an undergraduate (class of 1879), a professor (hired in 1890), and finally the university’s 13th president (1902). The deep identification of the university with Wilson can be seen all over the campus. Now, many students are questioning this relationship.

Wilson’s well known reputation as “the architect of a lot of modern liberalism” stands in stark contrast to his record on race relations which, in the muted terms of PBS’s “American Experience,” was “not very good.” In point of fact, it was a lot worse than that. Wilson was an unrepentant racist, a segregationist whose actions as President reversed the halting advances made by Black Americans in the years after Reconstruction. (For more on this see Eric S. Yellin, Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson’s America (Univ. of North Carolina, 2013).

With this history in mind, in mid-November, the Black Justice League, a year-old group of concerned students at Princeton, announced that they would occupy the office of Princeton president Christopher Eisgruber until he agreed to a set of demands, including the following:

“WE DEMAND the university administration publicly acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson and how he impacted campus policy and culture. We also demand that steps be made to rename Wilson residential college, the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs, and any other building named after him. Furthermore, we would like the mural of Wilson to be removed from the Wilcox dining hall. We understand that a name change does not dismantle racism, but also know that the way we lionize legacies set precedents.”

Calhoun-College

Calhoun College, Yale University

This call at Princeton was preceded by a similar demand at Yale that Calhoun College (i.e., residence hall), named for John C. Calhoun, a congressman, senator, vice president, secretary of state and war, as well as a staunch defender of states’ rights and an outspoken advocate of slavery, be retitled. A similar call was issued at Amherst College to retire Lord Jeffery Amherst as the college’s sports mascot. It was Amherst who wrote, in 1763: “Could it not be contrived to Send the Small Pox among those Disaffected Tribes of Indians? We must, on this occasion, Use Every Stratagem in our power to Reduce them.”

There is no simple answer to how colleges (or countries, for that matter) should deal with a past that is less than exemplary, and I don’t propose one here. But if some agreed that it was time for Yale to remove Calhoun’s name, the parallel demand to oust Wilson from Princeton seemed a bridge too far for many. Where, after all, would it all end. The editors at the New Jersey Star Ledger seemed to have this in mind when they wrote in their November 22 editorial that individuals such as Wilson were only part of the times in which they lived. “If we were to erase tributes to every historical figure with a repellent quality,” the editorial continued, “there would be no names left on any building, bridge, airport, school, river, park, statue or boulevard in the land.” Perhaps we should pause for a moment to let the full weight of that sink in. In any case, the editorial concluded, “The students at Princeton are right to acknowledge that the 28th President was a fierce segregationist, but to expunge the entire legacy of this transformative figure is historical myopia at its worst.”

Yet what students and their supporters at Yale and Princeton are saying is not that the “entire legacy” of these figures be “expunged,” but rather that the universities should stop and consider exactly what it means for the children of slavery and segregation, who you have invited to become a part of your community, to have to live, study, and work in buildings that celebrate the figures who were not just “at one” with their times, but staunch, active and outspoken proponents of slavery and segregation. This is not, in the end, a debate about whether the “repellent” acts of the past are to be deleted from historical memory, but whether those responsible for them are to continue to be honored in the present.

Was anyone listening to what the students are saying?

Davis-Family-NYT

John Abraham Davis, center, and his family at their farm in the early 1900s (New York Times)

Yes. On November 24, the New York Times published an informative and moving op-ed by Gordon J. Davis, a lawyer and the grandson of John Abraham Davis. In “What Woodrow Wilson Cost My Grandfather,” Davis describes how, early in the last century, his grandfather rose from being a laborer to a mid-level manager at the Government Printing Office only to be demoted, with countless other African Americans, by Wilson’s systematic purge of the African Americans from the Federal civil service. As Davis concluded, “Wilson was not just a racist. He believed in white supremacy as government policy, so much so that he reversed decades of racial progress. But we would be wrong to see this as a mere policy change; in doing so, he ruined the lives of countless talented African-Americans and their families.”

The same day, the Times editorial board threw in their lot with Princeton’s Black Justice League. “The overwhelming weight of the evidence argues for rescinding the honor that the university bestowed decades ago on an unrepentant racist,” the Times wrote. This is not about removing those aspects of history which current undergraduates find abhorrent; it is about no longer honoring those individuals for such actions. While the Times is hardly the avatar of progressive thinking, it is gratifying that its editors could hear.

Emily E. Smith

Emily E. Smith is a fifth-grade teacher at the Cunningham Elementary School in Austin, TX. She was hired as a language arts and social studies teacher, although she now calls herself a “teacher of social justice and the art of communication with words.” The journey she took to her new identity was one that involved considerable listening.

Smith was just awarded the 2015 Donald H. Graves Excellence in the Teaching of Writing award given at the annual convention of the National Council of Teachers of English held in Minneapolis. (My wife, Dinah, a professor of early childhood education, was at the conference, heard Smith’s acceptance speech, and brought it to my attention. Strike that: insisted that I read it.) Parts of Smith’s acceptance speech circulated in an article by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post, and I quote from that article here.

Emily-Smith-624x910

Emily Elizabeth Smith, fifth-grade teacher at Cunningham Elementary School in Austin, Tex. (Erich Schlegel, Washington Post)

“I’m white,” Smith began. “My classroom is not. Sure, it’s been my dream to work at an ‘urban’ school. To work with kids whose challenges I could never even fathom at such a young age. And changing at-risk lives through literature is almost a media cliché by now. These were, however, how I identified myself at the beginning of my teaching career. I was a great teacher. I taught children how to truly write for the first time and share meaningful connections on a cozy carpet.”

Yet Smith also understood that “something was missing.” Slightly more than 80 percent of K-12 teachers in the United States today are white. About half of public school students aren’t white. “That means,” she observed, “America’s children of color will, for the majority of their school years, not have a teacher who is a reflection of their own image. Most of their school life they will be told what to do and how to do it by someone who is white, and most likely female. Except for a few themed weeks, America’s children of color will read books, watch videos, analyze documents and study historical figures who are also not in their image.”

Smith’s understanding of what she was doing in her own classroom changed the day one of her students told her she “couldn’t understand because [she] was a white lady.” I don’t know why we are able to hear things at particular moments when the same messages has probably been delivered countless times without any effect. But sometimes we just do, and at that moment Smith heard. As she describes it, she went home “and cried, because my children knew about white privilege before I did. The closest I could ever come was empathy.”

From then on, she wrote, she chose to shift the curriculum she taught her class. Her 5th graders now are reading the issues that they want to explore. As they studied Sandra Cisneros, Pam Muñoz Ryan and Gary Soto, she saw a “light in their eyes I had never seen before.” TamalesThey read Langston Hughes’s “Let America be America Again” from “the lens of both historical and current events and realized that the United States is still the land that has never been. The land that my kids, after reading an excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s letter to his son that connected so deeply to their personal experiences, decided they still wanted to believe in. The land they decided to still hope for. The land that one of my kids quietly said would be changed by her generation. A generation of empathy.”

After reading about the Syrian crisis, Smith’s students “wrote poetry of hope, despair and compassion from the perspectives of the migrants. Many of my kids asked to write about their own journeys across the border and their [dreams] for a better future. One child cried and told me he never had a teacher who honored the journey his family took to the United States. He told me he was not ashamed anymore, but instead proud of the sacrifice his parents made for him.”

Smith concluded, “So as I stand here today I can declare that I am no longer a language arts and social studies teacher, but a self-proclaimed teacher of social justice and the art of communication with words.”

“Looking back,” she continued,

I think that my prior hesitation to talk about race stemmed from a lack of social education in the classroom. A lack of diversity in my own life that is, by no means, the fault of my progressive parents, but rather a broken and still segregated school system. Now that I’m an educator in that system, I’ve decided to stand unflinching when it comes to the real issues facing our children today, I’ve decided to be unafraid to question injustice, unafraid to take risks in the classroom — I am changed. And so has my role as a teacher.

I can’t change the color of my skin or where I come from or what the teacher workforce looks like at this moment, but I can change the way I teach. So I am going to soapbox about something after all. Be the teacher your children of color deserve. In fact, even if you don’t teach children of color, be the teacher America’s children of color deserve, because we, the teachers, are responsible for instilling empathy and understanding in the hearts of all kids. We are responsible for the future of this country.

Put aside your anxieties and accept your natural biases. Donald Graves once said, ‘Children need to hang around a teacher who is asking bigger questions of herself than she is asking of them.’ I know I’m going to continue to ask the bigger questions of myself and seek the answers that sometimes feel impossible, because my kids deserve it … you’re welcome to join me.

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