Between the World and Our Students

William Blake, "America a Prophecy," New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

William Blake, “America a Prophecy,” 1793. New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

Another hot summer of discontent dogs our heels as we prepare for the start of classes. It has been two years since Michael Brown was shot by a policeman in Ferguson, 18 months since a grand jury sitting in St. Louis County refused to indict officer Darren Wilson for his death, sparking protests in 170 cities across the United States.

Two days prior to the grand jury’s verdict in Missouri, 12-year old Tamir Rice was shot to death by officer Timothy Loehmann two seconds after Loehmann and a second officer slammed their squad car to within a few feet of the young boy playing with a toy gun in a Cleveland park. A grand jury convened by the Cuyahoga County prosecutor refused to indict either officer in the case.

These two were a small part of the hundreds of cases of black men, and women, killed by police in the past two years.

The death roll, sadly, infuriatingly, continued to grow over this past summer with, among others, the shooting of Sherman Evans in Washington DC (June 27), Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge (July 5), Philando Castile in suburban St. Paul (July 6), Earl Pinckney in Harrisburg (Aug. 7); and 23-year old Sylville Smith in North Milwaukee (Aug 13). According to an on-going project by the Washington Post, approximately 28% of the 587 individuals killed by police so far in 2016 (whose race was recorded) were black. An additional 17% were Latino. The proportions are similar to those from 2015.

Over the course of the sweltering summer we also witnessed the shooting deaths of numerous police officers, most notably five officers in Dallas, killed by Micah Xavier Johnson on July 7 and three officers in Baton Rouge, killed by Gavin Long, 10 days later. (Thirty-six officers have been killed by gunfire so far in 2016, which compares with 39 killed by gunfire in all of 2015).

And “witnessed” is the right word since, many of these deaths were recorded as they happened and circulated via social media, placing all of us at the “scene of the crime.”

William Blake, "Thus Wept the Angel..." 1793. New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

William Blake, “Thus Wept the Angel…” New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

Literally thousands have died in terrorist attacks in the past three months, from the massacre of 49 party-goers at an Orlando night club on June 12, to countless hundreds killed in attacks in Istanbul (June 28), Baghdad (July 3), Dhaka, Bangladesh (July 1), Balad, Iraq (July 7), Nice, France (July 14), and Kabul (July 23), among many others. And these do not even take account of the on-going annihilation of Syria. (Wikipedia carries a continually updated list of what it terms “terrorist incidents.”) Closer to home, in Chicago, 67 people, almost all black, and as young as 2, were murdered in July alone.

And to this list of unsettling events we can add the tumult of what has surely been the most unsettling presidential campaign in many decades.

The purpose of this catastrophic catalog is not to lend credence to the Trumpian charge that all “we” hold precious rests on the thinnest of threads (which only he holds in his hands), but rather to call attention to the fact that as our students arrive on campus over the next two weeks many, likely most, will carry the events of this summer with them in their heads and hearts, not to mention their smartphones. And so will we – faculty, staff, administrators, and all who have a hand in the education and well-being of our students.

The question is how should we address the events of the summer when our students return to class? How do we attend to our own health and well-being? I would propose both an immediate answer and some thoughts for the longer-term.

When Classes Begin

Most immediately, we must recognize the emotional toll that this past summer (and the year before that, and the one before that) has likely taken on our students and on us. We arrive at the first day of classes well prepared to teach calculus, Russian, Middle Eastern history, modern dance, Buddhism, organic chemistry, and much else. Addressing the crises of this and other summers doesn’t mean that we drop everything to examine the moment in which we live and ignore what we are trained to teach. Our responsibilities as teachers are much greater.

But we should, I would argue, acknowledge the emotional and mental costs of the on-going turmoil on our students, and recognize them in ourselves. We are humans before we are biologists or computer scientists, and many of our students want to know that we are not oblivious to what is happening in the world or to the pain that many of them feel.

In the end, such an acknowledgement is not difficult or time consuming. The easiest thing to do is to state, simply and directly, that the we are well aware that summer has been a hard one for students, just as it’s been for faculty, staff and all who work at the college. It is also important to note that there is support for students when they need it and to encourage them to speak to us or to others who can help in times of greater stress. But, even as we recognize how current events pull on their time and emotions, it is our responsibility as teachers to provide them the education they will need to succeed in the long run, and that we will strive to do that in each of our classes and all of our interactions with them.

In some classes, the subjects studied will directly address on-going events in the United States and elsewhere. But for most, our subject matter is different. Nonetheless all of our classes have as a goal the same fundamental objectives: to prepare students for their lives after college: to enable them to think analytically, reason critically, write persuasively, argue from evidence, engage with energy and passion, see different sides of a debate, and contribute productively, intelligently, and compassionately. These are things that they will learn in astronomy and art as well as in courses on Middle East politics and race in America. These are lessons to be absorbed in classrooms, athletic fields, co-ops, and dining halls.

Our task, then, is not to make our classes something that they are not intended to be or to privilege a relentless preoccupation with the present that can obscure a thoughtful consideration of both past and future. But it is a recognition of the burden of the present that allows us to better engage our students with their own future.

William Blake, "The Terror Answered," 1793. New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

William Blake, “The Terror Answered,” New York Public Library, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.

The Long Run

In the longer term, we answer the question of how we address the events of the summer by acknowledging that this is hardly a new question; the world is always with us although we like to think that we can somehow escape it once inside our classrooms. But not only does the “real” world shape the complex lives of our students, it also influences the outcomes we seek through our teaching and how we imagine and plan for a future that our graduates will soon inhabit.

Secondly, we answer the question by building communities that are both a part of the world and apart from it. When we invite students into our classrooms, laboratories, studios, athletic fields, and residence halls, we usher them into a world that should honor the communities they come from, but also allow them the space to imagine and practice new ways of thinking, new forms of being, the creation of new selves and new communities. In this sense, education as an act of transformation can help students recognize the urgency of the world while also understanding how they will need to prepare themselves in order to change it. In other words we want to help our students address, in Shakespeare’s words, “necessity’s sharp pinch” while equally gaining the patience and perseverance required not only to get to the end of a semester, but to last over a lifetime of struggle.

To the extent that we are strategically positioned between the world and our students, to borrow from Ta Nehisi Coates, we can most productively occupy this position by acknowledging the many ways that the world presses in on them, and us, and by providing them the knowledge, skills, and dispositions to understand and change the world for the better.

 

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