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Keep Your Eyes On The Prize

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Your age has a direct effect on what you are taught in history class. If you were in school during the Vietnam War, chances are you weren’t being taught anything about it (save for a current event discussion or two.) If you attended school immediately following World War II, curriculum didn’t include a section on internment camps. But these gaps, in theory, should be closed by life experience. Home life, including television, and adult learning (in any form) should eventually create a seamless sense of American history.

Whether unique or not (my personal) recent experience would dispute this scenario. Conversations prompted by the 50th anniversary of The March on Washington have revealed startling ignorance of (relatively) recent American history. My (utterly unscientific) sample included people in every decade from 20s – 70s. It would be a safe assumption that those people in their late 40s to early 50s might not have a full understanding of the history of the civil rights movement. The March, which many would identify as the fulcrum of the movement, happened before their arrival or shortly thereafter. But that particular (non-random, self-selecting) sample was not lacking in information. It was the younger people who seemed to have no knowledge beyond there having been a speech. What led to the March, the climate at the time, the danger, the heroism, and the cast of characters were all news to them. Even those at the anniversary celebration on the National Mall (presumably having an interest in the subject) did not appreciate the significance of the ringing of the bell salvaged from the Birmingham 16th Street Baptist Church.

Going beyond the 1963 March and the people who brought it to life, are the politics that preceded and proceeded. The significance of speakers; Lynda Bird Johnson Robb and Caroline Kennedy was lost on those in their 20s and 30s. More than once I dutifully explained the civil rights legislation that was crafted and signed by their respective fathers. It is hard to fathom how the details of the civil rights movement and all that happened in the 1960s could not be a major part of K-12 American history. History, like most subjects, builds on prior knowledge. Without covering the civil rights movement how does one teach women’s rights, union/migrant workers’ rights and the LGBT movement? How does one cover international civil rights and racial/ethnic issues without discussing our own domestic fight?

I’ve actually no doubt that the civil rights movement is comprehensively covered in many (if not most) schools across the nation. I suspect that the reason for those blank stares and awkward silences I received was due to the time period in which the students were taught. Learning about the 1960s in the 1980s or 1990s must have seemed abstract. Growing up in a Reagan, “greed is good”, post-affirmative action, post-Title IX world, would make the black and white imagery seem archaic and less relatable. But the thing is, it’s not an abstraction. A lack of understanding about the fight (that has not yet been won) is dangerous. If we aren’t conscious we can let too many things slide. When we see things out of context we are more willing to wave our hand and dismiss bigotry or racism. When we don’t know about the Voting Rights Act we might not notice it slipping away.

What we learned in school (whether in the classroom or out) will always shape us to some degree. But that learning and understanding should just be the start of understanding our world. We need to know what came before to appreciate how best to go forward. It is worth mention that my random unscientific sample included people of varying ethnicity and race. The lack of knowledge/understanding was equally distributed. A woman standing behind me (at the 50th anniversary) referred to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s infamous speech as ending the KKK and white supremacy. Part of me wanted to live in her world, but the other part of me wanted to forcibly open her eyes.

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Posted by on September 1, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Education

 

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A New Year’s Resolution

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January is not the cheeriest of months. Unless you celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in an exceptionally festive manner, there’s not much to break up the long cold dark month. February has Valentine’s Day, March has St. Patrick’s Day and (depending on the year) some festive religious holidays. April has hope that the winter is over, and so on. But January is tough. It lands right at the shortest day, longest night time of the year and after months of anticipation of frivolity. Depending on the degree of anticipation or frivolity, January 2nd can be quite the bummer.

The noisemakers have hushed, the streamers swept and the glitter has flaked from our party hats. The decorations have been put back or tossed and it’s just the same old home again. Gone are the pretty distractions and “I’ll think about it tomorrow”-ness. We look around and the world (our own and the larger one) is crying out for our attention. Our work misses us, as do the mundane chores of our lives. The world is desperate for our attention both internationally and right here. We wake refreshed from our New Year hangover having to give serious thought to realistic gun control, mental health policy and fiscal matters. We toss out stale holiday carbohydrates as we consider local lives still upended by disaster. It is all quite sobering particularly after weeks of festivity.

There are those (during any time of year) who choose not to face the sobering reality; their tolerance level cannot bear it. They tuck deeply into their work, focus on family members and/or employ their substance of choice and manage the best they can. But somewhere between being swallowed up by the world’s ills and responsibility for repairing them, and turning away (literally or figuratively) is a sweet balance. Humans are responsible for the world they inhabit. People are also responsible for their own happiness. There are people whose very definition of happiness is caring for others and/or repairing the world, and we are grateful to them. For the rest of us we are most happy when are lives are a mix of internal/external and work/play. There is no greater feeling than doing something (anonymously) for others. But going out to lunch with a dear friend can be a kick in the pants too.

As we go forth in this new year let’s commit ourselves to being near and far-sighted in our view of the world. Let us be kind to ourselves, but never at other’s expense. Let us find ways to repair the world; at home, in our neighborhood and worldwide. Let us also find reasons to celebrate regularly. Let the calendar guide you (a full-blown MLK birthday party) or just your mood (take-out pizza is only to be eaten in formal dress.) Every month (if not every week and every day) there’s a reason to celebrate the fact that we’re still here! And everyday there are countless reasons to help to create the world we want to inhabit.

Happy New Year!

 
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Posted by on January 2, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Holiday, Well-Being

 

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