This Thursday, New York City students return to school after a summer-break of friends, relaxing, camps, and family time. Yet, even though they have been gone from school for only three months, they return to a country, and a world, that is vastly different from the one they left when the last bell rang in June.
Just in the last three months, Russia began an invasion of Ukraine (with separatists shooting down a civilian airplane), an Ebola outbreak continues in West Africa, the police-military complex became an issue at the fore-front after two highly-reported shootings of black men by policemen in New York City and Ferguson, Missouri, Israel and Palestine engaged in a month-long war, a new terrorist group’s incursion in Iraq resulted in America’s return, and our broken immigration system came to a headway as Central American children attempted to escape gang violence in their homelands. This is just a snippet of the latest news, and it all took place over the summer. And as students return to school, they need to be talking about these issues, with all the complexity that comes with them.
In an increasingly chaotic world, our young people are often seen, with an ode to Holden Caulfield, as the only strain of innocence remaining. To this end, we frequently isolate them from the evils that pervade the rest of society. In school, students learn knowledge and skills, but frequently avoid current affairs, especially if they reek of controversy. Yes, students should know how to do complex math problems, interpret historical texts, and conduct science experiments. But we cannot treat them as stationary figures in time that should be preserved, and only exposed to the harsh realities of the real world upon graduation. They need to be talking about current issues now.
But teachers are reluctant to bring these issues up in school. Indeed, a recent study undertaken by the “Commission on Youth Voting and Civic Knowledge” demonstrated that only 38% of teachers thought that they would get strong support from their district in teaching about election, and only 28% of educators thought parents would support them. And this is just teaching about an election- let alone an issue as controversial as the recent events in Ferguson.
In 2005, when I started college at Brown University in Rhode Island, our then-President Ruth Simmons gave a powerful convocation that coincided with the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. I still remember, though, that while she empathized with the plight of individuals who had been affected by the disaster, her solution for us, as students, was disappointing. Instead of calling us to action, she declared, “One of the best things you can do in the moment of tragedy is to focus on your studies.” This same attitude prevails in every level in our education system. There are those who discuss controversial issues and focus on solving them. And there are students. This logic cannot hold.
It would be trite to say that our country is changing, but it is. America’s role in the international arena has indisputably been minimized, from China’s emergence to the threat of ISIS in the Middle East. Racial tensions are rising, especially with police departments around the country. Our immigration system remains broken.
Young people will face these problems when they graduate, so they should learn about them now. And they should not just learn about them, but they should seek to be part of the solution. Who better than our young people to address issues of racist police policies, given that they affect them every day? Who better than young people to discuss immigration policy, given that they will grow up in a country in which they majority of citizens will be minorities? Who better than young people to discuss the controversies with high-stakes testing and education reform, given that they go to school?
And so as school starts this week, teachers should dedicate themselves to discussing the tumultuous summer with their students. They should talk about Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island, in all the complexities that those deaths present. They should talk about the emerging threats in the Middle East, and how America’s role in the world is changing. They should talk about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, and the reality of unequal treatment for Africans and those in the West. They should do this not only because it will help students learn. But they should talk about these controversial issues because students might actually come up with some solutions.
– Scott Warren, Executive Director
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