What Can We Expect Schools to Do about White Nationalism?

As the news stories about back-to-back (to-back) shootings emerged, I waited for what was surely coming.

Listening to talk radio while driving for an hour on Sunday morning, the stories from CNN, NPR, MSNBC and Bloomberg were similar: Shock and horror. Informed speculation about root causes. Serious conversation about domestic terrorism and white nationalism. Comments from Democratic presidential candidates (many of whom were moved by anger and frustration to expletives), calling for immediate Congressional action. Thoughtful remarks about gun control.

Then I turned to Fox. They were talking about… video games. And the role of the media (other media, evidently—not Fox, of course). How public schools had taken God out of the equation, leading to moral collapse and failed school policies. How the Internet and digital tools had fomented this crisis, so we all needed to put down our phones. The talk on Fox was all about mental health (another thing that public schools were lax in reporting or fixing). Thoughts and prayers a-plenty, laced with blame for public institutions.

The only thing in common: high praise for first responders.

Two distinct worldviews. Where does public education fit into this picture? If you’re patient, you’ll almost always get to hear what Joe Sixpack thinks ‘the schools’ have done wrong in shaping the next generation and how to fix these errors.

Is it fair for folks on the right to suggest that schools have absconded from their moral duty to imbue students with ethical principles? Should our first impulse be to ‘harden’ schools—or to be anti-racist role models for young children? What part can public schools and teachers play in building a more just and equitable society, reducing hate and violence?

Where do we start? Is it even our job?

First—I believe it is our job. As education thinkers and writers going back to Plato have noted, teaching is a moral calling. Dispensing information and nurturing skills are useless without a value-framed context for applying them. Any teacher who wants to step away from the certainty that what we say and do impacts kids, rippling throughout their lives, needs to think hard about going into real estate, instead.

Also–public education functions as a stage where Americans test and play out their deepest values and convictions.  You can’t escape. Someday, the shooter may come through the front doors of your school, throw the bomb through your open classroom window or threaten a Congressional Representative on your watch.  If you’re lucky, it will only be Jason from 4th hour, challenging you again over his right to paste a Confederate-flag sticker on his history book–but teachers always, always have to be thinking about what kids are taking away from their conversations and lessons.

I’m sure that some parents feel queasy about public school educators declaring their intention to teach in culturally and morally responsive ways. But the latest PDK poll indicates strong support for teaching Civics, and if introducing age-appropriate anti-racism lessons and anti-violence discussions isn’t ‘Civics,’ I don’t know what is.

There has always been confusion and dissension over the purpose of public education, but 45% of teachers view preparing students to be good citizens as public schools’ main goal. This is not an exclusive objective—we still need to be establishing basic academic and life skills; we need to send our kids down the job preparation path, at a minimum.

But it seems to me that underneath all of the things we are trying to accomplish, nurturing the qualities that make a person a good neighbor, parent, worker and community member boil down to citizenship. People who drive hundreds of miles to kill people whose skin color is different, or whose names reflect their families’ country of origin, aren’t good citizens.

How to start? There is a lovely blog (written in 2017) circulating recently, entitled How am I supposed to confront white supremacy and racism on the first day of school?  ‘From the minute my students walk through the door, I want them to know that they are loved and accepted for exactly who they arethat their voices carry power, that they are part of a community.’  It’s filled with beautiful thinking that cuts across subject disciplines and age levels, and gives teachers a moral framework for action.

But I also suggest that we can be far more specific. There are books for small children that address gun violence and racism.  We can build resistance to disinformation. With older students, we can explore the science and data behind mass violence.  We can also teach our students basic American geography and history without whitewash.

And–as trusted citizens, we can pull up our socks and become part of the growing national community of resistance to what is happening, every day, in our government. We can correctly label this, every chance we get, as domestic terrorism.

I can see the hands going up right now—I don’t trust my child’s teacher to teach ‘Moby Dick,’ let alone white nationalism. I’m fearful of my kids’ teachers’ political opinions, because they don’t align with mine. I don’t want some crazy anti-gun teacher criticizing my right to hunt deer.

The problem is–for all their flaws, schools are what we have, the only existing educational infrastructure available for children. I don’t have total faith in schools to accurately illuminate and warn against white nationalism, across the board. But better to start somewhere than declare teachers and schools useless in this war we are all fighting.

I take my inspiration for this perhaps overly optimistic hope from visiting Germany–and learning about how they teach their own history, now. From my own blog:

Our guide began by telling us that the impressive, forbidding structure we were looking at across the placid lake was not a museum. Museums are for sharing cherished cultural artifacts, he said. There are plenty of those in Germany, and we encourage you to visit them. A documentation center, on the other hand, is a public record of a human failure—one for which Germany was responsible. It was Germans’ moral duty to keep the archived memory alive at the Documentation Center, in concentration camps, and courtrooms.

He spoke of regional political differences pre-War, how a country in acute financial distress could be utterly divided about causes and solutions. He talked about generational differences and how it took Germans three full generations to understand how a handful of men turned a fundamentally decent people into killers, persuading those for whom horrific prejudice was just not a deal-breaker, if Germany could be restored to greatness. 

Someone asked the obvious question: How on earth could so many rational people buy into Hitler’s psychosis?

Ah, he said. This is where people from every nation must pay attention. Hitler was a genius at using available media and technology. Crystal radios were made cheap, and the same sticky message—an alternate, economically driven message of national pride—was pumped into all homes. “News” was what the party decided.

Public rallies were enormously effective. A common enemy had been clearly identified, the future was brighter because there was a plan for everyone, not merely the political elites. The ultimate community-building success.

I asked, as a teacher, what German schoolchildren were taught about Germany’s role in World War II. It was part of their national curriculum, he told us. They began with equity and community in early childhood, accepting differences and playing together. When students were 12, they read Anne Frank. Media literacy and logic and an intense focus on preparation for good, attainable, satisfying jobs were part of the program, in addition to history, economics and the predictable disciplines. We do not avoid our history, he said.

So what do you do in America, he asked?

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