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Kenneth Bernstein

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What Beyond Curriculum Should We Be Teaching?

Posted: 01/17/11 11:55 AM ET

I am a government teacher. In light of recent events in Tucson and the reactions to what has happened across the political spectrum, I find myself once again wrestling with a question -- what responsibility do I have to help my students become productive participants in our political processes? Without such participation our democracy will wither and die.

I am not here addressing what the motivations may have been for the shooter. We may find out, we may never know. But the shooting did occur in the midst of a period where the level of verbal vitriol has risen to levels I do not remember in my 64-plus years on this planet. We see anger, we see some who wish to foment unrest for personal, financial, or political gain. It does not matter to me whether one agrees with or disagrees with the political positions of people -- as a teacher my job is to empower my students. But if they see people shouted down without responsible figures speaking out, will they be willing to risk expressing what might be unpopular points of view? Might we freeze the insights they could offer us?

I do not claim to have answers. But I do have a suggestion. We are at the time of year when we commemorate Nobel Peace Laureate Martin Luther King, Jr. I am going to suggest offering words of his from a speech that many do not know, although I think they should.

On March 31, 1968, four days before his assassination, King gave a speech at Washington National Cathedral. He titled the speech Remaining Awake Through A great Revolution (and that link will provide you with text and audio).

I want to focus on one passage from that speech:

On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?

There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.

You might not agree with King goes with this expression, and you may disagree with me about its relevance to teaching. But if we are going to have a civil society, if we are going to encourage our young people to pursue what they believe is correct, I cannot imagine a more important lesson than these words.

Ponder them. We may "teach your children well" as the song said. We can instruct them in what we value, but ultimately they must decide, honestly and truthfully, what is important.

I hope that as we teach we will see leaders -- political, social, religious, moral -- modeling this for our young people.

The question should not be expedience, politics, or popularity.

At some point the question must be that of conscience: is it right?

How remarkable things might be if in our politics we stepped back and asked that question before we spoke, before we impugned the integrity and the personhood of someone with whom we disagree.

How remarkable things might be in education if in the making of policy we humbly stepped away from value things on the basis of supposed competitiveness with other nations, or comparison among states, cities, and schools, and asked about the policies for which we advocate: is it right?

We should, in all humility, recognize that no how matter how strongly we feel, we should acknowledge that we COULD be wrong. And in that acknowledgment, we get to the question of conscience -- is it right?

We do not have school on King's birthday. The day after I have to prepare students for tests they will all take on Wednesday. I need to review with them, but before I do I plan to share these words from King, giving them something to ponder:

On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?

There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.

Peace.

 

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