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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

Teaching Morality to a Diverse Population

The scenes from South Texas have been heartbreaking, children separated from their parents, casualties of a broader struggle over what is America and who is American. There is some outrage but less than one would expect. The average American doesn’t even watch the news, and if he/she did, would not connect.

Like a scene from the science fiction novel, Brave New World, which students no longer read in American high schools, it is not the concern for most. The personal is of concern, not the political. “Love’s as good as soma.”

This fundamental crisis in empathy has a lot to do with the US government. When John F. Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country,” an entire generation rose up in service, inspired to make the lives of others better. But words from politicians alone would have been meaningless. The generation to which Kennedy spoke was attuned to the evils of segregation, the violence of lynchings, the fundamental unfairness of the Black experience in America. And they were only two decades removed from the Holocaust—not the first genocide, but the first pursued as the primary goal of state policy. For Hitler, his Third Reich existed to rid the world of the “inferior races.” King Leopold’s Belgium did not exist to brutalize those in the Congo; the US colonies were not established to massacre Native Americans.

We are now many generations removed from these evils. No young person will develop the moral conscience necessary to guide the world without the intervention of the public education system. In Florida, the state mandates teaching of the Holocaust at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. There are stirrings every once in a while claiming bias: “Why do we only study what happened to Jews? Why should the wealthy Jews in Miami have that much power over our politicians?”

Having been a high school teacher for the last ten years of my life, I’ll offer a perspective you won’t see in the media. I’ve taught exclusively at schools with very few Jewish children, and I am currently the only Jewish teacher where I teach, so I think it is a relatively pure example of the effects of a state-mandated curriculum taught as designed without supplementation. I’ve talked to kids about what they learned, always when the kids initiate the discussion. Always, without fail, these programs are most effective at stimulating the type of moral questioning for which they are intended with one particular group of students: Black kids.

The Black kids always get it. The Black kids understand that horrors can be perpetrated against specific groups by governments representing the majority grouping. If I see a kid crying after seeing pictures of a concentration camp, they are usually Black. If I see a kid unable to leave the material and go straight on to Algebra or Romeo and Juliet or whatever else they are learning that day, they are Black.

I saw a study a decade ago that might shed some light on these anecdotes: an independent research firm was studying the effectiveness of anti-smoking advertisements among teenagers. They were three times more effective at discouraging smoking with Black teenagers when compared with white teens. The reason: Black kids didn’t question the idea that authority figures would lie to them. Deceptive advertising didn’t work as well with a population that accepted the idea that society might be victimizing them.

So, I see the benefit of Holocaust education, but I would expand it. The critics do have a point: teaching the Holocaust and not teaching specifically American atrocities is distancing. In Florida, high school students are never taught about slavery. The reason is banal (and I use that word consciously and sarcastically referencing Hannah Arendt): the legislature decided that US history through the Civil War will be taught in 8th grade and US History from Reconstruction to the present will be taught in 11th grade. Only Advanced Placement classes are exempt.

Even considered solely from the point of view of pedagogy, this is moronic. How do you teach Reconstruction without first teaching about slavery? To teach Reconstruction at a high school level, you need to teach slavery first at the same level, and then it will be fresh in the students’ minds, not forgotten from three years earlier.

But there is a more insidious purpose here: if students don’t understand the depths of American oppression, they will see it as no more their problem than Divine Right of Kings in Medieval England. They won’t relate. And if they don’t relate, they won’t object when see mistreatment of workers.

How may Florida kids even know that the Fanjul brothers were successfully prosecuted for slavery in their sugar operations in Okeechobee, FL in 1979? How many know that when they lost their court cases, they recreated the exact same system in the Dominican Republic and lobbied for favored trade status with the US? How many know about the deplorable conditions for the migrant farm workers today picking the East Coast’s winter tomatoes in Immokalee, Florida?

How many have been in the work camps for Guatemalan laborers in Bonita Springs? The business owners here don’t like Trump’s cracking down on “illegal aliens,” because for them that’s cheap labor. Restaurant owners and agricultural operations even shut their operations down for a day during a protest against a crackdown in 2010 or so and paid for buses to get their workers to the protests. The system, whether you call it slavery, indentured servitude, or just the gray market, works well for these business owners, and for the workers, it beats deportation.

Now, I could tell Florida high school students about this, and for most, it would go in one ear and out the other because they are not trained for moral outrage. That’s where slavery education would come in. Slavery is part of American history, and it needs to be taught in the high schools.

And while we’re at it, how about the genocide of Native Americans? Certainly that is core to US history. And here, we have the potential for field trips. Get off at exit 49 on Alligator Alley and you are no longer in the United States. The US lost its three wars against the Seminoles. The gas station there doesn’t collect state or federal tax on the fuel it sells.

As long as we’re teaching the Holocaust, how about the horrors of colonialism? Sure, neither involved the US as much as it involved European powers, but the US played a role in both. The Sykes-Picot Treaty split up the Middle East after WWI between Great Britain and France, but American oil companies worked hand-in-hand with the colonial powers.

Teach oppression—the Holocaust, slavery, genocide of the Native Americans, and European colonialism—and you will have a population prepared to act as informed citizens when confronted with today’s moral atrocities.

I wore a button yesterday at a demonstration protesting the separation of children from parents at the US-Mexico border that said, “No human being is illegal.” Who came up with that line? Who articulated this moral vision?

Eli Wiesel—Holocaust survivor and educator. Think about it.

And maybe we should also go back to teaching novels in English class that support moral questioning rather than drilling to achieve minimal competency on standardized tests. Perhaps some science fiction?

I referenced Aldous Huxley’s novel, required reading in my 11th grade class, at the beginning of this post. Here’s a line from it to ponder: ““Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly—they’ll go through anything. You read and you’re pierced.”

This generation needs piercing, and not just of their tongues and noses. Once accustomed to moral outrage, their words will come, their voices will be raised.

But our generation needs to demand the changes to education that will make this possible. Or, to again quote Brave New World, “ …most men and women will grow up to love their servitude and will never dream of revolution.”

And the atrocities in South Texas will continue.

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