There is a song from the play “South Pacific” referring to racism that goes, “You’ve got have to be taught to hate and fear, You’ve got to be taught from year to year, It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear, you’ve got to be carefully taught.” As I watched the horrific events in Charlottesville and Las Vegas and their aftermaths, I thought of that song.
I also thought of a trip I made to Rwanda. I was able to visit that country about a decade after the genocide that tore the country apart and devastated its people. What I learned about the genocide was that it came after years of one group, the Tutsi’s, having prominence in the society. The Tutsi tribe tended to be taller, lighter and was considered to be better looking. The Hutu’s were the more subservient class who were seen as shorter and darker. The Hutu’s outnumbered the Tutsi’s and when they were able to take over the government the Hutu’s were encouraged to go after the Tutsi’s for their past entitlements.
While the specifics of the country’s history are much more complicated than I am making it sound, the basic issue was the attempt by one group to destroy another group. What was most striking to me about the genocide, which killed nearly a million Tutsi’s and later displaced nearly two million Hutu’s, was that it was largely created and encouraged by the formal government. There was even a government controlled “talk” radio station that broadcast urgings to the Hutu populace to arm themselves and destroy their neighbors. And they did with a vengeance.
In this country we are more familiar with the Nazi Holocaust which took over six million lives, but again it came from government sanctioned murder of several groups by the more powerful group leading the country. Some of those in Charlottesville have expressed hope that something similar might happen here.
I have always taken heart from the belief that such a thing is not possible here in the land of the free and the home of the brave. Yet, we see our nation being torn asunder by differing beliefs and values that cause us to fear and distrust our neighbors. Polling shows that we tend to mostly live near and talk with those who share our views. This could easily lead to a Balkanization in this country.
America, as opposed to many other countries around the world, has not been a land of tribalism and specific religiosity. What has set America apart historically is that we are a country of ideas and ideals. Because of the brilliance of our founding fathers we are a people who have historically held certain truths to be self-evident. Our pledge to the flag reminds us that we are one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
As we witness the evening news, it becomes harder and harder to believe that we still really believe that. For us to be one nation, indivisible, we have to remember that we cannot enjoy our liberty without justice and we cannot have justice without maintaining liberty. The solutions to our internal differences are not Second Amendment solutions they are Golden Rule solutions.
So that brings me to what we teach our children in school. Yes, we still teach American History. But do we teach them how that history was fought for and won with the blood of patriots, dedicated to some ideals written on parchment? That those ideals must hold true today, if we are to hold the center? Yes, we have them pledge allegiance to the flag each morning, but do we teach them what the words really mean? I remember my middle daughter Suzanne, who was teaching middle school on the eleventh of September of 2001, telling me that as she was leading the pledge of allegiance on September twelfth, she realized that she suddenly understood what the words meant for the first time.
So much of what we do in school is memory but not memorializing. We live in a society that teaches children the cost of everything and the value of nothing. Our role as educators has to be about helping our children dig deeper into what history means in today’s world and what we must value. We have to help them go beyond the words on paper, to the meaning behind those words. We have to teach them that while our government and our society is strong and resilient, it is also fragile and must be renewed with each generation. We must teach them that we are the stewards of our society and that we are our brother’s keepers. And we must teach them to listen to radio, to watch television and to view what they find online with a critics eye.
Perhaps most importantly, we must carefully teach them that those who do not look like they do, who do not worship as they might, and who, as the Rogers and Hammerstein song suggests, “(have) eyes that are oddly made, and…whose skin is a diff’rent shade” are also God’s children the same as them. Now, more than ever, we need to focus on emotional and social learning in our schools and we have to be brave enough to tell their parents, that yes, we are teaching their children values-the values that have been honed and honored for over two centuries and that can be found in the founding documents of our country-American values.