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Achieving Our Country: Help Wanted

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Unless you have been living under a rock, you know our country's criminal justice system is in trouble. Almost everybody knows about Michael Brown and what has been going on in Ferguson. People are now becoming aware of a second case of police brutality (and, let's be clear, that's what these cases are; I don't care what you say or how you act or what you stole or what you were selling—if you are an unarmed person walking down the street in America the police do not have the right to kill you for that), this one involving a policeman in New York strangling Eric Garner to death for selling loose cigarettes. What's most jarring about the Garner case is that almost the entire confrontation was caught on video: right there, in color, you can see Garner protesting his innocence, being attacked by the police, not resisting, and pleading for his life as he says repeatedly that he cannot breathe. You can also see him lying unconscious on the ground while the police and emergency personnel make what sure look like half-hearted efforts to revive him. It's tempting to think that if such a video of Darren Wilson's encounter with Mike Brown had surfaced after the fact, too, then things might have turned out differently in that case.

Except probably not. Video or no video, it seems, the police tend to win the argument. In each of these cases a grand jury declined to indict the officer involved. This means that the grand juries did not feel there was enough evidence to even bring a case to trial. Watch the videos of what happened to Eric Garner and see for yourself if there is a reason to at least try the case in court. Or imagine a white male college student being choked to death by the police for selling illegally downloaded music to his roommate—think there might be a trial for a case like that? We already know what happened to Trayvon Martin when he was killed by a guy who wasn't even a real cop for walking down the street eating Skittles, and we know what happened to the "neighborhood watch volunteer" who killed him. (Spoiler alert, if you haven't heard: nothing.) There's no reason to think the officer who killed 12-year-old Tamir Rice about two seconds after finding him at a neighborhood park in Cleveland playing with a toy gun will face even a trial either. 

To anyone paying attention, this is nothing new. You only have to take a halfway decent U.S. history course in high school to know that our criminal justice system—and by this I mean not just the courts, but also our tendency to let alleged lawbreakers be tried by the media in the court of public opinion—has a long history of disenfranchising and murdering black people for crimes they did and, more frequently, did not commit. Americans with wealth and power have an equally long history of making people without it believe that their true enemies are other people without power. These aren't opinions or theories; they are facts about our nation's past that ought to be understood by all Americans. This isn't about hating America or being an elitist, as some angry people would claim. It's about acknowledging that we are who we are in part because of who we were. We have a lot to talk about.

What can we do about it? I'm not about to lay all this at the feet of schools, and certainly not at the feet of teachers. We already ask schools to do so much, and I'm not about to jump on the bandwagon that either blames everything we don't like about society on schools or holds them responsible for ending racism, sexism, poverty, economic inequality, and every other problem under the sun.

But I do believe we can do more. Our criminal justice system is a reflection of us, just as our politics are—in a very real sense, we get what we ask for (or at least we get what the poeple who are pulling the strings ask for). To frame it differently: we can't get what we want and deserve from the people who represent us in government if we don't hold them accountable for the things they do, and holding them accountable starts with educating people about our past, present, and future. If you are one of those teachers who encourages students to engage in critical thinking about social problems, consider this ballast: your work is very much appreciated by people like me, people who want to see their kids grow up to live in a more equal, more economically secure, more just America. Please keep at it. And don't apologize for doing it. Be smart, and be aware of your surroundings—people want to censor disruptive teaching and shut it down—but don't give up on telling the truth, in spite of the resistance you may face. Teachers have a right to tell the truth, and the responsibility to do it too. 

If you're not doing this, ask yourself some questions. What's stopping me? Is it my own personal views or political views? How could I enlarge my perspective? What do I need to know? Telling the truth means knowing your stuff, and doing your homework. As a teacher you have to be able to anticipate how false arguments are constructed, what your students' likely responses to your questions will be, and you have to be able to maintain your composure if things start to go off the rails. To educate someone is not merely to throw things at them and see what sticks. It is about bringing people to new understandings by encouraging them to ask themselves questions about what they believe and why they believe it. 

What if you teach in a place where you feel your job may be jeopardized if you tell the truth? Try not to let yourself, or others, be manipulated by fear, and remember that even the smallest efforts to change minds can make a difference. Encourage a student's adventurous thinking on an assignment. Host a discussion group after class is over. Sponsor a student club. The kids who grow up to become involved in their communities often start by being involved in activities like these. We won't change everything overnight, but you can at least go to bed at night knowing that you contributed to making the world a better place. That's not a bad place to start.

Telling the truth isn't just for teachers of history and social studies, either. Teachers of writing and literature have space to work in. Science teachers can encourage the application of logical thinking skills to social problems. Math teachers can encourage students to examine data sets and logical fallacies present in news articles and analyses of current events. Art teachers and music teachers can obviously contribute, too. If you're an engaged citizen you can teach kids about what's going on. It starts with being an informed and engaged citizen yourself.

Just as people talk about "broken windows" policing and about microaggressions and other smalll things with the potential to grow into big things, we can think about teaching that way too. Every teacher that pours his or her heart, soul, and intellect into helping students ask the right kinds of questions is one that helps us all take a step closer to achieving our country. There are teachers all across America teaching in ways that promote genuine discussion and exploration of social problems; if they can do it, why can't you?

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