Monday, February 8, 2010

Keeping A Stiff Upper Lip: How Truthful to Be with our Students?

Just what is this all about? What does “keeping a stiff upper lip” (implying putting a better spin on things than you really perceive them to be) have to do with being truthful to our students? For that matter, how could we consider anything other than being totally truthful with our students?

I never thought I would be asking these questions again. “Again,” because I asked them during my second year of college teaching and thought when I got beyond that, I would never have to ask them again. Quick context: I was an adjunct instructor on a small regional campus of the University of South Carolina. The year was 1968. The Tet offensive had shocked the American people with how ferocious our enemy could be in Vietnam after our being told for years we were “winning.” My male students were loosing their draft deferments if their GPA’s fell below a “B” and I had a number of them begging me for better grades to keep them out of Vietnam. Then Martin Luther King was murdered. And riots followed. Our country was coming apart at the seams. And I was on active duty in the US Air Force as a psychiatric social worker.

One evening before my class, the campus Dean called me into my office and told me he had been receiving complaints from some of my students that I was “anti-war” and a“n----- lover.” I acknowledged that I indeed love people of different hues from mine and had devoted my class immediately following the assassination of Dr. King to a reading from his works. And I explained that I was not “anti-war” and, in fact, had volunteered for my own military service. But, I also explained that what I was doing was explaining the truth to my students, as I saw it, in answer to their many questions.

The Dean explained to me that I really shouldn’t be so truthful; that the male students especially really didn’t need to know the truth because they were going to be drafted anyway and sent to Vietnam and it would be wrong to disillusion them about the sacrifices they were going to have to make. He went on to explain that because of South Carolina’s long history of discrimination against Blacks, and their resulting inferior education, that their failure rate on the Selective Service examinations was very high, thus causing a much higher draft rate for white males. He urged me just not to be truthful about how unnecessary this war was and how badly it was being waged.

I did not take his advice. And began looking for another location for my college teaching.

But here I am now in 2010. And not coincidentally, just after the devastating quake in Haiti, and all the press descriptions of Haiti as a “failed state,” there are more and more references to the US as a “failing state.” This is due especially to the paralysis of the Congress, where even the party with the largest majorities in recent history still cannot achieve the passage of major legislation. We seemingly cannot come to terms with our greatest problems. And the hue and cry about our federal deficit is rising, just at the time we need more government spending to stimulate employment and relief. Millions of Americans are suffering. I have a 58 year old brother who has been unemployed for a year; a sister who was cut from full-time to half-time employment; and a nephew with seven children who lost his job in November. We all have stories like this. Our politicians just don’t seem to get it. They are not hungry. They have the best health insurance and pension plans money can buy—our money.

I am not ready to join the Tea Partyers. But what should we be telling our students? They are REALLY worried, even the best of the partyers among them. Should we keep a stiff upper lip? Urge confidence, hope, optimism? Put this in perspective and remind them this is the great country that fought World War II, conquered past scourges like polio, survived the Great Depression? Our students can’t relate to any of this. All most of them know is what came in on their most recent text messages; and the fact that they and their families are scared to death about the directions they see before them.

I do believe we should be talking about these issues with our students. I hope you will be honest with them. I believe that educators should be teaching a “learned optimism.” And I feel for you in terms of how difficult that has become to do, honestly.

-John N. Gardner

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