Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Just Say Anything

Some years ago there was a film about a student struggling to decide what he would say in a commencement address to his fellow students. He was advised to “just say anything.” That is my thought precisely about what to say to our students regarding this extraordinary tragedy unfolding in Haiti.

No matter what our subject or role with students, we must say something. This is an extraordinary moment to bring into relief the vast difference in quality of lives between American college students, no matter what their means, and the suffering people of Haiti.

We have so many choices for how to approach this. One that comes to mind to me is to go beyond analysis of who Haiti became to be the poorest sovereign nation in the western hemisphere. Indeed it is important for students to understand the role of the US as one of the imperial powers responsible for the culture of this nation (in addition to France). But what strikes me as particularly relevant are all the cries this year from the right about too much government in the US. The lack now of essentially any government in the failed state that is Haiti poses an extraordinary teachable moment for students to examine why human society needs government and what are or should be the minimum essentials of what all governments should provide.

Thank goodness, many of our students will do more than many of us; they will do more than “talk” about this. They will act and go to Haiti to contribute what they have the most of: time, energy, passion, strength, compassion. The impact on our students will be profound.

In the meantime: Just say anything!

-John Gardner

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

MLK Day: What Does This Evoke For You?

I hope you were asking that of your students, and colleagues, on the 18th.

For me, it evokes the memory of actually hearing that speech, live, as it was delivered. I was driving my car on the Garden State Parkway in New Jersey, work commuting, in association with summer college job as a steelworker in a factory that made beer cans, summer of 1963. And when I heard Dr. King’s voice ring out the spirit moved me off the highway and to the shoulder. I had to stop and just listen. I could not do that and drive. It was unforgettable. If you haven’t ever played the speech back for your students, you should.

The day evokes for me his murder, on a Thursday, in April, 1968. I taught a class the next night, a Friday night, at a regional campus of the University of South Carolina and that particular night I set aside what I had planned to do on the syllabus, and instead performed a series of readings from Dr. King’s works and discussed these with the students. You could have heard a pin drop. That was also the same semester that the very first Black student came to that campus. He was all alone—the only one. His name was “Mr. Small”; he was actually, literally, small in stature, but huge in courage and in significance. A week later my dean called me in and told me that a number of my students had complained to him about my readings from those works. But other students had the opposite reaction. There often is no powerful learning without taking some risks. And this is exactly what academic freedom is for.

For many years, my state resisted declaring this as a holiday. I so wanted to join the union.

Now I live in a small North Carolina town which has a MLK vigil, a candlelight procession, a special celebratory ceremony and presentation.

We need to remind our students, and our colleagues, that one person, one leader, can and does make a difference. And that the vision this leader called for is not yet fulfilled. And that’s the most important reason we are in this student success work.

-John N. Gardner