Stephen Riege’s Essay Inspired by The 1619 Project

by | Mar 22, 2023

Fear of the Unknown? Choose Learning

I am a retired middle and high school teacher. Truth be told I retired ten years ago. I have been busy these years but do miss the classroom and the learning environment where young people wrestle with ideas. When asked if I might like to write an essay about teaching, two of my first thoughts were CRT and ChatGPT. What a different world to work and learn in! I wonder what it would feel like to be in the classroom now?

Uncertainty abounds – flocks of geese confused in Connecticut. Still, in January, they fly in all directioms of the compass, not sure if it’s time to migrate south or stick it out on ice-free lakes and ponds up north. Likewise, trees and shrubs budding out in January!

One of the attributes of resilience is flexibility. For the truly resilient, perhaps, there is even some pleasure in change and uncertainty as a catalyst for creativity and new ideas. Without this kind of resilience, I think, a fear of the unknown creeps in.

For me, helping build resilience has always been the power and purpose of the classroom – to educate people so they can think and problem solve in a world that is increasingly complex. As a result, the fear sweeping this country now is disturbing to me. Not least because I think the fear is being used to manipulate people even to act aganist their own self-interest.

In teaching history, my colleagues and I used primary source documents, as much as possible, to supplement traditional text books. Inevitably, and happily, as many questions were raised as answered. Often questions of authorship would arise, both regarding the primary sources as well as the textbook – who wrote this? when was it written? who was the audience? why was it written? what difference does it make?

In raising questions like these, rather than merely memorizing dates, names, and events, students were searching for meaning in the history being studied. In doing so, they gained hope that the future does not need to look just like the past; they can actually have agency in their lives and the world around them.

Back to the classroom that I miss. Surely it would feel different now and that is as it should be. What gives me pause is the stridency with which people and communities are trying to control what is taught when a child, yours or someone elses, enters school or a library. Rather than uncovering history or literature, I read articles about teachers worrying they will lose their job, or librarians taking books off shelves. Intentionally creating fear of teaching to learn and discover deprives everyone of the possibility of growth. I am reminded of an African Proverb that I would begin my 9th Grade History class with in September. “Until lions have their historians, tales of the hunt shall always glorify the hunter.”

I hope that teachers, librarians, students and parents across this country will find the courage to give voice to each person and community. Sure we will make mistakes and we will learn about mistakes others have made. That is where real learning takes place. This is not cause for alarm; rather it is to be celebrated. As Fred Hoyle said, “It is the true nature of mankind to learn from mistakes, not from example.” The past is real and not to be feared; the past happened and is a guide to help us make this world a safe and more just place for everyone. “The past can hurt. But the way I see it, you can either run from it, or learn from it.” Rafiki, from The Lion King.

Please choose learning.

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