This past weekend provided a luxury of reading time as we visited with our friends Sarah Willis and Ron Antonucci in the vicinity of Chautauqua, NY. Hiking, naps, reading in the hammock – a restful way to welcome in the fall for three writer/teachers and a head librarian. Suzi even stretched her stick-fetching skills plunging Phelps-like into the pond, getting a paws-on education in how to gauge the shortest route from the edge and how not to leave shore before knowing where the stick has landed in order to avoid swimming endlessly in circles.
So, I had time to read Luong Ung’s book First They Killed my Father, about her childhood in Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge’s genocide that resulted in the deaths of 2 million of its citizens. It is a powerful story of survival including the author’s child’s eye view of the absolutes taught by the Khmer Rouge.
Their first dictate was to kill the teachers, doctors, lawyers, and other professionals – basically anyone who was educated was under suspicion. “Children in our society will not attend school just to have their brains cluttered with useless information.” (p.61)
Last week, Michael and I watched The Kite Runner, after both having read it. It was a stark reminder of the restrictive view that the Taliban takes regarding education (particularly of girls). Literature and daily news reports are constant reminders that teachers and students alike put their lives in jeopardy for even learning to read under Taliban rule.
One of the most vivid books I have read about the Cultural Revolution in China under Mao is a YA book, Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji-li Jiang. Guess who the revolutionaries picked first for public humiliation and execution? Teachers. Stalin, Lenin, Hitler — similar mandates.
It’s impossible not to draw parallels. I know the Khmer Rouge and Mao banned religion and the Taliban uses religion as a justification, but the results are the same – dictators using young zealots to help limit access to education as a means of controlling a populace – and the first thing you have to do to limit education is kill the teachers.
Teachers are a hard-headed lot. They taught kids in holding camps on their way to the gas chambers during the Holocaust. They teach in refugee camps. They teach drawing numbers in the dirt in Africa and Afghanistan. They teach in places right here in this country where many people would be afraid to traverse the parking lot.
So, whenever I read something like this account of college conservatives making a hit list of professors they (in their mature wisdom) think are liberal, it scares the la la la out of me. (you know the la la la, that’s what you do when you have your fingers in your ears and don’t want to listen to what’s being said). http://www.thefoxnation.com/college/2009/08/31/college-republicans-compiling-liberal-teaching-list
Or how about those creationist museums that seek to limit any study of what happened in this world if the hieroglyphic or rock is over 6000 years old? Teachers haven’t been killed for teaching evolution in this country – but they can lose their jobs.
Or how about the folks who constantly discredit teachers on the radio and television? The campaign against teachers has been one of the most focused and successful public relations campaigns on record. Ask the average person what the state of education is today and they’ll say it’s awful. Then ask the same person about how her kid’s teacher is and she’ll say, “Great.” It’s not as if anyone is calling to kill teachers, but you kill all respect for the profession, if you kill the teachers’ self esteem, if you marginalize teachers, shaming them publically and relentlessly, what does that say about our collective position on education?
I don’t know if this organized attack on teachers is designed primarily to break the unions or to privatize schools into profit centers for the crooks on Wall Street, but as in Mao vs. the Taliban, it really doesn’t matter what’s behind it. The net result is to straightjacket those who seek to educate through inquiry and wonder, those whose life’s work it is to help the next generation to not just jump in the pond and swim around in circles until you sink like a pooped out Papillion – but to think.
My wish for this school year is for every citizen. The next time you hear someone spouting off about wanting to limit education in any way, from banning books to underfunding schools to standardized tests designed to clutter up the curriculum with mandates that keep teachers from helping kids to think on their own, ask yourself: What is this person’s agenda and why doesn’t he/she want our kids to grow up to be independent thinkers?