For yours truly, December of 2019 ended a 53-year stint as a teacher. Many things changed from 1966 to 2019 but students stayed the same, being always predictable, always exciting and excitable, and, above all, always malleable. Even the rebels and smart alecks were malleable. Many teachers will disagree with this, but based on my own five-decade experience, students simply never changed. But their parents did, as did the world around them.
Over the years it has been amazing and puzzling that students were not more deeply affected by their changing world. Societal changes and attitudes did not make them smarter, lazier, better students or worse students. Fifty-three years have not changed youth’s desire for acceptance or their need for guidance.
The first societal shift during my half-century of teaching was divorce. I observed fellow teachers as they cushioned the harsh blow of divorce for countless students, shepherding them through their time of sad disruption. But divorce doesn’t change human nature or the resilience of youth.
In 1966 the school counselor at Northwest Jr. High in Meridian, Mississippi, announced at a faculty meeting that a student’s parents were getting a divorce. She urged the faculty to pay special attention to the student. Instantly a collective, audible and sorrowful moan spread over the faculty. So unusual was such news that silence prevailed for several seconds. Divorce led to sad children and angry teenagers, but it didn’t affect teachability for very long. Teachers filled the emotional gap, ministering to hurt while trying to keep English, math, history, etc. at the center of things. If only educational experts from afar could understand what teachers must do and gladly do in order to help students learn.
There is and always will be in students a potential for good and for evil, for greatness and mediocrity, for accomplishment and dependency. As one wordsmith put it, there is in all of us a potential Hitler or a Mother Theresa. The one we become is the one we feed.
The question is what have we been feeding our children and youth? Of late at the college level and often in public schools, we have fed them “diversity/sensitivity training.” Is there anything more shallow, wrongheaded, or un-American? As currently packaged, such “training” is actually obedience training, in both the corporate world and in education. There is A Way we are supposed to think, and shame on those who don’t accept it. There is A Way/The Way to view gender and sexuality (it’s up for grabs), abortion (it’s choice), racism (it’s systemic), immigration (it’s inconsequential), America (she’s not exceptional), and education (it should be therapeutic).
This not-so-new gospel was addressed as long ago as 1895 when American novelist Stephen Crane penned these words: “Think as I think, said a man / Or you are abominably wicked. / You are a toad. / And after I had thought of it, / I said, I will then be a toad.”
Crane and other late 19th century writers focused on the theme of individuality versus conformity. To them, the societal pressure from the nation’s increasing urbanization was affecting people’s ability to think independently. How ironic that universities, formerly viewed as centers for reflection and intelligent debate of ideas and issues, have become centers of conformity. How odd that corporations would go soft and hop on the “sensitivity” bandwagon. “Sensitivity” is all about feelings, and feelings are now the main concern of the university. Forget the sometimes harsh but true facts of history. Forget knowledge. Forget intellectual stretching.
Higher education’s reputation for free inquiry is currently in tatters. Its concern is our supposedly racist, sexist, homophobic society which needs diversifying. Its diversity emphasis sounds tolerant but it has the makings of manipulation. Today’s college students are expected to goose-step to academia’s party line.
The grandchildren of children of the ’60s haven’t changed either. In the ’60s, student riots and violence were on campuses. Today they are on city streets. But they are guided by the same spirit, anti-Americanism.
Objective subject matter knowledge can afford students opportunity. Catering to students cannot. Diminishing the trades and arguing that everyone should go to college cannot either.
There are simple, time honored ways to achieve what “diversity and sensitivity training” supposedly seek: Teach, yea require, children and youths to respect others, no matter the color of their skin. Assure them the world is not fair. Make clear to them that they are not the center of the universe. Model kindness, generosity and forgiveness.
These are mighty old concepts, but once we start living by them, diversity/sensitivity will follow. And it will be genuine, not faked, forced, or packaged in a school curriculum or in a corporation’s required “workshop.”