Last spring, our high school performed The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s play about the Salem witch trials (also an allegory of the witch hunts of McCarthyism). It’s one of my favorite plays. Watching the performance, I was struck by the character of Reverend Hale.
Hale arrives in Salem as the outsider. He’s the investigator who will hunt truthfully (and not blindly) for witches. He says that if he does not find evidence of witchcraft, the people must accept his judgment. When the witch hunt grows out of control and the people ignore Hale’s cries for reasons, he begins to counsel the accused to lie and confess their sins to prevent execution.
As an educator, I think about Hale’s ethical dilemma in terms of working for equity and justice in schools. Is it better to encourage a student to lie about who they are or what they care about in order to protect their safety or well-being?
If I’m concerned about homophobia within the school or the community, should I caution a student about coming out as LGBT? Is it right to advise him to continue to lie about who he is if it will save him harassment from his peers?
If I’m worried that a class has a pervasive sense of white privilege, should I caution an ally from standing up against her peers whose casual “jokes” offend her? Is it right to advise her to not speak up since her voice may make her a target?
If I’m afraid that my colleagues view diversity as a divisive or partisan term, should I caution a student about forming a diversity club on campus? Is it right to advise him not to take action because the faculty won’t support it?
I must find my strength and champion each student’s individuality. My role is to support. We all benefit from a world in which we are all valued.
The idealist within me wants to quote Robert F. Kennedy: “Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world which yields most painfully to change.”
As an educator I must encourage students to be true to themselves, speak out for causes that are just and try to transform school culture. Institutional change is gradual. It takes many voices from faculty, administration, students and parents to make lasting, positive change happen. The courage of one student will lead others who are supportive, but silent, to speak out as well.
Still, I worry. What happens if the other voices are silent? Knowing the gradual nature of institutional change, is it right to ask students to begin a transformation which they may never see take effect? Is it right to ask students to lead where the faculty, the school, or the community refuses to follow?
The answer, for me, lies in my students. Their passion is my inspiration. Their courage is my conscience. If they are willing to stand for these issues that matter so dearly, then I will stand with them.
Elliott is a high school English teacher in Texas.