Are we losing our humanity? If indeed “love is a many splendored thing,” as a 1950’s songwriter writes, why is it that this current moment in our American political and social history seems to be one of unadulterated hatefulness, fear, divisiveness and deliberate unkindness? For the noisy hate groups on the fringes of our nation, hate is the result of fearing difference, of fearing that the “good ole days” are a distant past, never to be repeated. But those who value diversity in true democracy will ensure that the hands of time and progress will not turn back.
It is precisely this unwillingness to accept progress that explains the rise of hate groups, particularly white nationalist groups that are actively recruiting for membership. While the days of terrorizing whole towns on the basis of racial victimization like Rosewood, Florida, are gone, church burnings, church shootings and other hate crimes are still perpetrated in the name of some alleged religious teachings and an illusory “white racial purity.” The current trend in recruiting for and promoting these desperate groups—as in recent cases in Denver, Colorado, and in Dahlonega, Georgia—reminds us that the fear of the ethnic, racial, gendered, sexual and differently abled Other is still very real.
But even as the numbers of hate groups and hate crimes increase, Americans must be mindful that such groups and heinous acts of violence have defined our nation’s very identity and landscape. What would the United States be without the genocide of American Indians? Yet indigenous sports mascots and names persist in supposed homage to American Indian culture or heritage, though it is just the opposite.
A study of American history reveals that our version of police started not as a way to fight crime, but as white males during Reconstruction who were charged with controlling freed slaves. During the same period, the Ku Klux Klan began to keep black people “in their place” through intimidation, hatemongering and race baiting. And cultural appropriation and misrepresentations were another form of keeping black people in their place.
This history—and the present that results from it—indicates that my own and my colleagues’ work in Arizona State University’s Project Humanities is needed now more than ever. We’re building and promoting comprehensive programming around seven principles: kindness, respect, integrity, forgiveness, compassion, empathy and self-reflection. In spring 2017, Project Humanities reveals the new theme song for its Humanity 101 Movement, “Humanity (Love Is in the Air),” written by the late rock guitarist Dick Wagner and produced by the legendary Motown icon Bobby Taylor of Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers. The song is an R&B-rock hybrid, a musical testimony and a challenge to each of us to shed our individual vanity and to meet violence with creativity. After all, what is a social movement without a song to energize and to sustain community?
The work of educators, socially conscious people and other “woke” individuals will persist. We cannot and will not lose ourselves by bending to or otherwise legitimizing the inhumane actions of those who grab the headlines and the news crawls. We will remain focused and even more vigilant to ensure that our individual and shared humanity is greater than the fear others have of American progress defined by “liberty and justice for all.” We can use our knowledge of these growing hate groups and the historical contexts of their hate to strengthen our position of resistance and resolve. As James Baldwin put it, “The great force of [American] history comes in the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”
Lester is a foundation professor of English and founding director of Project Humanities at Arizona State University.
Editor’s note: This post is part three of a series on teaching and learning how to know in 2017. Find part one, a discussion of key terms from cognitive science and media literacy, here. Find part two, a classroom example of teaching about confirmation bias, here.
In my eighth-grade Global Thinking class, we talk often about the importance of keeping up with the news. I encourage students to consume a variety of news sources, and they regularly bring in articles, videos and links to share. Many become avid followers of the news, echoing the statement of one focus-group participant highlighted in the Knight Foundation’s report “How Youth Navigate the News Landscape”:
I just think it’s important to be a productive member of society and be aware of what’s going on around you. You know, like—it sounds really cheesy and cliché, but we all affect everything around us inadvertently and directly, so it’s like important, at least for like my generation, to know what’s going on in the world.
The Knight Foundation’s report, published in March 2017, is a must-read for educators working with students on how to know, and it can serve as a classroom tool. I shared the focus-group member’s statement with my students, and they agreed that they have a responsibility to keep up with what’s happening. We then had a discussion in which we reflected on why it’s become harder now “to know what’s going on in the world.”
Students noted there’s so much news that it can be overwhelming to keep pace and that it’s difficult to find news sources that are accessible to them. They were eager to reflect on the impact of social media. They felt that it can have an isolating effect, which led us to discuss the concept of “echo chambers,” the idea that we increasingly live online—and perhaps in real life—in closed systems of political consensus and like-minded thinking. They also understood that social media creates an environment in which clicks matter more than precision and depth; one particularly savvy student even lamented the “profit-driven” media seeking advertising revenue at the expense of clarity and accuracy. And, of course, they were well aware of related concerns about fake news, which they saw as a problem uniquely suited to social media.
With a bit of facilitating, most of the conversation ended up focusing on the challenges of trust and credibility. I shared a trove of data with them from Gallup, among other sources, to give them a broader picture of Americans’ sense of mistrust in the media. We probed further in our discussion, with students able to see how political polarization can play a major role in reducing trust. They were shocked by data from the Pew Research Center for Journalism and Media showing that voters across the political spectrum consume media from vastly different sources, which is consistent with existing trends in partisan media habits. They were also surprised to find out that, while fake news receives a lot of attention, its actual impact (including on the 2016 election) is thought to be rather minimal.
At this point, I reminded students about confirmation bias and motivated reasoning, the cognitive habits that explain how we tend to overvalue our own logic to more readily believe arguments that support our worldview, and how we struggle to accept evidence that contradicts our own assumptions. We then looked at data from the Pew Research Center showing that “[a] majority of U.S. adults (59%) reject the idea of adding interpretation, saying that the news media should present the facts alone” when reporting the news.
One student, with gears turning, saw an issue emerging. I’m paraphrasing, but she asked something like, “Isn’t it a problem that people are getting news from sources they trust and that they trust those sources only because they reinforce what they already think?” Another student picked up the thread, thinking in particular about the Pew findings on interpretation and facts: “What one person considers ‘interpretation’ another might just consider ‘factual,’ right? If you like the argument, you’ll accept it as fact. If you don’t, you’ll say it’s biased and ignore it.”
There was a silence in the classroom as students began sensing the profundity of the issue before us. I asked them what kinds of things we’ve done in class to learn how to know well. They immediately brought up a key through-line of our class, Chimamanda Adichie’s idea of the “danger of a single story,” a mental construct for avoiding one-sided stories, questioning established narratives and scrutinizing our assumptions. They talked about using a variety of sources and letting evidence guide their thinking.
As class finished up, we read Steve Inskeep’s “A Finder’s Guide to Facts,” in which the NPR host offers up tips for savvy news consumers to operate in what he calls the “post-trust” era (instead of the more popular—and more problematic—“post-truth” era). My students were inspired by his suggestions, especially the practice of reflecting on the emotional response to an article and the importance of consuming news from across the political spectrum.
It was the last class before our spring break. I asked students, as always, to follow the news during our two weeks off with a particular emphasis on reading a variety of sources and finding articles that contradict their viewpoints. They agreed to step up to this challenge, eager to apply what they were learning about the ways our cognitive habits and the knowledge landscape make it harder to know now.
As I reflect on these and other lessons, it’s become clear how vital it is for teachers to wade into the complexities of teaching students how to know. They certainly want to learn; we certainly need them to.
Gold is a seventh- and eighth-grade history teacher at Moses Brown School in Providence, Rhode Island.
Teaching Tolerance is proud to announce the names of 76 2017 Mix It Up Model Schools! These schools earned Model School designation for exemplary planning and execution of Mix It Up at Lunch Day and for their efforts to foster respect and understanding throughout the 2016-17 school year.
“We are extremely proud to recognize these schools,” says Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance. “They wholeheartedly embraced the spirit of the day and the values we promote through Teaching Tolerance—empathy, kindness and respect for differences. They not only set a great example for other schools but for the world.”
Mix It Up at Lunch Day began in 2002. Based on social psychology research, the initiative seeks to break down social barriers that can lead to conflicts, bullying and harassment. Many schools plan activities for the entire day, and some use the event to kick off yearlong efforts to overcome social divisions.
To qualify as a Model School, each school hosted Mix It Up at Lunch Day, which encourages students to sit with someone new in the cafeteria for just one day. They also followed up with at least two additional programs or events to sustain positive school culture, involved different members of the school community, promoted the event through multiple channels and reported that students viewed the program as a success.
Students at Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton, California, coordinated their school’s entire Mix It Up at Lunch Day. They distributed nametags with random group assignments to seat students next to classmates they don’t usually eat with at lunch. Conversation-starter questions and games encouraged discussion. The students were soon laughing with their new friends.
Speaking of new friends, the students in early grades at Creative Minds International Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., were particularly excited to lunch with peers in different grade levels. Says one young student, “It was so fun! We got to eat with third-graders!”
At the Akoyikoyi School in the Federated States of Micronesia—a three-time Model School—accepting others and combating bullying was the theme of its most recent Mix It Up event, the fifth for the school. Students from nearby Xavier High School spoke about their respective home countries, which include the Federated States of Micronesia, the Philippines, Tahiti and American Samoa. Afterward, students discussed the event in class, reporting that it was a positive experience.
Read about more inspiring Mix It Up Model School events, and don't forget to put next year's Mix It Up at Lunch Day on the calendar: The 2017 date is October 31. “We encourage all schools to participate,” Costello says. “Mix It Up at Lunch Day can be an eye-opening experience for students.” Registration will open soon!
The current administration has made it clear that immigration is one of its defining issues. In light of the recent executive orders and proposed legislation to limit immigration and acceptance of refugees, educators and students need to understand the facts about immigration and immigrants in the United States now more than ever.
The updated version of our popular “Ten Myths About Immigration” feature reflects current statistics and information so you and your students can dispel harmful stereotypes. Take a minute to read through the article, learn why the statements are false and think about how to talk to students about the realities behind each myth.
How many of these myths have you heard?
- Most immigrants are here illegally.
- It’s easy to enter the country legally. My ancestors did; why can’t immigrants today?
- Today’s immigrants don’t want to learn English.
- Immigrants take good jobs from U.S. citizens.
- “The worst” people from other countries are coming to the United States and bringing crime and violence.
- Undocumented immigrants don’t pay taxes and burden the national economy.
- The United States is being overrun by immigrants like never before.
- We can stop undocumented immigrants coming to the United States by building a wall along the border with Mexico.
- Banning immigrants and refugees from majority-Muslim countries will protect the United States from terrorists.
- Refugees are not screened before entering the United States.
We hope that, with these facts at your fingertips, you’ll feel more confident leading constructive conversations about immigration and the role that immigrants play in shaping our history and identity as a country.
“What?! What kind of people don’t eat pork, Ms. Shah?” exclaimed one of my students who had offered me some of her lunch before the start of class. Having experienced this type of reaction on various occasions, I smiled and replied, “Well, there are a lot of people in the world, and we don’t all eat the same foods. For example, Muslims don’t eat pork, and…I am Muslim.”
To this, she replied shockingly, “What, Ms. Shah? But you don’t look like a Muslim!”
All eyes in the classroom were on both of us. I could sense students were tensing up, unsure if I was offended or not. So I took this in, and I asked her, “Well, what does a Muslim look like?”
The student explained, “I thought Muslims looked like…” and she pointed to a girl in the classroom, a student from Yemen who was wearing an abaya and a hijab, covered from head to toe in black with only her face showing.
At that moment, I decided that we had to talk about this topic more. We couldn’t just “move on with class.”
Knowing that even some Muslims believe that there is a “look” for us to embody, I asked my student to tell me more about why she felt that there was one way that Muslims looked. I thought it would be important for her to think through why she held that view and for the class to be able to discuss this viewpoint as well. Both the student and others agreed that this is what has been portrayed to them via the media, and that they had believed it.
Then two of the Muslim students in class spoke up and talked about the Islamophobic bus ads circulating through our San Francisco streets. These ads depicted Muslims as terrorists, contained words like jihad and referred to Muslims as being “uncivilized.”
This was the beginning of a larger conversation around Islam, Muslims and Islamophobia—fueled by my students’ curiosity and my objective to deconstruct common stereotypes about Muslims or people who are perceived to be Muslims.
At this point in class, I explained one of my favorite statistics to students: “There are over 1.6 billion Muslims in the world. This means that there are 1.6 billion ways of being Muslim.” I also shared with students that in the Philippines, where the family of the student who offered me pork is from, Muslims represent about 5 percent of the population. I noted that pork is a staple of Filipino food, seeing this as an opportunity to highlight to the student—and the rest of the class—that there are people who do not consume pork even where her family is from.
In my classroom practice, I make it a priority to highlight the diversity within my school and the world, and I use this approach when my students and I talk about Islam and Muslims. For example, I will share with students that, like practitioners of many other faiths and people in general, not all Muslims look the same or dress the same way. Some of us cover our heads; some of us do not. One of the five pillars of Islam is to pray five times a day, and some of us pray five times a day while others are learning or striving to achieve this. We are all people with varying practices and personalities.
It is often assumed that Muslims are all from one area of the world, or that Muslims are all Arab. I am not Arab; my parents came to the United States from Pakistan in the 1970s, and I was born in the San Francisco Bay Area. To students, I will mention that I do not mind being called “Arab” or being associated with the Arab culture, but it is also important to remember that the world is vast and Muslims are diverse.
It has been eye opening for students to learn about the variety of places in the world where Muslims live, especially when they discover that the majority of Muslims live in Asia, outside of Arabic-speaking countries in the Middle East and North Africa. It has also been enlightening for them to have a relatable Muslim teacher who cares about their journeys, their experiences and allows them to speak and ask questions around controversial topics.
There’s a pressing need for classroom lessons and conversations that equip students with knowledge of the diversity among Muslims, debunk harmful stereotypes about Muslims and Islam, and counter Islamophobia. In your classroom, consider using the Teaching Tolerance lesson “Countering Islamophobia,” which is adapted from a unit I developed.
Shah, a San Francisco Bay Area native and high school teacher, teaches courses through the San Francisco Peer Resources Program at Mission High School.