Thoughts on The Great Divide

Last week, on a whim, I picked up a used copy of Studs Terkel’s The Great Divide: Second Thoughts on the American Dream. A few years ago I had read his book The Good War, an oral history of World War II, and had enjoyed it for its intimate perspective of life during wartime as seen through the eyes of the regular men and women who fought and lived through that era.

The Great Divide is even more wide-ranging in scope, attempting to capture the mood of Reagan’s America circa 1987 through interviews with housewives, bartenders, pilots, waitresses, teachers, and cops. And if things seem particularly dire in 2017, the unrest and uncertainty captured in this book suggests that it’s all been a slow train coming.

The first section of the book is titled “School Days” and is comprised of interviews with various teachers and educators. It helps illuminate a perennial crisis: no matter the decade, teachers are always dismayed by the state of their students. Sean Kelly, a young professor at Bowling Green University in Ohio expresses his deep worry that students are more concerned with authority and wealth than engaging in moral inquiry and reflection:

I tried another test on obedience and authority. I asked the nicest girl in the class, the kindest, to step out of the room. I said to the others: “Your assignment is to write the nastiest things you can about her. You’ll be graded on how scathing and insulting you are, how you can destroy her character. The people who pass this class are the ones who maintain a B or above. You also know the worst two will be read to her. Aloud. How many of you would go ahead and do it?” Just about all of them said they would. Without question.
I asked them why. They said, “We want to get a good grade, and we don’t have to take this class again.” Not one of them said, “Hey, screw you, you can’t do this.” Their morals were never engaged. Not one thought, It would make the girl feel humiliated, my grade isn’t worth that. It was simply, Okay, this is authority telling me.
Last semester, I had a girl who wrote a term paper saying that Adolf Hitler was really a peace-loving man who really wanted to be left alone to work out the problems of Germany and really wasn’t aggressive. These are her actual quotes. I thought, My God, this girl is a neo-Nazi, eighteen years old. I was more horrified to find out that she didn’t really care that much. It was just another assignment. It didn’t really matter.

This passage is a reminder that most racism — and discrimination and cruelty, in general — does not spring from overt malicious intent, but through banal intellectual laziness and ingrained subservience to authority. There is, of course, no doubt that our country and people are threatened by ideological racists — who have only become more emboldened in the wake of Trump’s ascendancy to President of the United States — and any actions or policies that spring from their demented worldview should be unequivocally opposed. However, the people who voted for Trump for matters of economy, authority, or personality, while seemingly willfully ignorant of their own prejudices, present their own moral conundrum. They have brought to power and enabled the most regressive and bigoted government that I have experienced in my lifetime, and yet our primary responsibility is not to condemn them, but to teach them.

I know that many of my friends and peers, particularly those without the protections of my own white male privilege, are past the point of being able to extend any measure of sympathy to Trump supporters, and that is a position that I can understand. However, I have chosen to pursue teaching as a profession, and one of the central tenents of our public school system is that all children deserve an education, regardless of ability or ideology.

So when I hear students say things that would spark a vituperative Facebook comments thread like, “Tumblr has 67 gender options. People that think there are 67 genders are stupid. Biology tells us there are only two.” or “The problem with blacks is that a few bad apples spoil the bunch.” I can’t simply accuse them of ignorance, I have a professional and moral responsibility to teach them and help cultivate a wider and more compassionate worldview. As I am dealing with middle school students, this is much more difficult than just lecturing them on gender and sexuality existing on a spectrum or explaining the intellectual fallacy of condemning an entire race based on cherry-picked examples. I try, but most of that language goes over their head; instead, I have to pose to them a series of questions that I hope, eventually, will lead to self-realized epiphanies.

I have chosen teaching as a profession which means I bear a greater responsibility than others, but I would encourage everyone to consider how they can teach before they condemn. It is often frustrating work, but there are few things more beautiful than the knowledge that within each of us we have the power to learn, grow, and change.