Age of Awareness
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Age of Awareness

On Empathy, Enemies, and Holdouts

Japanese soldier, Hiroo Onoda, was not aware that World War II had ended, and refused to surrender until he was relieved of his duty, in 1974, by his former commanding officer. For 30 years, Onoda dutifully went about his various tasks as an intelligence officer on the island of Lubang, unaware that the war had formally ended long ago.

There is something for us to learn from Onoda, and the other holdouts in the Japanese Army — that’s right, the case of Hiroo Onoda was not unique. There are several well-documented cases of holdouts refusing to believe that the war ended, with some soldiers choosing suicide rather than returning to Japan in defeat.

In an instructional context, the reading wars have been fought for several decades. We could easily say that different iterations of these battles have been going on, with different names and different leaders, since the early 1970’s. In the early 2000’s the tide really turned with the release of the National Reading Panel Report and in-depth evidence of the power of systematic reading instruction. However, the release of the report was also misused and politicized to shape purchasing policies to advantage certain publishing companies. This hampered the ability of the report to convince many whole language proponents that the war was lost.

More recently, a peace was negotiated with Lucy Calkins, an informal leader of many balanced literacy proponents, revising her materials to make use of the systematic instruction of phonics and phonemic awareness principles. However, despite this negotiated peace, many “soldiers” are unwilling to accept that the war is over, perhaps because they invested too much of their own personal identity in a balanced literacy approach, and they would rather continue fighting a lost war rather than admit ideological defeat.

On a grander scale, we see similar happening with the GOP and their reaction to the 2020 election. Rather than accepting the results of the election and moving forward looking for ways to grow their membership, gain influence, and rebound in the next election, they seem committed to continuing the fight of 2020, doubling and even tripling down on flashpoint issues of that election.

For leaders to help end these messy “after battles” we really should be looking at the lessons that the holdouts of WWII can offer us. These were honorable, committed, and ideologically devout soldiers. To think of them as “crackpots” is of no use. Now is the time for us to thoughtfully consider what might move someone who has intimately tied their identity to an ideology that has failed and how to help them walk back from that without committing serious self-injury. To simply expect anyone to abandon such commitment is unreasonable and will only harden their resolve. Let’s get thoughtful and have some compassion for those who fought nobly for their cause. Let’s help them come to a different understanding without sacrificing themselves.

Resilience is, of course, necessary for a warrior. But a lack of empathy isn’t.

-Phil Klay




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