Monday, January 16, 2012

Teaching toward a better world

An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.
          -- Martin Luther King, Jr.
Today we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose tireless dedication to a world free of bigotry, poverty, and hatred helped bring us the civil rights movement.  I cannot do justice to the man or the movement, nor can I improve upon the many wise and profound words that have been said by and about him, so I will not try.  I want, instead, to take a moment to reflect on my own commitment to social change.
I sang for social change from 1989-1994.
(I'm in the middle in the back row.)

One of the tensions I struggled with in graduate school was how to reconcile my academic career with my goals of social activism.  I had been involved in the anti-apartheid movement in college and was deeply committed to feminist activism, as well.  As I worked side by side with activists, striving for a better world, the rarefied air of academia seemed distant and irrelevant.  While I loved the intellectual challenge of my coursework and research, it was hard to see how it would contribute to social change.  Even if I engaged in research directly related to social problems, it was rare to see such work actually impact people's lives.  I felt torn.  I wanted to live the life of the mind, immersed in theories and esoteric ideas, but I needed to know that I was working toward social change.  I could not see how a career as an academic could fulfill both.

It was teaching that saved me.  Yes, my research might never change the world, but in my classroom, I would touch the lives of hundreds of students.  Each of them could be a seed of social change, carried out into the world.  I might never know how many of these seeds would bear fruit, but I could create a classroom in which students would be informed and empowered as social change agents.  That would be my contribution to a better world.

I've just begun reading Teaching to Transgress by bell hooks.  She articulates a vision of teaching as empowering and healing.
"The classroom remains the most radical space of possibility in the academy. [. . .] I celebrate teaching that enables transgressions -- a movement against and beyond boundaries.  It is that movement which makes education the practice of freedom." (hooks, 1994, p. 12) 
Her words have re-energized my commitment to creating social change through my teaching.

I create a better world by giving my students the tools of social change.  They learn about effective ways of reducing prejudice, building better relationships, and creating meaningful and satisfying lives through social engagement and helping others.  They learn how to find information and think critically about it so that they are not at the mercy of those seeking to manipulate them or coerce their behavior.  They learn to identify and resist the psychological, situational, and social forces that can push us to behave in ways that do not meet our needs or serve our goals.  They learn about existing inequities and how to address them at a personal and societal level.  Beyond the specifics of the course content, they also learn that they are worthy of respect and that their voice can be heard.  They become more confident and mature.  They learn more effective communication skills, which are fundamental to any social change effort.  They continue along a path of education and growth that will empower them to pursue their goals more effectively and give back to their communities.  They learn that they can make a difference and that we all need to work for positive change if we want to see a better world. 

This day, I re-dedicate myself to making a positive difference in the world.  I thank my colleagues for the work they do to create more freedom through education.  I thank my students who work with me to envision a better world and who carry that vision into their lives and communities.  Thank you for taking on the struggle, for engaging with difficult issues, for taking responsibility for our future.  We are all the agents of change.  We can create the world we want to have. 

hooks, b.  (1994). Teaching to transgress:  Education as the practice of freedom.  Routledge:  New York, NY.

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