STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

Teaching is a revolutionary act


I took a class in high school on American government. Truthfully, I don’t remember much of what we learned in that class. Somewhere along the way, I think I found out what a bicameral legislature is. But I don’t remember the lesson.

What I remember of the class is the teacher. 

His name is Mr. Gonzalez. I never learned his first name; I have no idea where he is today. I’m sure he’s out there somewhere. That’s not the point I’m after right now. The point I’m after is who Mr. Gonzalez was in that classroom. Who he was as Mr. Gonzalez, the government teacher.

He was a revolutionary.

While I don’t remember him teaching us about the bicameral legislature, I do remember how he stopped lecturing one day, and made us listen to Rage Against the Machine. I remember he didn’t play the radio-friendly version.

And I remember how he taught us to deal with police. He handed out business cards from some lawyer friend of his.

“Don’t say anything,” I remember Mr. Gonzalez telling us. “Just hand the officer this card.”

The card said I would not consent to a search, and I would not answer any questions. It said, bluntly, either put my under arrest, or set me free.

I thought at the time that the card was a ridiculous and transparent way for a drunk driver to try to get out of a ticket. I thought the card was a free ad for Mr. Gonzalez’ lawyer friend that somehow made it into our classroom. I never used the card. I was a law-abiding citizen. So were most of my friends. We all got a card. We all laughed about it. We still do, actually.

I was a white kid, a white male. What the hell did I know about the system?

But my impression of Mr. Gonzalez is different now than it was then. At 17, of course, I loved the idea of fighting against the system. But, to me, the system was my curfew at night. It was the boss at my part-time job. It was, often, my teachers. The system Mr. Gonzalez wanted to teach us about was remote, almost imaginary. I was a white kid, a white male. What the hell did I know about the system?

I started thinking about Mr. Gonzalez this morning because I was thinking about the ongoing protests over the events in Ferguson. Among the coverage of those events is a discussion about how to teach Ferguson in the classroom. Both PBS and the New York Times have put out Ferguson teaching guides (here and here). Some teachers have blogged about the experience of discussing Ferguson with their students.

It’s made me realize just how little I learned about race, class and civil disobedience when I was in school. 

Sure, I learned about Martin Luther King Jr. I learned about Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I learned that racism was segregation. Racism was Jim Crow. Racism was the work of malicious, racist people. Some of those people still existed, and I could see their work occasionally (in the beating of Rodney King, for example). But I was not racist, and if we young white people weren’t racist, racism would cease to exist.

I now know this was wrong. Racism doesn’t require racists. It only requires ignorance. That’s all any system of oppression requires.

And this is why teaching is such a revolutionary act.

In 1963, the writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin delivered a speech to a group of New York schoolteachers. His words were later printed as an essay, titled “A Talk to Teachers.” In it, Baldwin makes the case for why education is so essential, and so dangerous, to a functioning society:

The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity. But no society is really anxious to have that kind of person around. What societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish. The obligation of anyone who thinks of himself as responsible is to examine society and try to change it and to fight it – at no matter what risk. This is the only hope society has. This is the only way societies change.

Baldwin continued to describe what this means for the education of young black children. But he also talked about the importance of using education to "liberate" white children from their own distorted sense of identity: 

What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one’s heroic ancestors. It’s astounding to me, for example, that so many people really appear to believe that the country was founded by a band of heroes who wanted to be free. That happens not to be true. What happened was that some people left Europe because they couldn’t stay there any longer and had to go someplace else to make it. That’s all. They were hungry, they were poor, they were convicts. Those who were making it in England, for example, did not get on the Mayflower. That’s how the country was settled. Not by Gary Cooper. Yet we have a whole race of people, a whole republic, who believe the myths to the point where even today they select political representatives, as far as I can tell, by how closely they resemble Gary Cooper. Now this is dangerously infantile, and it shows in every level of national life. When I was living in Europe, for example, one of the worst revelations to me was the way Americans walked around Europe buying this and buying that and insulting everybody – not even out of malice, just because they didn’t know any better. Well, that is the way they have always treated me. They weren’t cruel; they just didn’t know you were alive. They didn’t know you had any feelings.

This, I think, is the problem with a lot of social issues we face today. Many of usfail to know that anyone else has feelings. We fail to understand what could motivate the actions of anyone whose experience is different than our own. 

"As a white male in my 30s, I feel like I'm just now uncovering the many ways my schools, and my culture, conspired to keep me stupid."

And, sorry to say, it's especially true for white males like me. We may not have grown up with Gary Cooper exactly, but there were others who fit the archetype. Nearly everyone I learned about in school was a pale-skinned dude of European descent, from Euclid to Charlemagne to John F. Kennedy.

But you know who I never learned about in school? James Baldwin. I discovered his work only recently. It makes me angry, actually. As a white male in my 30s, I feel like I'm just now uncovering the many ways my schools, and my culture, conspired to keep me stupid. 

It's too late for me to go back. But today's teachers have the power to change things for their students. 

They can do that by doing what many teachers are doing right now: teaching Ferguson in the classroom. 

As I was looking around this morning, searching for the roots of my own ignorance, and how teachers can begin to unravel the system that keeps people like me in the dark, I came across another piece of text. 

It comes not from a civil rights leader, or an education expert. It comes from Mr. Gonzalez' favorite band, Rage Against the Machine:   

The present curriculum I put my fist in 'em Eurocentric every last one of 'em See right through the red, white and blue disguise With lecture I puncture the structure of lies Installed in our minds and attempting To hold us back We've got to take it back Holes in our spirit causin' tears and fears One-sided stories for years and years and years I'm inferior? Who's inferior? Yeah, we need to check the interior Of the system that cares about only one culture And that is why We gotta take the power back

Turn it up teachers (NSFW, unless you're Mr. Gonzalez).  

Dustin Dwyer is a reporter on the State of Opportunity project, based in Grand Rapids. Previously, he worked as an online journalist for Changing Gears, as a freelance reporter and as Michigan Radio's West Michigan Reporter. Before he joined Michigan Radio, Dustin interned at NPR's Talk of the Nation, wrote freelance stories for The Jackson Citizen-Patriot and completed a Reporting & Writing Fellowship at the Poynter Institute.
Related Content