I really hope my expression of shock and disbelief wasn’t visible to the class. I literally was having a hard time believing what I was hearing.
We had just completed watching the motion picture, The Great Debaters, starring Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker. Set in the 1930s at Wiley College in the east Texas town of Marshall and Harvard University, the film tells of the journey of the Black college’s debate team. There are some disturbing scenes, including one of a Negro being tarred, feathered, hung and set on fire. (But the ending is feel-good, as the Wiley debate team bests Harvard’s speakers on the topic of Civil Disobedience.)
We were in the midst of answering the question I often ask when I expose students to new perspectives or ideas through movies: “What did you learn that you didn’t already know?” A student who is one of the better performers in the class raised her hand and shared,
“I never knew they lynched Blacks in the South.”
I was speechless. While I don’t expect my students to know a lot of details about race relations in the past (even the recent past), it never dawned on me that anyone would not be aware that violence against African-Americans in the South was commonplace. (As I write this, a story is breaking about an 8 year old mixed-race boy who survived an attempted lynching by older boys two weeks ago in New Hampshire.)
Ok. I totally understand that one of the major objectives (and, at community colleges, maybe THE major objective) is preparation for employment and economic development. But what kind of society are we creating if our students don’t understand where we’ve come from and where we are (or aren’t) in terms of important social issues?
Yavapai College’s “Pathway Initiative” has some very positive dimensions, but as I listen to the talk of curtailing the general education requirements–including critical thinking and historical awareness–from our degrees, I wonder if we’ve really thought through the long term implications as to what kind of world we might live in if our students don’t know ever know what they don’t (yet) know.