What Students Don’t (Yet) Know

by Mark Shelley

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.
mob at lynchingWe 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.)
images of wounds to the boys neck went viral on social mediaOk.  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.

6 thoughts on “What Students Don’t (Yet) Know

  1. Yes, Mark. This type of lack of knowledge is exactly why I continue to question the wisdom of offering college English courses and others as Dual Enrollment. Now students lose the literature and depth of the former high school classes as well as a lot of the history and culture we learn in liberal arts classes. We can educate people who can teach, operate, work in a bank, etc., but will they understand how we got here and why we are the USA? Will they have any background to know how to vote? And do we care????

    1. Well said, Tina! There’s a real maturity argument in there, too! Perhaps we “innoculate” them with such a tame version of history and literature in high school. 🙁

  2. Our culture has been developing and changing so fast that it probably is shocking for many students to find out about these kinds of historical (and recent) events. If we don’t want history to repeat itself, we need to educate. Such an important topic! Good job Mark!

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