Educating ‘68

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]

During a recent discussion about progress and failures in Chicago’s public schools, I was challenged to define the purpose of education. My companion proposed that the goal of education is to teach human beings about their own fundamental freedoms—to teach them that they are free on earth, free to think and act as they wish, and free to craft their own vision of the world. While I found this definition inspiring, it struck me as pointedly individualistic, and in that sense incomplete. I suggested another definition: perhaps the teacher’s role is to educate the student about her place in history, about the spirit she has inherited from those who have come before her and her responsibility to nourish it and carry it forward.

While what followed was a heated comparison of the two definitions, I believe that the educator’s path falls between the banks of these two ideals. Our aim should be to rear human beings who carry a deep understanding of their own fundamental freedom, and of their lineage and its implications. Each of these forms of knowledge must inform the other. The understanding of history and one’s place in it must engender a profound self-respect as well as a sense of duty, and these should both inspire and guide the actions of a free human being. In return, the knowledge of fundamental freedom should catalyze emotional and intellectual creativity, so that history provides a platform for improvement as opposed to a cause for societal stagnation.

Why do we teach? As a social species, we seek to perpetuate the values we believe make for a “better” population of creatures, a society richer in “goodness.” As I have proposed, the “good” human being is one who knows his or her past and is empowered to create her or his future.

As we commemorate the 40th anniversary of this year of tumult, we must ask another question: Why do we teach 1968? In commemorating the year, we are celebrating its characters for their radicalism in thought and spirit. We teach young people that they should appreciate the aura of political brilliance that hummed and glowed in 1968. But is is it a valuable lesson? It certainly has the potential for worthlessness. In May ‘68 and its Afterlives, Kristin Ross makes an effort at reclaiming the narrative of this explosive month in French history, writing that the event itself has been “overtaken by its subsequent representations,” and that it never ceases in “asserting its eventfulness.” The same claim could be made about 1968 in general as a reified concept, a fact that would seem to subvert its actual import: how significant can an event really be if the greatest evidence for its significance lies in its own insistence and reiteration as a significant event?  In more pragmatic terms, why teach 1968 if its sole lesson is the importance of 1968?

It was this pitfall of possible uselessness that plagued me even as I made the announcement this June to students who had been doomed to summer school—condemned to a summer of my company. “For our social studies unit this summer,” I said to the congregation of sleepy, sweaty adolescents, “we will be learning about the Chicano Movement. Can anyone tell me what Chicano means?”

As the centerpiece of the unit, the students viewed the 2006 film Walkout, produced for HBO and directed by Edward James Olmos. The film is about a series of student-led walkouts that took place in East Los Angeles in 1968, and centers around “Paula,” an honor-student-cum-revolutionary who is torn between her desire to please her parents by obeying school officials and her desire to fight for the rights of her Chicano classmates to be offered a quality education. Driven by a new sense of purpose, she makes the decision to ally herself with other radical students and the militant revolutionary Brown Beret organization to organize peaceful protest in her high school. The film is equal parts coming-of-age story and history lesson, as the shifting tide of the society around her is reflected in the changing current of Paula’s own heart.

I knew the students would find the film compelling, but was that enough to justify spending valuable instructional time on it, instead of on the curriculum I had been given? The other teachers I worked with were delighted at my idea, because a) it involved watching a movie, b) it involved discussing Mexican issues with Mexican students, and c) the combination of these two factors ensured that the students would be interested, and we all know students learn more when they’re interested. Fine and good, I thought, but I wanted to make sure they learned something worthwhile. I wanted them to understand their lineage in history.

So we watched the film. Twice a week, they would watch, rapt, as Paula transformed from mousy good girl to sign-waving Chicana warrior. We would watch a segment of ten or twenty minutes, then talk about racial identity, about social activism, about inequity in education, about the Chicano Movement. They listened attentively when I spoke, and participated enthusiastically during discussions. When the unit was over, I interviewed them individually as an assessment, in lieu of a project or a paper-and-pencil test.

When we spoke alone in the hallway, I was fascinated at their responses. They had all unequivocally enjoyed the film. On a visceral level, it touched them—they recalled key scenes with shining eyes, and spoke admiringly of the film’s heroes as though they knew them personally. But whenever the conversation veered into the subject of ideas, and not actions, their thoughts were shaky. These responses from 14-year-old Bianca are typical of what I heard. My questions and comments are bolded:

I liked the movie, because Paula and her friends fought for what they really wanted, and they never gave up.

When is it okay to break the law?

When you want to fight for something that you really want to do.

Even if other people get hurt?

Yeah. everybody’s fighting for something that they want to believe in.

Carlos, 15, said something similar:

When is it okay to break the law?

When people won’t listen to you.

Every one of the students said, without a moment’s hesitation, that he or she would be willing to risk injury, imprisonment, or even death in protest, but they tended to make connections to a sense of personal certainty—“standing up for your beliefs”—rather than mentioning an overarching sense of justice or human rights. And I was disappointed. I had expected thoughtful explorations of self-identity, musings on the rights of the individual versus the needs of the collective—proof that I had a class full of Abbie Hoffmans in the making. What I got was the understanding that my students, for some reason, were having enormous difficulty seeing very far past their own noses.

Some might say that they were simply too young to have an expansive notion of justice, although my belief in the emotional abilities of the young makes me resistant to this explanation. Maybe the film itself was too emphatic in representing emotionally dramatic moments, without reinforcing the grander ideas behind them. Maybe, upon further reflection, the students will come to understand what I wanted them to understand. But for the time being, what I ended up with was emotion and mimesis. They felt something, and it inspired them to want to replicate what they had seen. And this is the true danger in teaching 1968—not that it is devoid of lessons, as I had originally feared, but that it can instruct us in the wrong things.

Those who participated in the events of 1968 (or who did not, but feel that they can claim it by proxy) castigate today’s generation of youth for its (perceived) apathy and inaction; in sum, this generation is guilty of being too dissimilar from the other. “The kids do have their own war now, but not much of an antiwar movement,” griped Rick Perlstein in The New York Times. The ‘68 standard-bearers, frustrated by what they view as the paralysis of America’s youth, are filled with noble intentions to pass the torch of social action. But we must understand that teaching 1968 cannot simply be about teaching students to replicate the actions of others.

Discussing his film, Edward James Olmos said in an interview that “the idea of bringing about social change by way of non-violent behavior is the strongest single method that we have, of making ourselves understood and understanding ourselves better.” [Emphasis mine]. Indeed, social action can be a rite of passage, as much about the inner life of an individual as it is about the machinations of a big world. Is this amoral? Is it okay for protest to be an act of individualism rather than an act of pure altruism? It seems inevitable. The personal is political; in adolescence, the political seems to be almost exclusively personal.

What did I intend for these students? What was I trying to teach them? I certainly did not intend for the students to learn that social action is about assuming one’s own beliefs as flawless, and was perturbed to hear them imply as much. In my earlier reference to the need for the educated individual to understand her role in a “lineage,” I mean it broadly. I did not only want them to learn what it meant to be Mexican in 1968, or a student in 1968, or even what it means to be Mexican in Little Village in 2008. I want them to know all these things, but I want more for them. History is an ample room. I wanted them to know their place in a long story. I wanted them to see not exclusively the past or the future or the present, but all three together. I wanted them to see themselves erect in the center of a river flowing from source unseen, toward an equally invisible destination. To only replicate the past as a silent witness, or to only swing, reckless and ignorant, at the future, is the fate of the uneducated. In teaching 1968, we must instill students with the ability, in knowing, to watch the ways of others and create, not a replica of old significance, but a new thought for a new time.

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