I am especially disheartened, as are many Americans, when I consider the events of this past summer alone—bombings, riots, shootings—every bit of which derive from a need to identify and destroy the other, or, at the very least, a refusal to understand each other’s perspective. Then there is the presidential campaign with Donald Trump proclaiming “the other” as the source of many societal ills.
Arguments abound regarding laws to pass and policies to implement as solutions to these issues. And while passing bills might feel like a solution—and in some ways it would be—policy can only go so far in changing habits and perception. The only surefire solution to developing tolerance and openness to the perspectives of others is through educating young people.
I believe that the problem is not what is taught in schools, but how it is taught. It is not enough to simply offer curriculum about the ills of racism, homophobia, or bullying, and then expect lasting results from students who are entrenched in cultural beliefs that are reinforced by society. How can it be a surprise that a number of Americans lean toward authoritarian ideals when, according to Marzano Learning Sciences Center, an educational consulting and research group located in West Palm Beach, Florida, 58 percent of class time in K-12 schools is used for lecture with the teacher delivering content? Or that a number of Americans choose to ignore facts and reason when only 6 percent of class time is used for cognitively complex tasks? In a 2012 Center for American Progress student survey, one third of American 12th-graders said they engaged in class discussions only two times a month or less, suggesting that the majority of 17- and 18-year-old American public-school students (young adults coming upon voting age) rarely spend time engaging in dialogue during the school day. The current state of American politics is not surprising when the country’s youngest citizens are given few opportunities to engage in critical thinking and discussion. In order to counteract these trends, it is essential for educators to provide exploratory opportunities for students to not only think about the experiences of other people, but to also challenge their own inherent belief systems through experiential learning.
A couple of years ago, I taught a freshman English course in a suburban-rural school district with 32 students, 30 of whom were 15-year-old boys. I tried passionately to teach the need to “walk a mile in another man’s shoes,” as extolled by Atticus Finch, yet I continued to overhear racist and homophobic comments. One student even said, “That’s what guns are for” when I asked the class how they dealt with people who held different beliefs than they did.
As brilliant as Atticus Finch may have been (pre-Go Set a Watchman), my students could not relate to a lawyer in 1930s Alabama. These young men loved to hunt and fish. They loved guns and a survivalist mentality. I realized that if I wanted to get them to think about another person’s perspective, I first had to relate to theirs. So I began by teaching Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “The Fish,” from the voice of a speaker who catches an old beat-up fish, respects the fish’s fight for its life, and lets it go. Next, I called the local Cabela’s, a hunting and fishing store, and asked for a fisherman to come discuss the poem with my students and to fillet a fish he had caught so my students could have a memorable experience to connect to the process of analyzing a poem. The fisherman took his role seriously; we spoke several times over the phone about the poem and his own process for analyzing it before he arrived. After his visit, my class read the poem again.