This Upworthy post & video entitled I Never Thought I’d Want To High-Five A Teacher For Yelling At A Student, But I Was Wrong has been going around on Facebook (and presumably elsewhere) in the last few weeks… I’ve seen a number of people express great support for it, as we all quite often, and quite rightfully, do when we find a video that calls out societal wrongs and aims to make a difference. I felt quite differently.
I cannot express how angry and upset this video made me. It took more than half an hour for a friend to talk me down. I put off writing this post for a long time, and considered not posting it at all, for fear of the feedback. But, I am still terribly offended, appalled, disgusted, with this teacher for treating her students this way, for thinking it okay to do so, and for thinking this an appropriate way to teach about racism, and I continue to see people posting positively about this video, so I feel I need to say my piece. If we disagree, I hope we can discuss it civilly and calmly, focusing on issues of pedagogy and discourse, without saying anything that should make anyone feel personally attacked.
The video opens with the teacher talking to students about listening skills, and body language, in a very severe, harsh, authoritarian sort of manner. She clearly expects the students to behave as she dictates, and to reiterate things as they’ve been taught, without question. One student, a young lady in a bandana, attempts to say something about how strict adherence to a set rule doesn’t actually work in all aspects, or doesn’t apply in all situations, and the teacher not only shuts her down, but does so in a manner that sets up the rest of the class against her. The teacher says “bring it on, bring it on,” as other students laugh, and then as the student attempts to make her voice heard over the commotion, the teacher says “now, does that make sense, what you just said?” The student continues, setting up a “yes, in general it’s like this, but..” sort of argumentative structure, but is rudely interrupted by the teacher who tells her STOP, you’re getting too wordy.
I apologize for this pop media reference, when it should have been a picture from a famous civil rights protest or the like. I was surprised at how difficult it was to find a good picture of a single person standing up amongst a crowd, to speak out against injustice. And this one served the purpose…
She raises her hand. She attempts to play within the rules of a normal classroom, signalling that she has something to say, but is politely waiting to speak rather than shouting out. She is denied again, and harshly, being told that if she is raising her hand, it means she’s thinking about what she wants to say, rather than truly listening to what others are saying. A fair point. But, even so, this strikes me as terribly controlling, overbearing. Clearly, this is no normal American classroom. As the teacher continues to attempt to shut her down, the student continues to speak up. Finally, she says “I don’t care, because it’s wrong, and you persecuted her for standing out, and you persecuted him for standing out, and the only change that ever happens is when people stand out.” The teacher then says, “Martin Luther King…”
I was ready to applaud. I thought the girl’s reaction was precisely what the teacher was looking for – that people should not take things sitting down, that when someone demands you have to think like them, have to think their way, without questioning, that people should instead speak out. I thought the teacher was going to say “Martin Luther King spoke out against injustice. He stood up, and spoke out, when few others would, and when the status quo and the powers that be were very much in opposition to him.”
Imagine my surprise when she instead completely discredits this student’s courage, her outrage, her willingness to stand up against injustice, by saying “Martin Luther King was shot and killed. Are you in any physical danger here?” Seems to me somebody is missing the point. Martin Luther King spoke up, spoke out for what he believed in, despite the physical danger. This girl, too, stood up and spoke out, despite the dangers of a verbal chastising, detention, suspension, a failing grade, or whatever other consequences a teacher might be able to dole out.
And yet, as the video continues, we are led to believe that this student, the one student who was willing to stand up to an authoritarian presence, the one student who felt the injustice of the situation so strongly that she became quite genuinely upset, was in the wrong. That she’s the one who didn’t get it. And that all the students who simply sat there silently, accepting what the teacher told them without question, were the ones who “got” the lesson.
I don’t disagree with this teacher’s message whatsoever, of course, but I very much take issue with her methods. There is a very important lesson to be learned here about racism, to be sure, and it is a lesson that I think everyone should learn. But I do not think that being domineering and controlling is the way to do it. For such a complex, touchy, and deeply personal, topic as racism, I believe the best way to do it is to have open discussion perhaps based around readings, a film, a lecture, or the like. Allow people to ask questions. Allow people to ask why. Allow people to share what they have experienced, or what they have been taught, and help them work towards a more progressive or enlightened understanding. This is how I learned about indigenous issues in Hawaii and the Pacific (and by extension, indigenous, post-colonial and ethnic/race issues around the world), and I am extremely grateful to my professor for teaching in this manner. For understanding that if I came into the class believing certain things about the United States, about imperialism, about native peoples, it was only because that’s what we are taught in public school, and by popular media, that I am not an inherently “racist” or bad person, and that with exposure to new narratives, evidence, discussion, and debate, I can come to a new and more progressive understanding.
When you force a paradigm, a discourse, down someone’s throat, telling them you have to see it my way, you have to think how I think, without allowing for raised hands, without allowing for questions, that is how attitudes are enforced in fascist and totalitarian regimes, not here in the United States. If this were a lesson on civil disobedience, if this were a lesson on how Nazi Germany and Maoist China and totalitarian Japan ran their education system, and on why we in the free and democratic United States oppose their methods, then having the student defy the teacher, to speak out against having an ideology shoved down her throat, would be the right answer, the correct ideal outcome.
Just because your lesson, your message, is a morally superior one, an anti-racist one, does that entitle you to use such methods? How is your forcing me to unquestioningly believe one thing about race that much different from forcing me to believe a different thing about race? What sets you apart from so many others, in Germany and China and Japan, who have in such a domineering controlling way forced students to adhere to a given ideology?
I’ve heard of this “experiment” before, and indeed remember being taught about it from a very young age, albeit in a slightly different context. The metaphor was not whites and blacks, but rather Jews and Gentiles. We were taught that this was similar to how the Nazis ran their classrooms, and their society. The Jews and the Gentiles were separated, the Jews forced to wear a yellow star on their shirts identifying them as different. And so they were treated differently. And if anyone spoke out, they were not only harshly punished, but they were made an example of, so that the other students would remain in line. Adherence was reinforced not only through fear, but through ideology, making the students believe that aligning with the teacher, adhering to what teacher taught, was the right, good, proper, way to be. And in talking about this experiment, the entire point of the discussion, the entire point of the experiment, was for the students to realize that the set-up itself, the division and different treatment of people by whatever features, is unjust, is inappropriate, and is something to be opposed. In other words, within the metaphorical context of this experiment, Mrs. Elliot represents the authority figure enforcing the institution’s racism, by herself dividing people up in her classroom, and treating them differently, and as such, she should not be obeyed, but should be resisted and opposed.
Now, I don’t know what this student would have said were she allowed an opportunity to speak; many who have shared this video on Facebook have suggested that what she had to say was racist, in opposition to or resistance against the underlying lesson being taught. I’m not sure where they’re getting that from, but, have not we all struggled with our own prejudices? Have we not all struggled with the belief systems, the myths and discourses about our identities that we were raised with? Were not a great many of us raised, for example, to believe in Columbus as a great noble explorer, in Manifest Destiny and western expansion as great, noble things that allow us to have the great God-given country that we have today? Were we not taught that the United States has never been an imperialist/colonialist power, and that in fact, the US is from its origins, ultimately anti-imperialist & anti-colonialist? As someone who has myself struggled very much with unlearning these lessons we’ve all been taught in the past, and as someone who has often felt personally under attack simply for being who I am – accused of being racist, misogynist, imperialist, oppressor, purely because I am a white male from a well-off suburban New York family, regardless of my actual beliefs, attitudes, experiences, actions – and most importantly, as someone raised from a very young age with stories of how the Nazis spread and reinforced their ideology, I sympathize very much with wanting to stand up, to speak out, against the forceful blanket imposition of an ideology, whether that ideology is good or bad.
What lesson have these students learned? That Ms. Elliot is a harsh bitch? That one should not ask questions, should not question or challenge, or even consider or think about what a teacher tells you, but should just accept it at face value because she’s the teacher, and she’s right? Is that the lesson we want our students to learn? Is that what it means to be an American?
The list of things that disgust and appall me about this video could fill numerous pages. But I think this post is long enough as is, and so I shall leave it here.
Laura Willard, who created the post on Upworthy, writes “Many years ago, I could have been the girl who walked out, not understanding how this feels to the people it affects. I’m glad that’s no longer the case.” As for myself, not that long ago, I too could have been the girl who walked out. I’m glad that my teachers welcomed me back into the room more warmly, less harshly, using discussion to help me come around, rather than excluding me as harshly as this teacher, Jane Elliot, does here. I am glad that my teachers allowed me to ask questions, so that I could work through the answers myself, to come to decide for myself what I believe, and why I believe it, for such is a much stronger, more genuinely belief than something you are forced to agree to, simply because your teacher said so.