Monday, November 14, 2016

The hard work of tolerance

On Friday November 11th the San Jose Mercury News reported that Frank Navarro had been removed from his history classroom for making a comparison between Trump's rhetoric and Hitler's.  

On Sunday I attended a group gathering that was called an Election Shiva, because, as has been pointed out, many of us are in grief.  The topic of Frank Navarro's removal came up.  And the group looked at one another and asked, what do we do about that?  It does not feel right?  But should schools take a political perspective?  What should we do?  Everyone looked at one another.  I wanted to say something, but at that time didn't.  It seemed that what I had to say felt complicated, or that if I opened my mouth I might say it with too much emotion so that it could arouse more emotion, and I did not want that.  But here is what I wanted to say.  It is my response to the silencing of a teacher.

We are all in difficult times right now and emotions are running high.  No matter who we voted for, there is hurt all around.  The stories of bigotry, of who is and is not a bigot, are swirling.  That our republic suffers the vestiges of slavery cannot be denied.  That some Americans are learning for the first time that the American Dream is not equally distributed is also true, though many among us have known this for generations.  Many bodies are suddenly less safe than they were last week.

Hurt and fear threaten to close the aperture for conversation or in some cases, like in my own family, have closed it already.  However, contact is important, however painful it may be.  And by contact I do not necessarily mean agreement and I am aware that even this, contact, may be something that not everybody is ready for.  Yet, at school especially, our communities must cling to first principles of democracy, one of them being, freedom of speech.  No voice may be silenced.

Tolerance in an environment in which everyone agrees does not test the principle of tolerance.  It is when there are multiple perspectives that the practice of tolerance is forged.  It is not easy work.  In this case, organizations, like schools, owe it to their communities to be clear about their values of inclusion and freedom of expression.  All bodies must feel safe.  That is, in a tolerant community it is not permissible for someone to fear physical harm because of their perspective or their identity.  Similarly, all voices have a place.  No voice may be silenced and no individual voice may be amplified to drown out other voices.

With respect to a teacher, that voice already has power associated with it.  I believe the responsibility of the school is to guarantee safe space for its students, and in the case of history, to provide the appropriate resources for history students to grapple with the known facts of the past, knowing, of course, that those facts are always delivered from a point of view.  This is part of the study of history--to learn that who gets to tell the story has a big impact on the story that is told.  

In a tolerant community I think it is normalization of silencing to remove a teacher from their post for presenting historical facts from a particular point of view.  It is urgent that we resist this kind of silencing at this time.  Instead, it is preferable in a tolerant community to invite other voices into a conversation, to empower students to grapple with varying points of view.  This is the study of history.  Removing a teacher from their post is silencing.  They are very different approaches.

Similarly, I was impressed this week by John Palfrey, Head of School at Andover who, on Wednesday delivered an excellent All School Meeting Address in response to the election and with regard to what is expected of the Andover community, knowing that diversity is a cornerstone of that school's mission.  In response to his address, a trustee offered an alternate perspective that he would have given as the community address.  And here's the thing, Palfrey, though he respectfully disagreed with the trustee's position, he distributed  the perspective to the Andover community as well.  Offering alternative perspectives, respectful listening, and maintaining contact even in the midst of fierce disagreement is difficult work.  But defending the ability to do so is urgent work for maintaining the fabric of our republic.

Follow up.  School districts have the right to restrict what is being taught in their schools.  Public school teachers' rights to freedom of speech are shaped by their role as employees of the school district.  In this case it is the Superintendent's duty to oversee the school's curriculum.  The Superintendent has the power to declare what is and is not an appropriate presentation to a high school history class post-election.  Knowing this, it is our job to implore our school leadership to make clear their commitment to teaching tolerance as part of our public school curriculum.  Here is the ACLU information that details the public speech rights of public school teachers:

ACLU information regarding teachers right to speech.

1 comment: