Last week, terrorists attacked Paris. There are major political, practical and moral questions that abound as a result of this. Our country is debating whether bombing is appropriate and what to do about Syrian refugees entering America. These are all big questions as they make us question our own belief systems and values. As educators it is important for us to remember that this is an important lesson for our students too.
Based entirely on anecdotal evidence, in my experience teachers are hesitant to discuss hot button political and/or moral issues with their classes. We fear that we will offend someone in the class, which is only heightened when we read stories of teachers getting in trouble for their comments. Sometimes we are concerned that we don’t have the time to discuss these issues because of testing and curricular requirements. I contest that we, as educators, have a responsibility to discuss these sort of issues.
Today, in class, we read Emerson’s Nature and began discussing his idea of the oversoul. Whether you know anything about Transcendentalism and the works of Emerson is irrelevant, but stemming from this is the concept of human connections. In fact, the question I posed to my classes today is: “Do we have a responsibility to other humans? And if so, what is that responsibility?” In light of that question, how can one not discuss the current issues regarding refugees?
With my seniors, we study British literature which includes the epic Beowulf in which we view the concept of the epic hero. An obvious question in this unit is: “What is heroism?” Without a doubt students drum up examples of modern day heroism to include police men, firefighters, and military men. So I always ask the follow up question: “Are all members of the military heroes?” And the answer is largely yes. I then hand out an article from the early 2000’s detailing a veteran of the Iraq war who killed his entire family and committed suicide after suffering from PTSD, and ask if he still qualifies as a hero. Suddenly many students are unsure. Does these actions in some way take away from his service? There isn’t necessarily a right answer, but now I have them contemplating the issue of heroism much more deeply.
My seniors also read Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, and we look at the various pilgrims and consider their various vices and virtues to ask the broader question: “Are humans generally good or bad?” We also live in southern New Hampshire, so when the Boston Marathon bombings occurred, that is an act of terrorism that hit pretty close to home for our community. How could I possibly ask students if humans are good or bad and not ask them to look at the events of that day? Did bad things happen that day? Yes. Did good things happen that day? Yes–the outpouring of help and support was phenomenal.
I don’t ask my students these questions because there is necessarily a right answer. I don’t ask these questions of students because they are embedded in my curriculum. I ask these questions of my students because they are questions that matter. School is about more than just gaining skills to join the work force or advance on to the next level of skill. School is about finding ourselves and tackling difficult questions. We must help students understand their beliefs and values. We mustn’t be afraid of asking moral and ethical questions in our classes.