As we finish up our essay responses to Dr King's amazing speech, "Beyond Vietnam", one of my students honed in on King's reference to himself as desiring a "radical revolution" of American values. (Amen!) "Isn't radical bad?", he asked. I waited a couple of beats before answering, in the hopes that another student would pick up from his comment, and sure enough the response came from the kid next to him: "Depends on what you're radical for?"
This struck me because I so often reflect that if we were more radical sometimes--more bold, more audacious--we'd possibly be so much closer to the vision of "a brotherhood of man" which Dr. King describes in this speech. He identifies "militarism, materialism and racism" as three main causes of war, and my students overwhelmingly agreed that these are still problems today. Identifying the social values so many people (not just Americans, I rather suspect) have internalized, such as militarism and materialism, as linked to war is a truly radial, even revolutionary thought now. Recall the way so many of us who spoke out against the Iraq War in 2003, calling it a false war for oil, were ignored and disparaged. Alan Greenspan, by no means even centrist left alone liberal, just said the same (about four years too late).
So no, ladies and gentleman of Room 5C: radical isn't bad. Your classmate had it just right. Depends on what you're a radical for. Given the authoritarian culture we continue to absorb, though, isn't not surprising that some kids would think so. Nor is it any wonder that MLK's "I Have a Dream" speech is so often taught--but not so the speech where he presciently calls the US government out on the major foreign policy mistake of his day.
If they learn nothing else from me, I want them to learn to think for themselves. That is truly both a survival skill and a skill of peace building.