Tuesday, December 4, 2007

On Relevance

Relevance, as you also may have observed, dear reader, can be a dangerous thing. In preparation for reading a poem from the perspective of an Hispanic immigrant yesterday, I brought in an article on immigration policy in Arlington (only 10 minutes from where our school is located). Many of the kids even knew some of the Vietnamese or El Salvadoran restaurants mentioned in the article, as they were eager to mention in class.

One of the central and vital goals of peace education, of course, is addressing and combating racism. It is ugly, and can come from anyone, even (and perhaps most likely) those who experience racism themselves. As I suspected I might, I encountered some of the stereotypes people can hold against "immigrants" in my classroom today as we discussed the article.

"They take our jobs". This was immediately challenged (by kids clearly of Latina/o background) to note that there is often no choice due to economic or political circumstances in the home country. Other students pointed out that we're a nation of immigrants and unless you're for example Mohawk or Navajo, there is probably immigration--voluntary or otherwise--there somewhere. One student, usually one of my best and most appreciative young men, said he felt that "immigrants are perverts". When pressed on this point, he described some behavior his sister and mother had experienced at the hands of people they assumed to be immigrants (they may well have been right). We've talked endlessly about the danger of stereotypes--the false belief that if one person in a certain identity group holds a certain quality, everyone in that group does. We've talked about how stereotypes have been the seeds that sowed genocide (I call it the "Ladder of Hate", of which more later).

Because I will not tolerate intolerance, I spoke with this student at length after class, along with my principal, who shares my educational goals of character and peace education. He stated to the student that conversations like that are what education is really about, and I couldn't agree more. But I'm aware that it is also quite counter-culture in a nation that can vilify immigrants, that self-segregates and that sees violence as a way to solve problems. We've raised offending others "because it's my right" to an art form and defined it as American. That, however, doesn't mean that peace education is doomed to failure or should end because it can be hard or messy or raise difficult issues. That's all the more reason for it to exist in every classroom!

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