Across the United States and in many countries elsewhere, it is back to school season. As we settle into the new school year, I write to share my reflections with you about the world that students—young people whose intellectual, emotional, and ethical development has been entrusted to us—study and learn in every day.
It’s been a difficult summer, with violent crimes in a place of worship, two movie theaters, and most recently during a live newscast. I believe we have reached a critical juncture as global citizens: we must openly discuss violence spurred by bigotry and hatred of all kinds in contexts that go beyond any single incident.
Here in the U.S., Americans have tried to have conversations about race in particular many times over, borne from the understanding that we as a democratic nation are obliged to grapple with conflict. Unfortunately, we have had little success. A New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in July indicates that two-thirds of those surveyed, both white and black, are more uncomfortable than ever discussing race with someone of another race.
How can we find a path to national and global dialogue when we have such trouble talking to each other? I believe that facing one another in this moment will take humility, self-reflection, and a shared desire for change. We will also need common points of reference found in deep immersion in historical case studies, lest we become so immobilized amidst contemporary trauma and violence that we feel unable to talk openly.
Attorney, human rights activist, and author Bryan Stevenson, the leading voice today on the history of lynching in the U.S. and a regular speaker for Facing History, has said, “We don't like to talk about our history. And because of that, we really haven't understood what it's meant to do the things we've done historically. We're constantly running into each other. We're constantly creating tensions and conflicts. We have a hard time talking about race, and I believe it's because we are unwilling to commit ourselves to a process of truth and reconciliation.”
For instance, we must rise to serious conversation about the shootings in Charleston and about the use and display of the Confederate flag across the American South; yet far too few people today know that in 1868, during the period of Reconstruction after the American civil war, South Carolina itself embraced the promise of democracy by becoming the first state to elect a legislature with a black majority. Can we leverage this period of aspirations for our future in order to create a better nation going forward?”
For years, K-12 educators have debated whether or not to bring the contemporary world into their classrooms. This year, let’s answer with an unequivocal “Yes.”
Our students have so many questions about events in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and about the entire world around them. They long for us to help them have conversations inclusive of different perspectives that can help them identify moral choices made in history and those they might face themselves.
Our task is urgent, yet I am optimistic that this powerful need creates an equally powerful opportunity. Our shared spaces—schools, libraries, and community centers—offer the best forum for those from different backgrounds to encounter each other and have difficult but necessary conversations about race, violence, and the struggles we face living in a democracy. If we are to thaw frozen attitudes and create space for people to talk, and to listen, these conversations must start with the history of where we have arrived.
I am eager to listen to you. Please communicate with us at Facing History about the work you are doing in your classrooms and schools, so we can learn how to help our students together.
It’s a privilege to serve each and every one of you.
My best wishes,