In American schools, English and social studies teachers spend considerable time and effort teaching about civil rights and the struggle for equality. History units focus on slavery, women’s suffrage, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement, World War II internment camps and immigration. English teachers read books ranging from To Kill a Mockingbird and The Color of Water to Night and Maus to The House on Mango Street and The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Many of my most memorable lessons as a teacher have involved discussions about equality, in which I’ve asked tough questions and heard amazing, insightful answers.
In a lot of ways, these discussions are part of the greatest American dialogue we can have. Back in 1776, a group of leaders issued the most famous press release in history. Billed as the Declaration of Independence, this document did more than just announce plans for a revolution – it also promised the type of country this revolution would bring. Thomas Jefferson borrowed some of the wording from other documents, but when it was all put together he had crafted the most important sentence in American history: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The story of America is the story of a country that is constantly moving toward and away from the promise of that sentence. The Declaration is not a law; it’s just an announcement. But it has become the closest thing to a sacred document our nation has, and that’s why it’s been quoted and cited by leaders during times when increased equality was within sight – from Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address to Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech to Barack Obama in his Second Inaugural Address. The Declaration will continue to serve as the barometer by which we measure our democracy.
Teachers have a responsibility to continue holding the kinds of discussions that students and, frankly, all Americans have been having for these past 240 years. If there are questions raised about where we measure up against the Declaration’s promise, we need to ask them. What is different in 2016 is that instead of discussing issues of equality in an institutional sense, we’re also addressing them in the context of the Oval Office. Does our president-elect value equality and justice for all? That is a fair question, and it is not disrespectful toward him for us to ask this question in our classrooms.
In my last post, I wrote about the importance of caring deeply for all my students, including those who support different political candidates and hold different political views than I do. That is unquestionable. But it is equally essential that our classrooms be used to continue the dialogue that fuels our democracy. To refrain from asking such questions out of fear would be an insult to the words that established our nation. This is no time for English and social studies teachers to hold our tongues. That’s not a matter of pushing an agenda; it’s a matter of fulfilling a curriculum.