When every day is a teachable moment

The pundits have declared students as “special snowflakes” once again, after an unruly group protested a speaker at Middlebury. Commentators from conservative to liberal have decried the students’ actions and yet again laid the blame for such incidents squarely on the shoulders of professors, instructors who “coddle” the students and only make them hear that with which they agree.  But I’d like to take exception to these pronouncements and issue a standing invitation to commentators to come visit my classroom sometime. What would they see? A wide range of students, from diverse backgrounds, with differing opinions, engaging in civil conversations about the course material and the world at large. Sounds pretty boring, doesn’t it? No “moral dry rot” as Thomas Sowell would have it. No “swarm” or “illiberalism,” as Frank Bruni sees it.

Instead, students in my classes–and in countless other classes across the country–know that their opinions are respected, both by their classmates and by their instructor. And they feel the freedom to make connections between the class materials and present-day events. This is why the Middlebury incident stands out–for its rarity.

As a professor of American Religious history, I teach what one campus group has described as “potentially dicey subjects.”  How do I avoid a riot in every class meeting? I encourage students to make connections between the material we study and the presence of present-day analogies. It’s part of the way I’ve structured my teaching–asking students to see history both as the past and what informs the present day. My most rewarding moments occur when the students raise the comparisons themselves, rather than relying on me to make the connections for them.

In past academic years, the connections between the oppression of religious minorities has not always been easy for students to see, but, unfortunately, those links between past and present have recently become crystal clear. As politicians in the United States have entertained and attempted to enact a ban on Muslims (or Muslim immigrants), as bomb threats against Jewish synagogues and community centers and vandalism of Jewish graves have been reported on an almost daily basis in 2017, and as Latinos have been targeted for ICE raids, the steady drum beat of historical precedents has intruded into the news and classroom discussions.

For some of my students, the news is merely a topic of conversation; for others, the news hits too close to home. I teach minority students, veterans, LGBTQIA students, and average middle class people. I’ve had retirees in my classes. When students enter my classroom, they know that they can speak freely and candidly about their fears (being sent into war, being physically assaulted for their sexuality, being marginalized because of their race), and it’s this level playing field that allows them to express their views without resorting to shouting, signs, or the “mob” mentality. When you give people equal voices, you get calm discussions, not yelling and back-turning.

And so my students can contextualize what has happened in the past–anti-Semitic sentiment and anti-Catholic sentiment, for example–and use it to understand anti-Semitism and Islamophobia today. They know that the United States has wrestled with notions of immigration and immigrants for quite some time and that the “Western civilization” a certain Congressman recently declared in need of protection has been built by immigrants and their descendants, not hatched fully-formed from an egg laid by Anglo-Saxons and Teutonic people, but a collage of contributions from people who were welcomed or despised but who chose to remain (or were prohibited in leaving as was the case for enslaved Africans). German farmers, Lebanese auto workers, Jewish tailors, Chinese railroad workers, English merchants–all and many more made this country what it is today.

My students can explain with how anti-Muslim sentiment has contributed to a rise in hate crimes against Sikhs and Hindus as well as Muslims. They can analyze how various Christians have interpreted religious texts to support or oppose slavery. And they can see that many of the religious debates facing the United States today stem from notions of race as well as religion.  They do not need special treatment to take on the problems of the world. They just need someone to respect them for trying.


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