If you haven’t read Kevin Gannon’s amazing and inspiring teaching manifesto, you owe it to yourself to stop right now and read it. He outlines the cycle many of us go through, over and over, of being inspired and enthused about teaching, only to fall into despair. As he puts it: “Why bother teaching when it doesn’t matter? When no one cares about what you do or why you do it?” His response to the despair is moving, and we should all print it out and hang it by our desks.
And alongside that, I’ve been reading and thinking and reading and thinking on race and justice and the police state. How can I not? It seems like a radical act to hope for social justice, sometimes even more so when you’re a historian of the United Sates. As Jamelle Bouie pointed out to someone who couldn’t understand why the videos of police violence that are becoming so familiar don’t seem to be causing change:
Lynchings, for instance, were widely publicized and it didn't move the broad public. https://t.co/cqUVIuPBNx
— Jamelle Bouie (@jbouie) July 7, 2016
I can reflect and march and engage with the political process to try to effect change, and I can listen to and amplify the voices that matter in this debate, but I can also teach. I can teach my students to think about these issues in historical context, and help them make connections between their lives and the lives of people in the past. I can help them read writings by the Klan and the Black Panthers and Fannie Lou Hamer and Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, and think about the ways those writings resonate in our own historical moment. I can help my students understand the really tough and painful reality that explains why those lynching postcards didn’t change the minds of white America, and how they instead reflected the minds of white America.
I think that if we take Kevin’s manifesto to heart, and are engaged scholars and teachers, we can’t reject his message. No matter how hard it is to hope and act on that hope, we must, if we truly believe historical thinking can be a positive force in the world. If we despair and disengage, we abdicate our responsibility to help our students become more engaged and aware people, and lose our opportunity to grow with them. It’s difficult to hope, but the alternative? Unacceptable.