Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Remaining Awake During Revolutions


My class of 1965 reunion at Oberlin College was so inspiring, I've had a difficult time trying to figure how to write about it. Sort of like authors trying to write about their war experiences (Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5) or the death of a close family member (Joan Dideon's Year of Magical Thinking). Emotions need time to settle.

The early 60s were an exciting time, and the students of Oberlin College were right in the middle of it (although I stood mostly admiringly on the sidelines.) Therefore we were all issued caps at reunion with the motto, Semper Provocantes, which speaks well for many things in our generation. Oberlin students helped coal miners unionize to fight Big Coal - which I do now in connection with fighting Mountaintop Removal in the Appalachia I came to love while a student at the University of North Carolina. Others went all the way South to work with voter registration, and to rebuild a burnt church. You can read about some of that in this article: Memories of a Movement: Oberlin Alumni reflect on their time in the civil rights movement of the early 1960s.

I at least became a folk singer, and folk singers, like Joan Baez and Pete Seeger, who visited campus, sang protest songs. My repertoire was Pete Seeger and folk songs in languages  I was studying, like German, French and Russian.

Because students from our campus were so active in voter registration, Dr. Martin Luther King presented the Graduation Address at our Commencement, calling it: Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution. He told about how Rip Van Winkel slept through the American Revolution and was astonished at what he experienced when he awoke.

Dr. King's words are as important to us now as then, because there are many revolutions we are still fighting, some of which we didn't even think about back then. Women's Lib was not being discussed yet, nor were gay rights. We had some idea that we were messing up the environment because of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, from the spring of 1962. But our concern was also awakening about the conflicts in the far East, which became the Vietnam War, maybe because some of us would be drafted to fight that war.
"We must live together as brothers, or die together as fools", Dr. King said.
But I think we have not yet learned to live as brothers (and is brothers really a good image? Maybe friends would be better.) There are still many revolutions, pitting brothers (and sisters) against each other, and our students must be prepared to understand what the revolutions are about, and to also understand that we must live together in peace if our world is to endure.

The  Class of 2015 was almost as privileged as we were, because Michelle Obama spoke to them, quoting liberally from the words of Dr. King. You can read the transcript

And the truth is, graduates, after four years of thoughtful, respectful discussion and debate ..., you might find yourself a little dismayed by the clamor outside these walls—the name-calling, the negative ads, the folks yelling at each other on TV. After being surrounded by people who are so dedicated to serving others and making the world a better place, you might feel a little discouraged by the polarization and gridlock that too often characterize our politics and civic life.

And in the face of all of that clamor, you might have an overwhelming instinct to just run the other way as fast as you can. You might be tempted to just ... find a community of like-minded folks and work with them on causes you care about, and just tune out all of the noise. And that’s completely understandable. In fact, I sometimes have that instinct myself—run! ...

But today, graduates, I want to urge you to do just the opposite. Today, I want to suggest that... you need to run to, and not away from, the noise. ... Today, I want to urge you to actively seek out the most contentious, polarized, gridlocked places you can find. Because so often, throughout our history, those have been the places where progress really happens—the places where minds are changed, lives transformed, where our great American story unfolds.
One alumnus (a lowly sophomore when I graduated) said.
"I think it's important for young people today to understand how much power there is in not knowing what you can't do."  Charlie Butts, Oberlin College '67
That is the glory of being young. You don't really accept "no" but try anyway. I'm afraid many high school students have forgotten that, though. Too many times have teachers and parents told them what to think, what's right, what is expected of them, and they have lost their curiosity, and believe the adults who say "it can't be done," or "it can only be done this way."

I think it is a very necessary role of teachers to awaken students' curiosity, not squelch it. Encourage students to join whatever revolutions they see, while preparing them to think clearly about the options available to them.

As a teacher, I want my students to be literate in science, since it is an important part of today's revolutions. I want them to be able to read and discuss and think and discuss some more. But I don't want them lost to demagogues who mislead them with pseudoscience, or incomplete interpretations of history. When we set students free at graduation, let them be prepared for the big and complicated and confusing world we have provided for them.

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