Volume:9, Issue: 2

Sep. 30, 2017

A Moral Education: Expanding Students’ Worldviews
Manus, Sarah G. [about]

KEYWORDS: moral responsibility, multiculturalism, charged classroom, democratic teaching, citizenship, worldviews, otherness, cultural competence, character, Pace, Palmer, Dean Myers.

ABSTRACT: This paper discusses the moral opportunity and responsibility of teachers to engage their students in an education that prioritizes citizenship, multiculturalism, and democratic learning. It applies contemporary social science research on stereotyping and inherent bias to education, while synthesizing the voices of prominent educators and authors to argue for a classroom that intentionally challenges students’ worldviews. This creates what Pace (2015) calls a “charged classroom,” ultimately developing a generation of more critical observers, inclusive thinkers, and considerate stewards of our world.


As humans, we are called to challenge and learn from one another; asking difficult questions and wrestling with complex answers helps us grow as individuals, but more importantly, it leads us to improve the inequities that exist in both our immediate and global communities. Teachers—those who are often the first to challenge and inform young people of the world’s rules and customs—hold much power to nurture today’s youth into more tolerant, human-centered, and productive members of society. Because of this, I feel that teachers have a specific moral responsibility to inform their students about experiences beyond their own, as well as experiences that challenge their own.

I have arrived at these values through my own growing gratitude for diversity. I grew up the child of a single mother who worked as a housekeeper in mostly suburban, homogeneous neighborhoods. Growing up, I found it difficult to relate to my peers—whose homes resembled the kind my mother serviced—and found solace in books or series like The Boxcar Children, The Secret Garden, and Harry Potter. In these stories, children were empowered, despite loss, abandonment, poverty, or hardship, to make the best of the poor hand they were dealt and redeem their troubled upbringings through bravery, curiosity, and teamwork. Or, white children were empowered to do so.

It wasn’t until I moved to a more diverse metropolitan city that I began to see stories that were at once similar and different from mine. In college, I found a job at a community learning center that provided free classes for immigrants, refugees, and adults with developmental disabilities. This work sparked my interest in teaching while educating me about the multitude of human experiences that were completely “other” to me: I conducted mock citizenship interviews with single mothers from Honduras; I showed Somali refugees how to click a computer mouse for the first time; I proctored GED practice tests for ex-cons; I administered intake interviews for people whose gender identity did not match the sex they were assigned at birth; I taught students from countries I’d never even heard of.

This experience radically broadened my worldview, but it also lit a fire in me to continue to challenge myself to use my privilege productively, which eventually motivated me to move to Nepal, then later, to establish a nonprofit organization that funds an orphanage in the rural town where I lived. Part of the motivation behind my work as a citizen and a teacher is to be “public” about my values; if we aren’t transparent about what we truly believe in, then we wouldn’t provoke others—especially our students—to do the work that is needed in our world. As a teacher, I think it is important that I acknowledge and encounter the inequalities of our world so I can genuinely model for my students what it means to not only grieve them, but also to address them.

One of my favorite metaphors for teaching and learning is about the value of broadening worldviews, particularly through diverse books (something my childhood reading list clearly lacked). Reading can perform the function of either a mirror or a window. In life, people tend to choose media that reflects their personal interests and experiences: they want to see themselves in stories, so they pick up mirrors. Until Literacy Source, this was my pattern as well. (This isn’t to say there isn’t value in seeing oneself in literature, which is much of what Walter Dean Myers and Christopher Myers argue in their New York Times articles, “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature” and “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?”) But if kids naturally choose mirrors, isn’t it the teacher’s role, for the short time that children are in school, to provide students with not just mirrors, but also windows? Through literature, a teacher can introduce students to stories that expand and challenge their worldview, not just reflect the one they inherited. Over time, as students reap the worldview-enhancing benefits of consuming “window” materials, my hope is that they will come to seek windows for themselves.

Some may question how diversity in curriculum benefits all students, not only students of color. Walter Dean Myers commented on this point in his 2014 Times piece:

Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books? Where are the future white personnel managers going to get their ideas of people of color? Where are the future white loan officers and future white politicians going to get their knowledge of people of color?

If we want to address the problematic inherent biases that impact the decisions made by loan officers or politicians, as Myers suggests, then we must expose all young people to positive images of diversity.

In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (2013), Malcolm Gladwell similarly expresses the need to break down stereotypes, also proposing that exposure is key. Through results from the Implicit Bias Test (IAT)—which measures the “immediate, automatic associations that tumble out before we’ve even had time to think” (p. 85)— we know that people “make connections much more quickly between pairs of ideas that are already related in our minds than we do between pairs or ideas that are unfamiliar to us” (p. 77). But, exposure to what we associate as “other” can challenge or even disarm our dangerous unconscious biases. When respondents were shown articles or photographs of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Colin Powell before taking the IAT, their reaction time would change; due to simple exposure, they were suddenly able to associate more positivity with black people.

As Walter Dean Myers’ son, Christopher Myers, writes, if we ignore diversity in schools (or more specifically, within children’s literature), this is not only inequitable, but it is factually inaccurate, misrepresentative, or “imaginative” (and not in the fun way that children’s books should be). Again, I believe that we have a moral obligation as teachers to inform students about the world around them. When we exclude diverse experiences from our teaching, in effect, we lie to our students about the world. Christopher Myers writes (2014):

Perhaps this exclusivity, in which children of color are at best background characters, and more often than not absent, is in fact part of the imaginative aspect of these books. But what it means is that when kids today face the realities of our world, our global economies, our integrations and overlappings, they all do so without a proper map. They are navigating the streets and avenues of their lives with an inadequate, outdated chart.

This “inadequate, outdated chart” overlooks the powerful opportunity teachers have to use the classroom, especially in humanities courses, as a unique space for students to not only develop their own voice, but also to hear all voices (Pace, 2015). Furthermore, when students encounter diverse voices, they build curiosity and conscientiousness: two elements of Paul Tough’s argument in How Children Succeed (2013): Character, even more than cognitive skills, determines academic success for children and prepares them for productive adulthood. By exploring the experiences of others, we become more socially intelligent and conscientious, and according to Tough’s research, “People high in conscientiousness get better grades in high school and college; they commit fewer crimes; they stay married longer. They live longer—and not just because they smoke and drink less. They have fewer strokes, lower blood pressure, and a lower incidence of Alzheimer’s disease” (p. 71).

In addition to such quantifiable benefits, social diversity helps us on a more transcendent, philosophical level, too: It helps us come to better understand each other. To underscore the beauty of social diversity, educator and Quaker elder Parker Palmer argues that an understanding of “otherness” not only makes us smarter and better problem-solvers, but it truly enhances our lives. Palmer says that when we lack knowledge of others, we become paranoid that engaging with them will somehow put us in harm’s way. Living in fear can deplete curiosity, joy, and energy from human life, and instead breed an “us versus them” mentality, which far limits our experience and purpose as humans. Instead, we should approach the “other” with an “us and them” mentality:

“Us and them” …reminds us of the ancient tradition of hospitality to the stranger…Hospitality rightly understood is premised on the notion that the stranger has much to teach us. It actively invites “otherness” into our lives to make them more expansive, including forms of otherness that seem utterly alien to our way of life. Of course, we will not practice deep hospitality if we do not embrace the creative possibilities inherent in our differences (2014, p. 44).

As Palmer so eloquently illustrates, “us andthem” doesn’t mean that we are all the same. In fact, we receive an education when we encounter those who differ from us and openly acknowledge those differences. Opposed to this idea, though, are critics who argue that diversity is just a cover-up term for “difference,” and if our goal is to treat each other better, then shouldn’t we instead focus on each other’s similarities? When people prioritize diversity, it’s at the expense of what we share. If we are constantly naming the ways in which we aren’t alike, doesn’t this further alienatepeople from one another?

I’ve heard arguments like these many times, and I appreciate the opportunity to respond to them in a way that doesn’t feel heated or strained. First, the critics’ view implies that different means bad, which was underscored by data from the Implicit Association Test as discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. Secondly, and I think, even more reductively, when you say to a person who differs from you, “Let’s focus on our similarities,” or even, “We’re all members of one human race—I don’t notice the ways that you’re different; I don’t see _________” (color, race, age, etc.), then you are essentially erasing their experience. Each element that we name as different or “other” about a person—skin color, hair, gender, culture, accent—is an integral component of their very sense of being, their identity. Every little thing that is noticeably “other” about a person carries with it a story and experience, so to deny that difference exists is to deny components of someone’s very real and personal story. The truth is, when we say, “I don’t even see you as ________,” you may be sending the latent message that you don’t really see them at all.

These are the dynamics of difference that teachers have the unique opportunity to witness, address, and halt when they enact cultural competence and inclusivity as moral imperatives in the classroom. As educators, we have such a powerful hand in the development of impressionable young people. I do believe that with this privilege comes responsibility to inform our students about the nuances of our world; this means not only sharing sometimes difficult information with them, but also creating what Pace defines as a “charged” classroom, “suffused with contradictions that create both friction and potential” (2015, p. 4).

I try to do this in my classroom by developing units around provocative essential questions that challenge students to problem-solve moral gray areas. This usually means interacting with stories that reflect diverse backgrounds and experiences. The work students accomplish each day, then, requires that they continue to wrestle with the question at hand (e.g., “Why do black voices matter in literature?” or, “What is identity? What reveals who a person is?”), but also challenges them to consider why the question itself is important. Most of the time, we struggle to answer the question as a class, and students often disagree with one another. This is part of the purpose and the beauty of a “charged” classroom; it is an investigative and exploratory place that engages students at a time when they are learning what it means to develop their own impassioned opinions, a time when they discover what really matters. This is what I find so provoking and rewarding about the role of teacher, and it is why the classroom must be a safe but inherently challenging space to explore the many voices of our world. 


References

  • Gladwell, M. (2013). Blink: the power of thinking without thinking. New York: Back Bay Books.
  • Myers, C. (2014, March 15). The Apartheid of Children’s Literature. The New York Times.
  • Myers, Walter Dean. (2014, March 15). Where Are the People of Color in Children's Books? The New York Times.
  • Palmer, P.J. (2014). Healing the heart of democracy: the courage to create a politics worthy of the human spirit. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.
  • Pace, J.L. (2015). The charged classroom: predicaments and possibilities for democratic teaching. New York: Routledge.
  • Tough, P. (2013). How children succeed: grit, curiosity, and the hidden power of character. Boston: Mariner Books.




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