By Abel Merawi
February 4, 2021 (Ezega.com) -- There are moments of a collision between the classroom and the outside reality. The brutal, irrational, and unjust murder of the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was such an event. It was almost impossible for a teacher to educate benign children about the fiction behind centuries of slavery and segregation or Jim Crow, which had shown its monstrosity in the murder of a man of peace, love, and justice. To begin with, how on earth can you explain racism between the same race – Homo Sapiens? The perfect and protective classroom world hasn’t been designed to deal with the cruel ways of the world. We teach equality and love while the ignorant world practices bigoted inequality and hatred. Education leads to knowledge and wisdom only when it serves as a logical bridge between the ideal and the practical world. So, how is a teacher to comprehensively create such a learning environment for students?
The sole purpose of education was manifested in the profound learning experience created by Mrs. Jane Elliot, a 3rd-grade teacher at a white school. Following King’s murder, Jane couldn’t simply explain the tragedy by calling it racism – a fictitious yet concrete reality. Mrs. Jane Elliot decided to make her students experience instead of hearing about it. With the consent of their parents, she created an equally fictional and equally intricate story as ‘skin pigment racism’. Accordingly, she persuasively told her pupils that human intelligence and identity is dependent on the color of one’s eyes. Those with brown eyes are intelligent and deserve all the praise. They were then allowed better access to learning materials, better toys, special treatment in the school cafeteria and playground. Those with brown eyes lived a privileged life, at least for a day. The next day, the tables turned and the roles reversed. Mrs. Jane apologized for the terrible mistake of yesterday and claimed that it was actually blue-eyed people who are naturally intelligent and deserving of all the good things in life.
In just two days, the learning experience created by Mrs. Jane showed the children the false pride of the oppressor and the unmerited fate of the oppressed. When those who conceitedly felt superior deemed others as their inferior, they suddenly had the rug pulled from under them; they experienced oppression. The inferiors tested the evil pleasure of dominance, and as the revolutionary transforms into a dictator with power, the oppressed forgot their suffering and morphed into oppressors. At the end of the second day, Mrs. Jane Elliot sat her students down and spoke with the unshakable force of truth that the color of eyes doesn’t determine any significant part of identity - either intelligence or moral scruple. It was after this deep learning experience that their teacher, worthy of the name, communicated the irrationality of racism, which took the life of the nonviolent Dr. King. The students had a first-hand experience of racism, and as a PBS Documentary revealed, they grew up to be rational beings; cured of racism.
I have taken much space to talk about Mrs. Jane Elliot because her ‘learning experience’ carried everything that deep education entails. Chiefly, it shows how education is a simulation of authentic experiences in a safe and principled manner. Learning begins by understanding your environment, which requires exposure to life. Merely memorizing lectures and textbooks is not enough without experience because, as William James argues, there is “no impression without expression.” In addition, education must not resemble the over-protective parent who hopelessly attempts to hide and maintain the child’s innocence from the cruelties of the external world. The best we can do as parents and teachers is preparing students to defend themselves with the force of rationality, humanity, and truth.
Every society has devised ways of satisfying the eagerness of children to rediscover the world. Adults prepared children for life using folklores, using Iliad and Odyssey in the past, and now using the curriculum. Wherever and whenever the aim continues to be the preservation and enhancement of life. I don’t imagine a father from the stone ages will ever teach his son that a lion is as harmless as a cat or to use the wrong tool for hunting. Meanwhile, the mother may probably tell her daughter to identify edible berries and avoid the poisonous ones. Most important, I contend that they admitted the imminent dangers and the possibility of death. If they had spoken falsely about reality, we may not have been here now, reading this article.
Modern education seems to have forgotten these basic life lessons as it continues to either omit, distort or slice portions of reality. For instance, as Dr. Cornel West explained, the Greeks used the word ‘Paideia’ that represents deep education, which is a preparation for death and life. Paideia doesn’t avoid a discussion on death and suffering in the classroom but rather prepares children for it. Such preparation arms children against “The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to,” as Shakespeare brilliantly expresses through Hamlet. Furthermore, our history and civics lessons should take the classical words of the Roman Republic playwright, Publius Terentius Afer: “Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto’, which is translated as, ‘I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.” These words resonate across time, reminding us that the injustice we talk of in history class is a manifestation of not an alien but a verily familiar human potential brought forth when people and nations succumb to their evil sides of greed or lust for power and possession. Similarly, the idea of justice and equality we teach in class is not a unique or alien endowment of a special group but a symbol and practice of humanity we extend to humans and even other life forms, environmentally speaking. Education that maintains such spirit is needed for we are currently in want of rationality, humanity, and truth.
In the final analysis – rationality is a potential; humanity is a virtue that grows with love only after outgrowing childish selfishness. And truth is ultimately a private and collective pursuit of human beings. When education aims at routine, it fails to develop the uniquely human feature we call rationality. As Ayn Rand argues, not teaching a child to think but only to memorize and repeat is the same as breaking the wings of a bird. This is why the class of Mrs. Jane Elliot must be taken as a paragon of education. I depart with optimism for the future, because the ideas have been with us since the dawn of time, and we just need to set aside our presuppositions and pick them up for the sake of civilization.
Abel Merawi is Addis Ababa-based contributor for Ezega.com. He can be reached through this form.
Other articles by Abel Merawi:
Educational Purpose: Good Citizenry Vs Rational Autonomy
Crowd Leaders as National Enemies of Ethiopia
Ethiopia Under the Threat of Crowd Mentality
Conformist Realism in Ethnic Federalism
Alternatives to National Identity
Ethiopia in Conflict - Part II: A National Stand for Unity
Ethiopia in Conflict - Part I: EPRDF and the Creation of Ethnic Division
Forms of Human Violence (Part II)
Forms of Human Violence (Part I)
The ‘Having’ Mentality
Free but in Chain, Part IV: Personal Bondage
Free but in Chain. Part III: Economic Bondage
Free but in Chain. Part II: Social Bondage
Free but in Chain. Part I: Bondage of Worldview
Unemployment and Economic Growth in Ethiopia
The Underestimated Human Ignorance
Is America the Land of Freedom? (Part II)
Is America the Land of Freedom? (Part I)
Capitalism Becoming an Impediment to Morality
Ketman: Living in Disguise to Gain Acceptance
The System and the 'Criminal'
Trust as an Economic Force
Do You Trust the Government?
Our Online World
Fame Mistaken for Expertise
The Heavy Burden of Healthcare Workers
A Time to Reflect
The Plague by Albert Camus: Fiction Becomes Reality!
History of Pandemics in Ethiopia
Human Struggle Against Pandemics: Historical Perspective
You Can Make a Difference
Rule of Law for a Free Society
The Origins of Law
Determinants of Market Value: Part II
Determinants of Market Value: Part I
Your life Matters Too
Manifestations of Artistic Expression
Achievements vs Natural Accidents
The Grip of Sacrifice
Injustice is Never Justifiable
Education Demands of the Future
Job Security, Life and the Unpredictable Future
The Shift From Racism to Culturism
Sacrificing Meaning for Power?
Culture and Market Forces
Seeking Cosmic Justice
National Myths: Makers and Destroyers of Nations
Are We Truly Free?
Maturity: The Prerequisite to Freedom and Democracy
Loyalty to Truth, Not to Group
The Value of Work
The Flaws with Ethiopian Political System
Intellectuals and the People
Where Are Our Pathfinders?
The Allegory of the Cave and Its Lessons to Leaders
The Truth Behind Humanity
The Seven Virtues
The Seven Deadly Sins
What is the right thing to do?
Building National Identity
Adey Abeba and the Spirit of Change
Living the Truth as a Human Being
Hubris - The Tragedy of Not Learning from Others
The Era of Group Mentality: Us vs Them
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