I have an interesting semester teaching at UMUC this fall. Teaching an online course in African American history from 1865 (the end of slavery) to the present, which in this case was through the historic election of a Black, biracial, post-racial (whatever that means) man as President. One in which I went through five weeks of “training” to use an online technology I probably could’ve taught myself — given my computer science background — while my students had about as much savvy with these technologies as I did when I was twelve. Not to mention no training for them from UMUC.
But I digress. My students this fall generally lacked the basics necessary to take a college course in second-semester African American history, including critical reasoning and interpretation, writing and analysis skills. Not their fault, considering the sorry state of American education and the distrust of history it generates with horrible “names, dates and battles” teachers. Not to mention UMUC’s wonderful policies that lead few to a usable degree or certificate.
Again I digress. Some of these issues showed up during our online “discussions,” which weren’t really discussions because they can’t take place in real-time. With students being students, since many of them didn’t do the readings — or read the textbook and my lecture outlines selectively — they often fell back on their opinions or limited knowledge of Black history to answer questions and make comments. Some of them sounded like those whom I quietly called the “Afrocentric league” when I was in undergrad, others like ’60s-era civil rights activists who believe that no one born after April 4 of ’68 has done anything that matters. At times, they sounded like downright conservatives. I’m certainly all for different point of view, even ones that I don’t agree with and think are incorrect. But I also expect an informed opinion and analysis to come with any perspective, something lacking with many comments I received.
One of the more baffling comments I received from a student was in response to a question I asked regarding the impact of the Reagan Years on African Americans socioeconomically. The response referenced the overused Biblical phrase, “the poor will be with us always.” I was floored upon reading it. During the Reagan Years, it was used out of context by neoconservatives constantly to justify their disdain toward the New Deal and Great Society programs they dismantled or weakened in the name of “trickle-down” and “supply-side economics.” To take a verse about much more than material poverty and apply it to the economic inequality that many Blacks faced in the ’80s was insulting to me twenty five years ago, but merely puzzling now. I sent a response to my student, a polite one about the realities of growing Black poverty in a decade in which the poor were denigrated by most policy wonks.
This isn’t so much about my students per se, or about neocons. It’s about taking twisted statements at face value, not thinking about the meaning of your words before speaking them or writing them down. It’s about dispelling a myth, that since people are always going to be poor relative to others, that there’s nothing we can do to help improve their lot in life or to help them with their efforts to improve their circumstances.
I wish that we as Americans did take more time to think through the meaning of our words, the context of our quotes, and the impact of others’ thinking on our own. One of the reasons why we’re doing so poorly educationally is because we deliberately don’t teach critical thinking and analysis skills. We just teach and learn criticism skills, sarcasm and apathy, spin control and obfuscation. The biggest myth of all is that we’re supposed to accept things as those in authority see them, something that I haven’t accepted since I was twelve.