Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Tue, 21 Apr 1998 07:22:18 -0400 (EDT)
Random Thought: What To Teach; What to Learn

Just came in sipping coffee on the front stoop and thinking about yesterday. The colorful amarillas trumpeting the coming of summer, the light of the street post bouncing off their profusion of red and white, helped take my mind off the continuing but waning aches of last week's "open toe" surgery. But, I was also embraced by the soothing images of what I can only describe as an "event" in yesterday's morning first-year American History Survey class. Mondays are what we in the class call, "Tidbit Day." Each week the students in each triad read a total of six articles of their choice from AMERICAN HERITAGE and bring a simple one or two line statement of why each of the articles is important for a better understanding of the American experience. In class, two triads merge and discuss their articles. After about fifteen minutes, I ask, "Who has an issue or topic they want to put on the table for us to discuss." I never know what the students will discuss on any given Tidbit Day or how the discussion will go or what direction they will take. Over the years that I've used this exercise we've discussed and argued and debated a host of issues and topics. Sometimes we sit in silence until someone hesitatingly raises an issue; sometimes things spontaneously explode. Sometimes we discuss sedately and sometimes arkwardly; sometimes we debate vigorously and sometimes courageously; and sometimes we argue angrily at each other. It's a no-holds barred day; it's a day the condum comes off the classroom and there's no 'safe teaching. Sometimes we talk; sometimes we yell; sometimes we cry; sometimes we laugh; sometimes we get mad; sometimes we embrace and sometimes we push away; sometimes we understand and sometimes we leave confused and with questions. We talk about various aspects of such general issues and specific topics as prejudice, American icons, race, gender, furniture, patriotism, burning the flag, affirmative action, capital punishment, religion, sex, homosexuality, art, literature, civil rights, drugs, alcohol, the Jeep, education, sports, technology, leisure, bathing suits, feminism, crime, foodways, business practices, slavery, gun control, abuse, welfare, transportation, communication, war, political rights, prison conditions, the supermarket, personal lives of leaders. Well, you get the point.

This day, yesterday, the students got embroiled in a rather pointed, open and magnificantly honest discussion on the prevalance of racism on our campus. It didn't start out that way. It started off as one of those "safe" and innocent and ordinary "why can't we see pass people's skin color" comments. It developed into a series of disconnected antecdotal exchanges of personal experiences, about friends, about society, about parents, but there was nothing ordinary about how it came to a conclusion. Maybe the watershed moment was when one student explained how her deeply religious parents couldn't accept her having an African-American boyfriend and she discovered the limitations they placed on God's love.

The next moment, playing off that story, a student started explaining how her sorority was all white, how her sisters, all of whom professed total racial tolerance went through the motions of allowing an African-American young lady, "who was a really neat person" to rush, without any intentions of offering her a bid. "Boy, did they bash her," this young lady explained.

"What did you do?" another student asked.

"Nothing. I just echoed what everyone else did," she admitted in an heroic act. "I didn't think I was prejudiced until that time. I didn't think I was a racist. But, I realize now that my going along to get along was just as much an act of racism as openly bashing that poor girl rushing our sorority behind her back just because she was black, and that I was no better than the others even though I didn't say a word. Staying silent said a lot of things about me I didn't and still don't like."

"You learned a lot about yourself," a second consoled her with support understanding. "Do you think the sorority will ever have a black sister?"

"It'll never happened!" she unhesitatingly said firmly with a saddness in her voice. Then her head lowered and her eyes fell to the floor.

"It won't," someone quietly but firmly suggested, "as long as you keep being an echo and don't use your voice."

"You right. I was an echo, not a voice."

I just kept silently sitting on the floor, listening to this student's courage admission and the supportive understanding of her ALL her classmates, excitedly maneuvering the Tootsie Pop in my mouth, but I wasn't either expecting or ready for what was about to happen.

And then, Kime, came out with these pearls of wisdom beyond his years: "I think the value of an education should be to learn to become a voice not an echo. We should be searching for ourselves and a sense of community. We should not just be trying to learn about a subject in this class or any in any other class, but we should also be learning what to do with it. We shouldn't be just finding ways to work, but ways to do good works and work in the service of our society and all humanity."

I just sat there mesmerized--after I briefly choked as I nearly swallowed my Tootsie Pop. stick and all, in surprise. It was one of those learning moments we all wish for, but dare not expect to happen. This third quarter first year student, this young eighteen year old, had just told me and everyone else what were the real purposes of an education and what each of us should be both teaching and learning. I quickly scribbled down his profound words on the palm of my hand so I wouldn't forget them, feeling a burning heat of excitement as if the ink was penetrating my flesh and branding my soul.

But, it wasn't finished. As class period came to an end and the discussion wound up, as everyone was hustling to leave the room, someone,--I wish I knew who--quickly yelled out, "'Become a voice, not an echo.' Let's make that the theme for the rest of the quarter of how we will learn to use what we learn in this class."
Not a bad purpose for taking any class and receiving an education, not a bad purpose, indeed. Better said than any high sounding collegiate mission statement I have ever read. I'll remind the students of those words today. Those will be the daily "words of the day" I'll write on the blackboard this day. And, they will be my simple answer to anyone to asks me about the purpose of an education and what it is we should teach:

"become a voice, not an echo."

Make it a good day. 


Louis Schmier           
Department of History    
Valdosta State University
Valdosta, GA  31698                        /~\    /\ /\
912-333-5947                       /^\    /   \  /  /~ \     /~\__/\
                                  /   \__/     \/  /     /\ /~      \
                            /\/\-/ /^\___\______\_______/__/_______/^\
                          -_~     /  "If you want to climb mountains, \ /^\
                             _ _ /      don't practice on mole hills" -\____

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