Copyright © Louis Schmier and Atwood Publishing.

Date: Mon, 5 Jul 1999 12:27:44 -0400 (EDT)
Random Thought: On This July 4th

I was thinking last night, driving home from a very quiet celebration with close friends, what is with all this huppin' it up on July 4th with picnics, flags, Sousaphones playing "Stars and Stripes Forever," crowded beaches, parades, fireworks, and a host of other festivities throughout the country. What is the Fourth of July really all about that people are willing to endure being bloated with watermelon, over stuffed by picnic fixings, blinded by "the rockets red glare," deafened by the "bombs bursting in air," drained by marauding blood-letting mosquitoes, driven mad by annoying gnats and flys, cooked well-done by the sun. What is it, really? An event celebrating the birthday of the United States? Yes, but I don't think that is good enough. A call for an annual booster shot of flag-waving love of country? Yes, but still not good enough. A commemoration of freedom and independence of thought and action? Yes, but even that isn't really where the rubber touches the road. What, then, are all the celebrations really about? What is the best word we can come with for the true meaning of the Fourth of July if not freedom, patriotism, independence?

Read the words of the Declaration of Independence. I read them this morning. They are about an idea, a then revolutionary idea and in too many circles today still a revolutionary idea, an idea that is this great country, that makes this country great; an idea that has carried this great land all these years, an idea which has spawned every vast social movement during the 223 years since that first glorious July 4th; an idea which we have refused to let die and with with we have wrestled and fought resolutely and perennially to expand and to become more including and to bring to full realization. Read those rhythmic, unhesitating nad penetrating words of the Declaration of Independence. I realized that they don't excitedly talk about patriotism or love of country; they don't tell us to overeat hot dogs, hamburgers, and potato salad; they don't give up the day off and tell us to go on holiday. What does our great flag stand for; to what are we really pledging our allegiance; about what are we singing? What did John Adams think when he predicted that the day of that great signing will be celebrated forever more. Read those words. They quietly but firmly talk about first principles--laws of nature: individual inalienable rights, self-evident truths, equality, governments formed of men, equal justice for all. Taken together, they talk of a sober, simple, profound, compelling word: respect. They talk of unreserved and unqualified respect for each and every individual, a respect rooted in the unequivicable dignity, nobility, and sacredness of each and every individual.

I live many decades without respect. And I can tell you that without respect--accorded by others or my yourself, a person feels isolated or demeaned or dominated or assaulted or abused or ignored or neglected. If respect is not at the center of a person's life, if is not the focus of all his or her relationships, if respect is not the highest of our values, we abandon life. It is respect that makes us human; it is respect that is at the core of our identity. It is respect that is the foundation of our personhood, dignity, sacredness. It is central to committed and trusting human relationships. It is the essence of caring and love. It is hope.

Now you might ask, "What does all this have to do with teaching?" Well, I think everything. Respect should be a stranger to our educational systems; it should not barred from our campuses by high walls or razor barbed wire. There should be no stop signs for it posted on the doors of our classroom. This word-respect-is planted in our collective and individual souls. It should resound wherever we are; it should resonate in whatever we do; it should peal with whomever we associate. It should permeate, therefore, the classroom and govern our relationships with each and every student--and colleague--for we are creating the future to make the dream of Jefferson and those who followed come true.

I can hear a loud cheer going up. "Yes! This country is declining because there is not enough respect for authority." Maybe. Or maybe we don't accord enough respect to each other. You see, I am not using obedience or submission as synonyms for respect. Understand that the respect I am talking about is not a cement to build or reinforce a hierarchu or caste. I am not associating respect with a submissive bow or a courtesy in action or thought. I am not thinking of an approval from, acquiesence to, domination by, being lesser to someone just because that someone is more knowledgeable, better educated, more skillful, more renown, more erudite, more authoritative, more powerful, more influential, richer, and/or more whatever.

The respect I am talking about would cast off caste and tear at the rungs of the hierarchial ladder. Even if there are differences in knowledge and status and power and resources and skills, the respect I am thinking about is a great equalizer. It is the ways in which we can be on a common plane with one another, and it comes again through this sense of connection in relationships where we treat and think of others only in ways we others to treat and perceive us.

What does this have to do with education. Too often we teachers/professor are among those "someone" on the higher level of the hierarchy demanding to be treated with total deference; too often we assault students with dismissing, demeaning, disrespectful comments and behavior; too often too many of us act as if we are acolytes of the gods before whom all must humbly prostrate themselves; too often we act as if we are doing kowtowing students a favor by allowing them to grace our presence and sip a drop or two from our well. Far too often respect, in the educational structure, is a one way street. It is the teacher/professor who is the one demanding and receiving respect from the student served. But, respect must be a two-way street if the relationship between teacher/professor is to be a truly committed and trusting one.

For me, core of respect is not offering skills, resources, knowledge. And this may surprise you, but for me the central dimension of being respectful to a student--or to any person including myself for that matter--is wonder. And if I hadn't completed the task given to my by Kenny, I would offer him WONDER as another word for my dictionary of good teaching.

I wonder how many of us have ever really wondered about genuine and authentic wonder. I have, and it's one of my favorites. I have discovered during the past decade that wonder picks at you; it's like a vacuum that sucks you in; it's a magnet that pulls at you; it makes you look about, peek in, glimpse curiously around the corner. It it wonder that every day makes the bumpy, rattling, dusty, choking road under construction into an alluring, scenic road. Wonder truly creates an appreciation of every moment, every living thing on the trip, sincerely seeing and interacting with every person and every force of nature. Wonder is the seedbed of faith, belief, and hope. Wonder is born in the unknown, in mystery, in curiosity, in the question. Wonder is a can opener that allows new insights to spill out. Wonder is rooted in beauty, in conviction, support, engagement. Wonder is filled with awe. Wonder oozes with the miraculous. Wonder nourishes creativity and imagination; it suppressing scorn and ridicule; it breeds optimism and suffocates skepticism. Wonder places each student in the company of the beautiful waterfall, that wondrous star sprinkled night sky, that breathtaking mountain scene, the majesty of a snow capped mountain, those awe-inspiring ocean waves crashing on the beach. Wonder is rooted in beauty and sacredness; it promotes conviction, support, encouragment. To wonder about people, then, is to be sincerely curious about who each of them is, what each is about, what each of them dreams, what each of them fears. Relationships are at the center of my teaching, and for me students are a awesome wondrous greeting card to wonderment. So much of my teaching takes place away from the text book and classroom, and in proportion very little of it in the classroom. Wanting to know who each student is in his/her life, wanting to know what each feels and how each think is really a very, very important dimension of good teaching. And, to get to know each student, you have to talk less and listen more, be seen less and see more, be heard less and hear more.

This brings me to my next point. People say that the root word of "education" is " the Greek "educare:" to draw out. I also believe education means being willing to listen. We teachers work a lot with people, young and non-traditional, who are often the least listened-to group in our society. Students who are told over and over and over again in word and deed, "Wrong!!" "Be quiet!" "what do you know,"feel as if in general academics don't listen, but have agendas for them which they too often impose and too often dictate lives for them to live . To respect a student, to wonder about him or her, to ask the question, "what will his path be, where will he go," you have to be silent. I have discovered time and time again, each and every student has a voice. Not many have the courage to let that voice be heard; not everyone has the courage to say "this is me" or "this is what I feel" or "this is what I think." Many have been disrespected socially or personally or both so many times in so many ways in so many places that they have taken in a sense of worthlessness, disrespect, insignificance, and have become fearful and their voices goes silent. And it is this silence that leads too many of to believe that the only way students can be educated is if teachers actively draw and students passively are drawn. I understand that. Until ten years ago, I lived in that depreciated place where so many students presently reside and, like them, so camouflaged it with an "that's me," or "I've always been like that" I didn't recognize that it was a terrible place to live. I don't want that to continually happen to any student; I don't want to do that to any student; I don't want any student to do it to him/herself, and I struggle to figure out a way really of developing a very different sort of relationship with each students and other people that offers up respect. So, part of wonder is to help everyone find his or her own voice, and to help them to use it. And I have discovered, as I have said many time, good, respectful, wondering, curious teaching means "shhhhhh." It means to be silent four more time than I talk, listen four more times as much as I speak. I have discovered that when I am silent at the right moment, the moment explodes; when I don't use my voice at the right moment, a student's voice thunders. It is wonderful thing to see when the good teacher is truly interested, quiet, attentive, open to what a student is saying rather than throwing his or her own agenda over who they think that student should be like the proverbial blinding and stricting wet blanket, which is what too many of us do as teachers.

But respect, I have learned the hard way over the last decade of my inner journey, with its components, also comes back to the point that you cannot give what you don't have to give, that you've got to be secure in your own core, that you have to work on that before you can give in the way you need to give, that you have to respect yourself, that you have to wonder about yourself, that you have to love yourself, that you have to be curious about yourself, and that you have to listen to your true self, that you have to find your voice, and that you have to use your voice. Self-respect, not just respects of others, is really a central dimension of the kind of respect for the individual about which I am talking.

True teachers are those who truly respect and love themselves, who truly love what they do, who are then giving respect and love to each student regardless of race, age, birth, place of origin, physical ability, gender, religion, ethnicity, skill, knowledge, etc. They have a dream of building communities of equality for a future in which no one is allowed to fall by the wayside. And it is that continued dedication to bringing that dream to realization as others before have done is the true meaning of July 4th celebrations.

Make it a good day. 


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

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