We’re just starting week five of an eleven-week term, so I’m getting the students ready to take a mid-term exam. I’ve got the public speaking test all ready to go, and O’Mama and I are collaborating on the assessment we’ll give to our composition students.
As part of the mid-term, I give the students an assignment to go along with a reading/viewing of Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream speech. I say this every term, so forgive me if you’ve been here with me before, but I’m constantly amazed by how little my students know about this iconic speech. Sure, they know the tag lines; they’ve seen the black-and-white clips of Brother Martin in the shadow of Lincoln’s statue that get played once or twice a year around the MLK/Civil Rights Day holiday and Black History Month. It’s true, though, that most of them – in many cases, all of them – have never heard the speech from beginning to end. There’s something about that which disturbs me, both as an educator and as an American.
Granted, the Dream speech isn’t really Dr. King’s masterpiece – he wrote a great many speeches and sermons and letters that were more technically complex and carried a more pointed message – but the fact remains that this particular oration is a touchstone in American history. It came at a time when the United States was on the brink and things could have gone either way. Dr. King was a vital voice in the Civil Rights era and regardless of how complicated his legacy may or may not be, he continues to stand as an integral part of our collective experience.
The problem, though – at least, as I see it – is that this part of our history isn’t being carried on as part of our collective experience. Whether it’s because of NCLB or a shift in focus away from comprehensive study in history or because we have it in our minds that the problems of the 50s and 60s are a thing of the past (which is, of course, ridiculous, but run with me for a second), the fact remains that the students who are coming to me have absolutely no concept of what happened in our country even 40 years ago. This ignorance leaves them ill-equipped to understand what’s happening today (see my conversation about the Tiger Woods-Kelly Tilghman-Golf Week incident from last week as a great example of how a failure to understand history can have very real implications in the here and now). This ignorance leaves them ill-equipped to think critically about issues of race and class and gender, about the concept of equality and fairness, or about how people interact with one another, and leaves them drifting a bit when it comes to having to articulate where they stand on these questions.
I cannot single-handedly change these kids’ lives or alter their perceptions. I can, however, expose them to things that they should have been familiar with long before they got to me, so I continue to show Brother Martin’s speech, I continue to ask hard questions about it, and I continue to expect my students to investigate the past to find answers to their present. It’s not much, but it’s something I can do.