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Words Matter

January 9, 2011

It was with an unbelievable sense of shock and sadness that the California Council for the Social Studies Board of Directors, of which I am a part, received information about the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords while conducting business in its January board meeting.  Our business was being conducted in the historic courthouse in Ontario, CA, in a building over 100 years old.  That morning, Social Studies leaders from all over the state flew in to participate in the democratic process of leading, guiding and debating the issues pertaining to our discipline, as time-consuming and grinding as the process can sometimes be.

Due to the age of the building, we were not connected to wireless internet during the all-day meeting, but reports of the tragedy soon trickled in via Blackberries and iPads.  Stunned silence followed the news announcement by CCSS President Greg Spielman, followed by cries of disbelief and shock.  How could this be possible?

As social scientists, it is in our nature to place events on a timeline of a history, to look for patterns or changes in thoughts and ideas.  The changes in the tone and discourse in politics and education have not gone unrecognized by us.

The unspeakable tragedy that befell Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others strikes at the heart of everything the Social Studies discipline stands for:  participation in the democratic process, civic duty, and the ability to understand multiple perspectives while at the same time practicing tolerance.  Early reports indicate that the perpetrator of this crime may have been motivated by the angry, vitriolic rhetoric disseminated through the media and on internet forums.  It is not a leap of the imagination to conclude his shots were meant to silence the Congresswoman’s ideas, stop her work.

These early indications have led many to question the price we pay as a society when we put profits and politics over people.  Shaming and naming teachers, hard-working public servants, by publishing questionable scores and ratings in the Los Angeles Times may have generated page-hits in the short term, but growing and fostering a disrespect of our nation’s teachers accelerates the destruction of our society and our values in the long run.  Jill Stewart, news editor of the LA Weekly, in a single piece published in the wake of the suicide of LAUSD teacher Rigoberto Ruelas used the following terms to describe teachers and union leaders:  pipsqueak, laughingstock, infantile, evil, abusive, incompetent, awful, craven, do-nothing, sad-sack, anti-child.  LA Times reporter James Rainey places teachers in the same category as corrupt politicians and negligent social workers in this piece.  The list goes on.  Practically speaking, do we really want to lower the status of teachers, many whom are the only ones that today’s youth still listen to?

Several victims in this tragedy have connections to the Social Sciences:  Federal Judge John M. Roll was a member of government who held the important duty of maintaining our system of laws.  Aides Gabriel Zimmerman and Pia Carusone were also participating in our democracy by meeting with the Congresswoman’s constituents on a  Saturday morning.  The nine-year old child, Christina Taylor-Green, was also excited about a possible life in politics, having just been elected to her student council in elementary school.  The double tragedy in this child’s life:  she was born on September 11, 2001.  Tweeter Anti-Inellect wrote “born on a day of terrorism, killed in an act of terrorism.”

But in our darkest moments, we remember, we dig deep down into our psyches and become the Americans that we are supposed to be.  On 9/11, people ceased being blue or red, black or brown.  They were patriots under attack and they united for survival.  Can it be more clear that now more than ever we must unite to save our democracy, to preserve our society and its values?

In the midst of the dark events of yesterday, we saw glimpses of what we stand for.  Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik issued a poignant statement:

I think the vitriolic rhetoric that we hear day in and day out from people in the radio business and some people in the TV business and what (we) see on TV and how our youngsters are being raised, that this has not become the nice United States of America that most of us grew up in. And I think it’s time that we do the soul-searching.

It took a lot of courage and introspection for this law enforcement leader to speak plainly, and frankly.  It is a sad moment in time when speaking up for our values becomes a rare and intriguing occurrence.

As we left our board meeting, with heavy hearts, the significance of the mass shooting began sinking in.  I thought about the power of words and imagery that so many throw around carelessly.  I thought about words and phrases such as “trigger,” “dropout factories.”   I think about former Senator Gloria Romero comparing Compton educators to “batterers” and wondered whether the writers of those words ever stop to think about the consequences of their prose.  Has the moment arrived where enough is enough?  Because it is impossible to believe that continuing down the road of uncivil, polemic rhetoric can in any way enhance or improve our educational system, on which our democracy is built.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. teacherken permalink
    January 9, 2011 5:03 pm

    Very well put.

  2. January 9, 2011 7:10 pm

    More people need to read this post… I don’t think politican/celebrities realize the power of the language they choose. I’ve seen many writers tracing this event back to Palin’s “don’t retreat, reload” and her posting of targets all over a map of the US, and while I don’t blame her, per se, carelessness in word choice actually does matter. Ignoring gray areas, corralling all thoughts into one absolute or another, and eschewing actual discourse in favor of bulldozing one another with empty rhetoric all contribute to the kinds of senseless act seen in this tragedy.

    When you ask a politician what their policy position is, and they say “I won’t do what my opponent does” (and that’s all), and then people still want to vote them into office, our country is destined for disaster.

    • January 9, 2011 9:07 pm

      Language is something that has bothered me for a long time in this education reform discourse. I have no problem debating ideas on their merit but discussions tend to quickly become polarized, personal, and disparaging. As an educator trying to put my voice out there as a representative of my peers, I have never been exposed to such contempt, arrogance, and belittling–all for trying to make sure that my students receive the best policies.

      The anti-teacher language has escalated to the point that I would not be surprised to hear of violence against one of us in the near future. As the sheriff said, it does not take much to push an unhinged individual over the edge. I wish people would be more careful, take more responsibility for the words. If you can’t make your point without disparaging someone, that says a lot about the validity of your point.

      Thanks for reading and for your always thoughtful comments.

      • David B. Cohen permalink*
        January 9, 2011 10:59 pm

        Well, of course there has been violence against teachers/administrators all too recently (last week in Nebraska). But the tricky part is determining if/when that violence might have anything to do with the current political climate. Unfortunately, the violence in schools is not as recent a phenomenon as the current wave of teacher-bashing.

  3. Cheryl permalink
    January 9, 2011 10:49 pm

    This is such a thoughtful post. I used to be an avid listener of talk radio. Then, about six years ago, I visited the Museum of Tolerance here in L.A. In one of the exhibits, there was a Nazi propaganda book, a picture book for children. I realized that some of the language that was used to describe Jews was startlingly similar to the language I was hearing on talk radio describing Hispanics, whether legal or illegal. I haven’t listened to talk radio since–just can’t stomach it.

    It seems we’ve stopped valuing people in general in this country, not just politicians and teachers, but anyone who thinks differently than us or who might seem to have more than us or be getting in the way of us getting what we want–usually the almighty dollar. It is so very sad, and I wonder if we’ll reverse our course before our country self-destructs.

  4. Abigail Nunez permalink
    January 10, 2011 8:39 am

    Thanks for making connections bewteen the various assaults, literally and figuratively, on the democratic process currently taking place. The education reform movement, and especially the charter school movement, needs to look carefully at the democratic priciples in place in traditional public schools–elected school boards, school goverance models that include peer-elected teachers and parents, and due process rights–and hold non-traditional schools accountable for them as well, especially if they are publically funded. I make this point as a parent, as a public educator, and as a taxpayer.

  5. January 10, 2011 8:59 am

    A beautifully written expression of what many of us are thinking right now. Similar thoughts are appearing in other teacher blogs across the net (see Nancy Flanagan’s piece at Teacher Magazine, for example). Unfortunately, much of the opposite, hurtful rhetoric that you describe is also still out there. I just recently responded to the author of an edblog that compared teachers to inmates who had gotten out of control and needed to be brought back in line. This disgracing and disparaging of teachers is unlike anything I’ve seen in our history. But as you note, it is part of a much larger, unhealthier trend in this country to use language to paint others as enemies. All of this needs to be challenged by people of integrity and heart.

  6. January 11, 2011 6:34 pm

    Thank you for speaking, so eloquently, about the ties between this horrific tragedy and education. I teach with Federal Judge John M. Roll’s daughter in the Phoenix Union High School district; she is an inspirational Social Studies teacher at one of our urban high schools who has just started exploring the National Board certification process. In short, she dedicates her time and spirit to increasing student achievement and affecting our youth. The loss of her father has been devastating.

    Our hearts are heavy in Arizona this month, but our student-centered work will perservere in spite of these acts of hate. We’re really hoping that legislators in Arizona will learn from the happenings in New York and Los Angeles – and stop the edu-hate before it’s too late.

    • January 13, 2011 1:47 pm

      Alaina, thank you for taking the time to comment on this post in the midst of what your school community is going through. The losses you have experienced are felt deeply by many and know that our thoughts are with you. Please extend our deepest condolences to Judge Roll’s daughter and let her know the California Social Studies community has her in our hearts and in our minds.

  7. CarolineSF permalink
    January 11, 2011 10:17 pm

    If it’s any consolation, I think that the public’s attitude toward teachers is generally like their attitude toward schools. They tend to believe the hateful propaganda in the abstract — they agree that schools are failing and teachers are uncaring — but when it comes to their own kids’ teachers and schools — the ones they see in real life day to day — they view it differently.

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      January 11, 2011 10:51 pm

      You raise a good point, Caroline. Part of the reason for InterACT is to try to make the different views more consistent, providing a counter-narrative about teaching and schools, showing more of the good work and pointing out the real sources of our greatest challenges in education.

  8. Ruth Luevanos permalink
    January 21, 2011 11:26 pm

    Thank you for addressing the issues that no one in the mainstream or cable news media seems to want to address regarding the connection between these acts of terrorism and the need for civic mindedness and retrospective soul searching. The acts of violence in LAUSD schools this past week only seem to highlight the desperate gap that “Racing to the Test” have left with the tragic loss of teaching social studies and civic participation, duty and character in our schools, at home and in the community. It is through history that we learned about how simple bullying and name calling eventually led to several genocides and a holocaust. How many more acts of violence will we let happen before we realize that standardized tests in math and language arts do not teach our students how to be compassionate, empathetic, constructive human beings? History is our greatest teacher and can be a wonderful guide in how heroes of all ages stood up for each other during the holocaust, the civil rights movement, and the recent shooting of Representative Gifford to show the amazing courage, bravery and character that we are all capable of exhibiting when armed with the right knowledge.

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