Learning can be uncomfortable – and that’s how it should be

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When I was teaching, I met a young man who needed a course in religion to meet his basic requirements. He had a long family history of church attendance and Bible study, and so wanted to take Introduction to the New Testament — because it sounded like an easy A. I suggested that she take Women in the Bible. “Are you kidding?” he exclaimed. “It’s all about feminist stuff.”

“It will give you a new way to see what you already know,” I argued.

“I don’t want to do that,” he replied and signed up for easy A.

Continued:Barbara Mezeske: Why difficult books belong in the classroom

Continued:Barbara Mezeske: Too many of us will never “look up”

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Recently, Florida Governor DeSantis proposed legislation that will allow parents to sue schools or teachers who present anything under the misunderstood concept of “critical race theory.” This would include “race divisive material,” another ill-defined concept. Practiced in right-wing media, “divisive” ideas are those that suggest that majority whites have been responsible for racial inequality or injustice, and in many cases still are responsible. In practice, this includes facts about laws that have restricted housing, education, or military service for non-whites; it includes the fundamental racism that produced the Nazi death camps; this includes the history of Native Americans and the systematic way in which their property and lives were taken by our government.

These bills and others like them are being picked up by other state legislatures, including Michigan.

People like my longtime student and DeSantis argue that education content shouldn’t bother students. Or at least not to majority students. Most people who buy into the idea that education shouldn’t disrupt a student’s worldview are…drum roll…not educators. They are politicians waving a culture war flag and rallying their supporters to get in line.

But let’s think for a moment about what learning is. Whenever we learn something, we are humbled – even just a little. This is true in all fields. The high school football player who joins an elite summer league always discovers that there are players more talented than him. Whether we’re learning to write computer code, solve algebraic equations, or synthesize data in graphical form, we’re expanding our skills, changing the boundaries of our behavior, and discovering what we didn’t know before. It makes learning painful (think about the last test you failed), challenging (how many hours did you work on it?) and ultimately rewarding.

Learning is not only skill-based. When we read, we vicariously absorb the experience of others, whether they are authors of textbooks in a particular field or storytellers who invite us to imagine the lives of people different from us. History, in particular, answers questions about how a society or culture became what it is: it shows us where we have been and how we have changed or stayed the same.

In fact, learning should be destabilizing. If all the new things we learned – especially as school children – fit perfectly into the mental boxes we already have, then what good would it be?

Why bother going to school, why pay tuition, why study something new, if you want to come out unchanged from who you started out?

Studying racism or sexism in schools can make majority students feel uncomfortable or even guilty about the past. What’s wrong with that? Do you remember the scene from the 2017 movie “Hidden Figures” about how Katherine Johnson, a black mathematician working for NASA on orbital calculations for John Glenn’s spaceflight in the early 1960s, had to use toilets reserved for people of color? She was reprimanded for spending too much time going to the toilet, which was 800 meters away.

This scene should shock us. It’s not like that today. But that was once. And we should all know that, regardless of our race. Racist and sexist behavior can improve if we bring it to light. This means getting to know them in the first place.

People who want to give our children a version of the past that says their side was noble, brave, and correct, when in fact it might have been petty, cowardly, and ethically indefensible, are myopic at best, bigoted at worst. A movie like “Hidden Figures” makes us sympathize with Katherine Johnson and respect her for standing up to the systemic racism that has given us separate bathrooms. Respect is not a zero-sum game: learning to respect someone who is different from you does not come at the cost of your own self-respect, unless, of course, your behavior matches that of the oppressor. Instead, respecting others injects humility into our own worldview by forcing us to see outside of ourselves.

The price we pay for education is change: if learning doesn’t change us, what’s the point?

— Community columnist Barbara Mezeske is a retired teacher and resident of Park Township. She can be contacted at [email protected]

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