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In the movie, “It Started in Naples” (1960) starring Sophia Loren and Clark Gable, Gable portrays Michael Hamilton, a stuffy lawyer from Philadelphia, steeped in American exceptionalism and arrogance, and finds himself seeking out the custody of his brother’s son—named Nando—and confronting the boy’s guardian aunt (Loren’s character) on the stoop of her apartment. Loren refuses to give the boy up, and Hamilton threatens to take her to court. At this point, a neighbor steps out on to his balcony above and asks about Hamilton; Loren turns around and up at the onlookers and explains to them that he is an American.
“Why don’t you get out of the Middle East?…” the neighborreproachfully inquires. “…All’s you want is oil, oil, oil!”
“No, he wants Nando.” Loren’s character admits.
“Soon he’ll want oil, too. OIL!”
It is amazing to think that we’ve had this dialogue around the U.S.’ interventionist stance toward the oil-rich countries in the Middle East for up to forty or fifty years now, and yet few are willing to accept the reality of this moral outrage, most scoffing at the idea that this belligerent pursuit of energy and profits from its sales and the power that is accrued from it is at the heart and soul of our foreign policy. The emperor hasn’t had any clothes on for a long time. Meanwhile, our foreign policy is a daily train wreck certainly not waiting to cease.
Have we no shame? Of course not, we’re a people without integrity. Perfect examples of this shamelessness can be found in the administrators at Jordan High School in Los Angeles, CA and at an elementary school in Bloomington, Indiana, who dismissed teachers who were inviting the students to understand critical thinking, to critically think about their own social realities, and to appreciate freedom of speech and the idea that there can be a range of diverse views on the same topic. Karen Salazar, who earned her Masters from UCLA several years ago, was fired from Jordan High School because, according to her Vice-Principal, she was “brain-washing” her students. (Apparently, the cause of her dismissal has changed many times and currently stands at her being accused of not addressing the California state “standards”, which has been refuted.) And Deborah Mayer was released from her 5th grade teaching position in Bloomington because a parent complained over the fact that Ms. Mayer had answered kids’ questions about the Iraq war. She told the kids that she “honks for peace” and that, indeed, there were other ways to solve the crisis, one of them being conflict-resolution (the art of which they teach in elementary school), when one of the 5th graders asked her if there were other ways to work out the US/Iraq problem besides going to war.
Now we’re compounding this lack of integrity with a frightening sense of censorship? It’s as if we are saying, “Pssst. Hey kids! Don’t you dare question the powers-that-be, if you know what’s good for you!” Does Dr. Strachan, the principal at Jordan High School, really understand what a lot of these kids face on a daily basis? Of course he doesn’t, or he wouldn’t be firing a teacher who is actually connecting with the kids and jumpstarting their intellectual drives. Ms. Salazar was obviously tapping into something the kids need. These kids need to feel empowered if they are to be the difference we all want to see in the world. Speaking truth to power empowers us, by moving us towards an understanding of our world, which increases our self-confidence, eventually leading us to independence, which, for many, is the goal of education.
A lot of these kids do not have the mother at home that Dr. Ben Carson had to help him overcome his struggles, and so it is Malcolm X, or Mother Jones, or Hellen Keller, or Mark Twain, who these kids can learn from to help give them the inspiration they need to better their lives and the world around them. But, instead, they come to school and they learn very quickly that it is not an institution that will be there to help them become a well-rounded human being. That the very place that can give these kids a sense of stability, a sense of direction when no one else can, is failing them too. Injustices in the home, at school, and in society wear these kids down, and it is their acute sense of justice that saves them. It just needs to be respected, appreciated and nourished, and Ms. Salazar was doing just that for these kids. I am guessing that Dr. Strachan went to a private school or was raised by parents who required of him two book reports a week, as did Dr. Carson’s mother, who had only a 3rd grade reading level. Looking through these privileged or just plain loved-lenses, Dr. Strachan, can then just tell the kids to pick themselves up by their bootstraps, as he did, and just study for the state tests, the CAHSEE, SATs, etc. I got a regular California education and turned out all right; therefore, so can you, he can say. Or, I didn’t do any of that funny surveying crap, nor listen to Tupac and try to understand what he meant by the acronym T.H.U.G.L.I.F.E. (The Hate U Give Little Infants F’s Everyone), he could say.
Obviously, it is up to the kids to choose their own destiny, and not everyone is going to go on to become a doctor or lawyer or movie producer, but if we can encourage these kids to take a close look at what our society is doing and why we are doing it, then the kids might actually go on to become an adult who is a positive, active participant in their world, instead of one who is going on to become a passive consumer or worse, one who experiences the world in a destructive manner. They might actually be interested in what is happening around them. The U.S. government has a complicated past—of course there are some great achievements and accomplishments we need to acknowledge—but we’d be fooling ourselves if we were to avoid challenging our students to critically think about the times that this nation has stolen, cheated and manipulated the people to get its way. Whether you like or not, this is what wakes the kids up. Then to learn about the people from the bottom on up who have, under oppressive circumstances, changed their realities (and the realities for future citizens) for the better is what keeps the kids coming back for more. We have a long history in the U.S. of people who’ve shaped our world for the better, who’ve confronted U.S. power and institutions, compelling them to change in ways that better serve the people. These people inspire us to do more. They’re great guides for us when we’ve lost our way. Basically, the New York Times puts it best when it says that Howard Zinn’s A People History of the United States, should be “required reading” for every single high school student across the nation.
But why do we need this understanding of our history when everything is perfect? We don’t need to change anything else, right? We did not war with Iraq unnecessarily as Scott McClellan, a former Bush White House spokesperson, claims? Or, do we have problems in the world, in our society that we can change? Or, do we have a long and troubled past in the Middle East that is affecting each and every one of us, hobbling our every move up to this very moment? Should the kids know that we sent Kermit Roosevelt, a CIA operative, over to Iran to overthrow Dr. Mohammed Mosaddeq, an elected official, in the 1950s because he nationalized his oil fields in an attempt to preclude British and US companies from profiting off of Iranian oil? Should the kids know that we expelled the Chagossians from the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean in the 1960s to make way for a military base in order to keep watch over the Middle East? (By the way, the Chagossians have yet to receive an apology from the U.S. government for this.) Shouldn’t the kids know these recent historical anecdotes so they can be prepared to question our intentions in the Middle East, and in other parts of the world? Don’t we want them to be conscientious and responsible voters by the time they’re asked to vote? Then, when they get around to watching “It Started in Naples” they’ll understand why the Italian man in the apartment complex berates Clark Gable’s character, yelling at him to “get out of the Middle East”.
A recent class of middle school students took a field trip to the Ronald Reagan Library. How is this not brainwashing? Where at the library does it talk about Reagan’s support for the death squads in Central America, enabling them to slaughter thousands of Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Nicaraguans? Where does it talk about how the Chagossians were suffering on the island of Mauritius during the 80s due to US foreign policy? What about our support for Saddam Hussein while he gassed the Kurds? Who is brainwashing whom?
“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.” – Paulo Freire
Thank you Karen Salazar and Deborah Mayer for teaching the kids about peace, effective mediation strategies, and justice. We’ve tried the save-the-village-by-destroying-it strategy, and we all know it’s getting us nowhere; let us follow the lead of Karen and Deborah and start understanding the village first, and soon we’ll all want peace, too. PEACE!
BRETT DRUGGE is an Educator in Los Angeles. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org