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Who’s the Teacher Now?

I’m thinking about the students on college campuses today protesting the Israeli violence in Gaza. I’m thinking about what it means to be a teacher and a student. How does one begin as one but morph into the other?

But first, here’s a trick question: Do you recognize any of these men as being famous teachers about the horrors of slavery in the U.S.? Charles Hardenbergh, John Neely, Martinus Schryrer, John Dumont. They were all educated white men. 

How about Isabella Baumfree? 

Moses Harriet Tubman Awtt Portrait

The trick is that these four men had owned, in succession, Isabella Baumfree between 1800 and 1827. They were all committed to continuing slavery. Isabella escaped from John Dumont in 1826 and later took the name Sojourner Truth. Sojourner remained illiterate her entire life and yet became – along with Frederick DouglassHarriet Tubman, William Lloyd Garrison, and Harriet Beecher Stowe – one of our most powerful and important abolitionists and campaigners for women’s rights. 

A former slave, a great teacher?  An illiterate black woman, an inspiring orator? Sojourner had the tenacity and courage, the passion, to insist that the words about justice in our Constitution be made real for everyone. She dedicated her life to that cause. The educated men who had owned her thought about slavery in terms of free labor and economic investment, power and sexual predation. The rights and freedoms of the Constitution were also about property to them, that is, the exclusive property of white men. If they teach us anything, it’s about the moral corruption of power and money. So, a peculiar inversion takes place: the least formally educated, but most ethically educated, becomes the teacher.

Samantha Smith Challenge Awtt Portrait

That inversion animates nearly all the portraits in AWTT. Many of the portrait subjects had lots of formal education but what we learn of significance from them is their courage and perseverance to stand up for justice. And consider Samantha Smith, an eleven year old girl, who promotes peacemaking to propagandized and fear-addled Americans during the Cold War. She understood a simple truth – that Russians were not one dimensional monsters but people just like her who would never want a nuclear war. Samantha taught that people who create and dehumanize an enemy may well end up destroying not only that enemy but themselves, too. An eleven year old girl was teaching adults about the insanity of war and how to make peace.  No matter what age, the person with courage to name the problem and model the solution becomes the teacher.

Jaysa Hunter Mellers Awtt Portrait

Ten-year-old Jaysa Hunter-Mellers teaches a community about environmental racism and gets a polluting coal fired power plant torn down. Eighteen-year-old Kelsey Juliana teaches people that a government is responsible for the public trust, that one of its primary responsibilities is preserving a healthy environment into the future. Sixty year old Larry Gibson, with a third grade education, teaches about the environmental devastation of Mountaintop Removal coal mining by refusing the money of the coal companies to buy his mountain and then has the courage to endure their threats and violence. 

So, today, on campuses, the students, with their protests and encampments, with their insistence on being in solidarity with Gazans suffering a genocidal war, with their demands that wealthy universities divest of their investments in lucrative weapons manufacturers and businesses that enable the genocide, they have flipped the narrative. The students, who came to college to learn, have become the teachers. They have the moral clarity to understand what’s happening, why it’s not justified, and how, unless the colleges divest, they have been made complicit in atrocity. The students, who persist in their protests, are teaching their administrators, teaching the people who accepted them into the glorified halls of higher education, teaching all of us, the purpose of liberal education: understand the values of ethical life, then act on them.

Rather than have police arrest and club students, the college and university administrators should be paying tuition to the students. Although, with a few exceptions, the administrators have proven, sadly, to be poor students and should be expelled for their inability to learn right from wrong.

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