Recently Karen and I had dinner with my son Kelleth and his daughters, Elodie barely turned 6, and Sophie almost 8. I love these occasions (as I suspect most grandmothers might!). Like almost any other such occasion, this one resulted in yet another wonderful Sophie/Elodie story. Shortly after we ordered, I asked the predictable mundane question – what did you learn in school today? Elodie immediately piped up “we learned about activists!” Since most of the adults at the table were a bit shocked to hear this from a kindergarten scholar, someone asked “so what is an activist?” None of us remember her exact answer since we had not exactly recovered from our shock, but we all recognized her response as exactly accurate. Then, both girls proceeded to give us a recitation of activists with whom they now had considerable familiarity … Rosa Parks, Ruby Bridges, Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez and a number of others who clearly matched any definition of the term. Personally I was very gratified that there were a significant number of women on their list!
Of course we live in a recognized liberal community, where contemporary “occupy” activism is a daily fact of life in our community. And, it was after all not long after Black History month. Nevertheless, what the girls were actually learning was clearly far deeper and more important than the surface ability to recite names and tell about the accomplishments of important activists in U.S. history. They clearly had learned that activism is something to be admired – that those who venture into the realm of working against injustice are to be honored and what they accomplished is something to be cherished. Certainly, this lesson is not one that I learned as a child, not even as a young high school or college student.
I am not naive enough to believe that all school children are acquiring this understanding. There is ample evidence that in our current divided political and cultural U.S. society, I suspect that many youngsters are learning quite a different kind of “fact” as well as opposing attitudes – that indeed many children are not exposed to even the limited scope of education that characterized by own 1950-60 K-12 education. So when I move beyond my joy and delight with the experience of the children in my own world, the reality that comes into sharp focus remains the central importance of the state of education. The fact that there are instances of remarkable advances beyond anything I ever experienced, gives reason for great hope. But the fact that the U.S. now lags far beyond many other countries in education, behind many countries consider far less advantaged, is an ominous signal that we have a long mountain to climb. We do not need to be “first” in terms of competition … but we do need to pay close attention to the gross inequities in our system, and the great divide in our political and economic systems that are reflected in our education systems, with grave implications. So, the single most important “activist” role that any of us can take, I believe, is some action, great or small, to influence what the children of our communities learn in school today.