Teachers are optimistic about human nature. We have to be.
In my post on how I can be an ally, I talk about how I’m an excellent teacher, and this is one thing I can contribute to the movement to challenge bigotry, intolerance, oppression, and violence, on both individual and systemic levels. Of course I’ll also try to stand up to hate speech and discrimination if it’s happening right in front of my face, but teaching is something I can contribute with planning and intention.
The idea that teaching is meant to change people is, admittedly, a little icky on the surface. In the relationship advice world, it’s commonly acknowledged that trying to change people in relationships is both doomed and unethical. After all, we can only really control our own behavior, not that of others.
In teaching, though, I believe that the goal is not necessarily to change people in specific ways, or to change them on deep, personality-trait levels. When I teach college classes, I tell my students that they will be responsible for meeting both objective and subjective learning goals. For example, they need to absorb and understand the information about folklore that I’m feeding them, and they need to be able to demonstrate it to me. That’s part of the point of a college class: to take responsibility for the body of knowledge that comprises the course’s content.
Learning about culture is never a neutral pursuit, however. One of my core beliefs is that if we give people the freedom to encounter other humans in a variety of contexts, we will all be the better for it. We’ll be exposed to ideas that are different than our own. We’ll learn to connect with values and beliefs that may seem foreign and strange at first, but are understandable in their own cultural contexts. We’ll develop empathy for the experiences and choices of others.
This is a major reason I oppose censorship, or falsely limiting the access to ideas, literature, culture, perspectives. This is why I strongly believe in the importance of a liberal arts education: to expose students to global cultures, to cultivate critical thinking skills, to challenge narrow-minded beliefs that are facile and constricting.
I’m not saying that everyone who comes through higher education can or should pop out thinking exactly the way I do, but there should be an appreciation for pluralism and diversity. There should be an acknowledgement that once you begin to truly study the world, you can’t deny the existence (and the right to exist) of people who are different from you. Yes, this stance is strongly influenced by my secular background, but I see no reason why religious folks of various stripes couldn’t reach similar conclusions and be okay with a “live and let live” attitude toward others, even as they enact their religious beliefs in their own communities.
Obviously this is pretty relevant right now. Vox has an excellent article on the importance of conversation and connection when it comes to helping change the attitudes of people who are racist, transphobic, and so on. Citing lots of juicy research, the author concludes:
The key to these conversations, though, is empathy. And it will take a lot of empathy — not just for one conversation but many, many conversations in several settings over possibly many years. It won’t be easy, but if we want to address some people’s deeply entrenched racial attitudes, it may be the only way.
This is one reason that personal narratives are so powerful: they’re windows into another person’s experiences and values. They’re an invitation to empathy, a revelation of vulnerability. As a folklorist, I encourage you to think about personal narratives that you’re willing and able to share, and to include those in your activist strategies for cultivating change and education.
I love teaching. I could keep rambling about it for days. But in closing, I’d like to return to my main point: that good teaching inspires change by offering opportunities to learn about the world around us. People will of course draw their own conclusions, based on their life experiences to date (which includes things like religious affiliation, group identity, and so on).
We can’t force others to change. We can’t shame them into it most of the time either. But we can hope, and we can present information, and we can create spaces in which vulnerability and experiential learning are encouraged. That’s part of my life’s work, and even in the face of xenophobia and other terrible stuff, I’m committed to optimism.