Educators As Agents of Change
What Does an Agent of Change Look Like in 2017?
As it turns out, not that different than in 1849.
Allow me to give some context. To risk understatement, 2016 has been a year of political turmoil. We, as a nation, have mired through a miasmic year of legislative grid-locks, funding lock-downs, and toxic runs for office. An unprecedented level of negativity has clouded our view of the future, leaving all of us asking one question about 2017: What comes next?
Voting adults are not the only ones asking this question. As the election cycle was nearing its culmination, I began noticing that the subtle atmosphere of general anxiety was seeping into the classroom—a place we esteem as a welcoming space for all walks of life to journey together for the sake of education. My students were trying to see through the haze of political coverage (or feigning ignorance for their mental wellbeing), but without a model of healthy discourse they struggled to put to words what they truly thought. Many expressed a resigned hopelessness in a system that appeared to not reflect their own personal values or interests, while others could only speak of their invaluable democracy as a joke, turning to popular internet parodies for their political language.
Changing this culture of flippancy to one of collective engagement was difficult, but well worth the effort.
I teach English to ninth and eleventh graders in a small town on the edge of the St. Louis metro-east. My city has had its own struggles over the past few years, and I have strived to use my expertise to be an instrument of advocacy and social change among my students. And a remarkable thing has occurred in all of this: When treated with the dignity of people who will one day be leaders in my community, the students rose to meet the challenges we face as a city and as a nation. They have wrestled to understand their places among the histories and perspectives of our society, and I walk with them among the challenges we face. I remind them that I am only a little further down the experiential road than they—and that the authors we read are even further, showing us paths that we can choose to follow or not.
Some call literature a journey; I find the metaphor too trite. As a professor once told me, we are Jacob wrestling with the angel of meaning, grappling with our forebears as we cry out for understanding.
When I re-read Henry David Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" in preparation for my junior English classes this year, I could sense his urgency for social change. Published just after the end of the Mexican War, the essay is a call to awaken citizens into agents of change. Thoreau watched as his fellow citizens allowed the country to continue engaging in grave injustices, even though many were discontent with the moral ambiguity of the war. Whether these citizens felt inadequate to change things or were too self-absorbed to care meant little to Thoreau; he called the passive rule-followers "agents of injustice." These may be harsh words for law-abiding citizens, but his thoughts were bent on spurring people into action.
In the same passage, Thoreau wrote these words: "The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right. It is truly enough said that a corporation has no conscience; but a corporation of conscientious men is a corporation with a conscience."
My classes read Thoreau's essay in late October. Many students were struggling to put to words their own feelings about their community and country—the divisiveness was overwhelming for many. After reading these words, we discussed what it meant to be obligated to do right. We talked about what it meant for corporations to be without a conscience. A nation does not have a conscience, just as a classroom or a sports team or a town does not. But a funny thing happened: As we talked about how a group made up of conscientious people—individuals devoted to doing what they thought right, not following the will of others—they began to see agency within themselves. When a few students control the climate of a classroom, the majority resigns their will to the few, and it is up the conscience of those few to dictate the class environment. However, when each student follows her own conscience, the class becomes conscientious.
Suddenly, I had hopeful students. Their community, their city, their country could be with a conscience, but it starts with each student following her own.
This is the message for educators: We need to be obligated to do at all times what we think is right. What was true for Thoreau in 1849 is true for us today as we look ahead to 2017. To be agents of change, we must decide what is right, and then act upon that. We must be diligent in fighting injustice by not giving consent to unjust policies or practices. We must be ready to call upon our leaders, from administrators to legislators, when we know a better path for education. We must join fellow educators in communities of shared learning so that we can articulate a better field.
For, it is truly enough said that education has no conscience; but a profession of conscientious educators is education with a conscience.
Jacob Carlson is a secondary English teacher at Bethalto CUSD 8, where he assists the district with its 1:1 technology initiative and transitioning to PARCC assessments as an instructional coach. He is currently pursuing his master’s degree in English and American Literature at SIU Edwardsville.