Being a teacher for social justice

Martin Luther King Junior and his family

In a letter drafted in Birmingham jail in Alabama, dated 16th of April 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King, JR stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The awareness of social justice begins in the classroom. We can’t take it for granted that parents will teach their children social justice at home. If this were the case, we would not hear of racist, homophobic or religious prejudicial acts of violence in the news. Unfortunately, we do hear acts of severe violence against homosexuals, people of different faiths and ethnic backgrounds. The neutral ground for the teaching of social justice is in the classrooms of our schools.

To me, being a teacher of social justice means finding the commonality of humanity. That commonality exits in literature, history and science. John F. Kennedy once said, “If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.” In striving towards “making the world safe for diversity,” I believe teachers need to bring students to the self realization that we are all bound by the human struggle to succeed, be loved, overcome hurt and pain, be prosperous and live happy, productive lives. All human beings want these things, essentially we’re all striving for the same goals.

This ‘social injustice’ creeps into human thinking when we contaminate our thought process by seeing others as not being deserving of those same goals because they are not like us. They might choose the same gender as a life partner, we begrudge others success because they have different beliefs or call their God by a different name, or we just don’t like the color of their flesh, and so we deserve more and they deserve less.

We all deserve, at the very least, the opportunity to achieve our goals, no matter how small or lofty they might be. Every human being has a goal and every goal is accompanied by an obstacle or possibly numerous obstacles. Literature, for me, is a gift. It is a gift because we temporarily are allowed to see the world from another human being’s perspective. We are permitted to see inside the hearts and minds of others and witness their goals and the obstacles that they are faced with.

Shakespeare dares to permit us to feel sorrow or hatred for the protagonist who succumbs to evil and becomes an anti-hero in Macbeth. Harper Lee allows us to witness a racially charged court case from the innocent eyes of Scout, a six year old child at the start of To Kill a Mockingbird. In his poem, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Elliot’s sentiment from 1915 is still relevant today, his imagined inadequacies prevent him from connecting with a potential lover. Literature lays bare all our fears, hopes and dreams and permits the readers to connect with the authors of yesterday, the present, a thousand miles away, or in the same country, authors of a different religion, race or culture. It permits us to grasp the commonality of humanity across the globe. We all need love, success, prosperity and acceptance.

These are the human goals that bind us all together. We are all entitled to them, we can help each other to achieve them by teaching social justice within our classrooms.

Adlai E. Stevenson, Permanent U.S. Representative to the United Nations, January 1961- July 1965

“A society can be no better than the men and women who compose it.”

Adlai E. Stevenson

Speech at Kasson, Minn.Sept 6th 1952

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2 thoughts on “Being a teacher for social justice

  1. Thank you for this. I love this sentence in particular: “Literature, for me, is a gift. It is a gift because we temporarily are allowed to see the world from another human being’s perspective. We are permitted to see inside the hearts and minds of others and witness their goals and the obstacles that they are faced with.”

    So true, as a reader and a writer. Beautifully written and well said!

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