Monday, January 15, 2007

It doesn't surprise me...

that so many children are ignorant of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. A recent survey indicates that a huge percentage of students think that King was fighting against slavery.

Much of what passes for Social Studies Education today is a joke, superficial topical surveys. Few parents attempt to pass on any appreciation of this country's or the world's past to their kids. (I'm grateful that my own parents did have this commitment, for example first taking me to Washington, D.C. when I was five years old, a trip I still recall vividly, forty-eight years later.)

On top of that, the adolenticization of our society, a phenomenon that Christopher Lasch first identified in The Culture of Narcissism, has filled post-modern America with a general ahistorical view of life, devoid of any appreciation or understanding of the past.

We have a culture so "in the moment" that it's literally hell-bent on learning history's lessons. Another figure who was assassinated in the 1960s, John Kennedy, wrote these words which I committed to memory as a child: "A knowledge of the past prepares us for the crisis of the present and the challenge of the future."

King's birthday, Presidents' Day, and other national holidays should be more than just days off. An informed patriotism can be an antidote to things like militant nationalism and hedonistic cynicism, both of which can kill the American Dream, King's dream: freedom within a community of mutual accountability and concern.

[THANK YOU TO: Charlie Lehardy of AnotherThink, who links to this post in a wonderful tribute to Dr. King. Charlie's post, introducing excerpts from King's letter from the Birmingham jail reminds us "of the Christian faith that was the foundation of his beliefs and actions." Those tempted to ignore the facts by dismissing all religious belief as inherently superstitious and dangerous would do well to contemplate people like King, Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, Albert Schweitzer, C.S. Lewis, and the billions of ordinary Christians who have fought slavery, poverty, injustice, prejudice, and disease down through the centuries and continue to do so today. The good infection of Jesus Christ continues to bring healing and hope even though there have been and are people who misuse and pervert the faith.]

[THANKS TO: Andrew Jackson of for linking to this post.]


Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

What makes young people's ignorance about Dr. King even more appalling is that he's probably spoken of more frequently in schools than any other American. His life story, and especially his "I Have a Dream" speech, are endlessly trotted forth not only in social studies curricula but in language arts curricula as well (I'm an education writer in lang arts) whenever an example of the civil rights movement, or of moral heroism in general, or of rhetorical skill, is needed. I remember, when my grown kids were in elementary school, asking them who were the greatest Americans. They immediately said, Martin Luther King and Harriet Tubman. (Nowadays they might have named Rosa Parks instead of Tubman.) There is no lack of attempts by our educational system to teach children to honor the civil rights movement, and King is far and away its icon in mainstream pedagogy. My sons named the historical figures they had heard the most glowing things about, the most often. If kids don't know about King, what *do* they know about?

Mark Daniels said...

First of all, thanks for writing!

My guess is that part of the reason there's so little appreciation of King or others is that there is little attempt in Social Studies Education to provide any context for the events or figures they teach about. Information without context isn't particularly compelling or memorable.

God bless you, my friend.