With dignity: A Humane Education

Marika Straw

No people over the age of 60. Money should grow on trees. No lying. No stealing. Don’t use more than you need.

No Justin Bieber.

When asked to come up with a set of 10 rules for a more peaceful world, these were some of the suggestions fifth- and sixth-graders at Edison Elementary School came up with last Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

“No Justin Bieber?” I asked. “Why not?”

The students stared at me. Clearly I didn’t know who Justin Bieber was. “He sings like a girl,” one said.

“What’s wrong with that?” I asked. I tried to think of a way to express the concept of LGBT discrimination to a group of fifth- and sixth-graders. “What if he really wants to sound like a girl?” More blank stares. “I mean, how would you feel if you were a boy and the biggest thing, the only thing you wanted in life was just to be like a girl, and every time you acted like a girl, people made fun of you?”

Most of the students were already off in their own worlds, bickering, getting distracted or wandering around the room. But there was that one girl who looked at me like maybe she thought she got it. And just reaching that one girl was worth it.

Last year when I went into Edison Elementary School with about 40 other volunteers from Lawrence to teach a human rights-based curriculum, I was appalled by some of the attitudes of the students. Call me innocent or naïve, but I hadn’t yet realized that kids as young as 10 years old hold such vehemently discriminatory attitudes. And yes, one could chalk it up to the fact that they, as fifth- and sixth-graders, probably wanted to appall me, and to the widely-agreed-upon view that Justin Bieber is irritating, but the fact remains that the students did not pull their views out of nowhere.

Their views were developed and informed by the cultures in which they were raised: the cultures of their families, of their friendships — and of their schools. By saying this, I do not mean to attack Edison Elementary. In fact, from what I observed as the LARY Buddy Coordinator last year, Edison is a fine elementary school, chock-full of extremely dedicated teachers doing the absolute best they can. So what’s the problem?

The problem is the nationwide educational system. There is something missing from it. We cram plenty of material and messages about abstinence and drugs down students’ throats, yet fail to educate them about human rights, discrimination and the underdogs of the world. We fail to prepare them to approach the world in a humane, fair, courageous way.

What kind of world do we want our kids to grow up in? What kind of world do we want them to create? We cannot go on pretending that what and how we teach them in school has nothing to do with creating the America they eventually take charge of.

If you were wondering why most volunteers this MLK Day are being sent to Boys and Girls Clubs, rather than to a variety of sites, this is why. We don’t volunteer just because it’s fun — although it is. We volunteer because there is real need. By volunteering this MLK Day, you will be fighting to provide kids with a kind of education they’re not often getting in school: an education that will help prepare and motivate them to help the world.