Forty-five years ago yesterday, I stood before the Alabama state capital building with a diverse (a word not in our lexicon of ethnic adjectives then) crowd of people on a rainy afternoon and listened to the Reverend Martin Luther King, a very tired Martin Luther King, deliver these words: “the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice.” 25000 people cheered and then slowly made their way back to the airport to board the two-prop DC-3s that would take them back to where they had come from. Today, those planes seem ancient!
I had flown to Montgomery with an interfaith group of ministers and parishioners from Syracuse, New York where I was learning to be an urban teacher.
It had been a tumultuous week in the South and I was far enough distant in age from my parents to finally take the risk and do something big to act out my evolving social consciousness, an action I knew they would not condone. I only joined the last day of the march. But my presence was welcomed by those that had walked the 54 risky miles from Selma. My presence was not welcomed by some others of those along the way into the city who decorated the route with an occasional Confederate Flag and called us names and shouted at us to go home where we belonged. We were well protected by national guardsman on the edges of the march and seasoned parade marshalls who helped us close ranks to gain some distance from angry onlookers. I expected to hear what I heard then. I knew I was safe as long as I stayed with the crowd.
I did not expect to hear what I heard yesterday as the United States House of Representatives passed the most important piece of health care legislation since medicare was signed into law by Lyndon Johnson on July 30, 1965. Racial and homophobic slurs were thrown at John Lewis, Andre Carson, Barney Frank, James Clyburn and other Democrats who decided to walk through Tea Party protesters at the Capital building rather than enter through another entrance.
How far have we come? And how far have we to go? Why, as King said, when the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, do such actions inspire such hateful reactions? Surely the passage of this health care bill is another act of civil justice for thousands of citizens of this country. And yet we have the specter of hundreds of adults emulating the very behavior we legislate against in our schools. Bullying. Overt bullying, modeled and taught and sanctioned seemingly by one of our two political parties, with no one from the minions standing up and saying, “stop.”
This is a very scary time in the brief history of our democracy. Frogs die rather than escape when water in which they swim is slowly heated degree by degree to the boiling point. The political climate in this country is becoming more and more toxic for democracy, degree by degree, slur by slur. The legislative branch of our federal government is broken. I feel like a frog in a country where the air around me is becoming increasingly poisoned and pieces of my world are dying.
It makes me wonder how many of those Tea Party shouters, or even their elected representatives, had good teachers and successful school experiences? I wonder how many were ever with teachers who thought much about their learning? I wonder what their schools were like? I wonder where they learned that it was okay to behave like that. That it’s okay to send faxes of trees with noosed ropes hanging from their branches to the majority whip of the United States House of Representatives and other minority members of congress.
Universal Design for Learning, for all its good points, does not directly address issues of classroom climate. Much is inferred from the application of UDL principles, but UDL is contentless when it comes to relationship building as a pre-condition to learning. UDL, for all its good points, does not directly ask that faculty teach students how to recognize and deal with difference – differences in opinion, differences in gender, differences in ethnicity, differences in intellectual preparation, differences in prior knowledge. I wonder if it should? Is UDL merely a set of strategies to enhance the metabolism of learning in educational settings? Or is it also a set of strategies that embraces openly and explicitly that the teaching/learning dynamic that UDL promotes is also a moral framework that asserts that the right of every student’s learning to be respected. I would like to suggest that UDL is a moral framework that accedes to every learner the right to be recognized and heard and challenged and yes, pushed in a learning environment that nourishes and extends their humanity, never ever diminishing it before their peers or anyone else.
UDL is but one link in this particular universe, the moral universe of the classroom. A second and equally necessary link is the diversity that exists within the classroom itself, the diversity of natural human differences that invite the presence of UDL strategies. There are other links, I’m sure. But let me end here by asserting that our work is moral work and the outcome of this work is just – as in “justice” – learning. It is my hope that as a result of the work we are doing, the children of our students will never learn to bully from watching their Moms and Dads bullying people with whom they have a disagreement. It is my hope that those Moms and Dads would have learned when they were in college that they were smart enough, that their voices would be heard, and that they were important contributors to a learning community in which everyone was better off for the presence of each one. Maybe we can make Representation, Expression, and Engagement operational principles for just learning. I know it’s a stretch, but maybe???