James Baldwin on Teaching

Every society tells a story about itself. As James Baldwin explained over the course of his career, America’s story is one of rugged heroism, in which a few brave souls ventured into hostile and uncivilized regions and established a republic of justice and general benevolence. This narrative, he further insisted, is not only inadequate, but a deadly falsehood. Black Americans feature in the margins of this story, mostly as docile beneficiaries of the White-led march of freedom. But as Baldwin pointed out, if the story of Black Americans is a lie, the story White Americans tell themselves must also be a lie. The truer tale of Black Americans as oppressed and brutalized for profit is also a tale of White Americans as oppressors and brutalizers. White America, he insisted, is trapped in fabricated world, a house of myths about its own history and about how the world works, in which the White American plays the role of self-actualizing hero while other peoples fill the role of stage dressing, not usually hated, but also hardly worth bothering about as human beings.

Baldwin presented these concerns in a 1963 address to teachers. He warned teachers that they live in the midst of a “revolutionary situation” in which any attempt to challenge the national story will be greeted by determined resistance. But for him, one of the places the story most desperately needs to be challenged is the classroom.

What is the intended purpose of education, he mused, but to civilize our children, to inculcate them with the values necessary for the continuation of our society? American schools hope to produce patriotic republicans, Nazi German schools patriotic national socialists, for otherwise each society is doomed. But if education has a socializing purpose and a necessary role in preserving collective ideals, it also individuates. An educated mind has the ability to turn its critical powers on the society that created it. This generates a personal identity resistant to the attempts of society to mold and dominate it. An unjust society can only perpetuate itself if it is successful in silencing such critical minds. Thus it becomes morally incumbent on those who consider themselves educated to not keep silence but fight for change.

Attempting to unmask popular lies and tell new stories comes at a price—conflict and alienation. This is a perennial problem. We none of us live for ourselves, and we need nurturing communities to live full and healthy lives. But to look at these communities critically means disillusionment and discomfort. If one becomes aware of the exploitative systems behind the bread one eats or the culture one celebrates, and one’s conscience is sensitive, one’s pleasure in either is marred. If one dares to draw attention to these things, threatening the pleasure of others, one will be greeted with suspicion and hostility, and one will find the hands of kinship withdrawn. This situation also opens dangerous avenues for one’s own soul: arrogance, envy, spite, and of course despair. If any of these vices gain too much power over the soul, they can become yet further evidence for the complacent multitude that the path of critical reflection is one not worth taking, as it produces bitter men and women.

I think this issue is of particular urgency for educators. Those of us who have sat under resentful teachers, at odds with their own lives, know how it distorts their ability to connect with students and to appreciate life. I want to be able to discuss uncomfortable truth with my students, but I do not want to impress bright young souls with my own social malaise or confusion. As Baldwin himself put it, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” I want to offer them in myself something not merely privative, but positive and worth embracing. That requires being, which is harder than doing.

The goal of teaching this kind of critical reflection is health, for repentance is as necessary for communities at peace with themselves as common feeling. We cannot be whole as individuals without continual recognition of and penitence for our sins; we cannot be whole as a nation without taking seriously the grave sins that poison the well of our heritage. Wendell Berry, one of our greatest living visionaries of restoration, has argued, most notably in The Hidden Wound, that the sins of racism have fractured not only relations between White and Black, but between people within these groups and between humans and the land that feeds them. Indeed, recent years have made clear that we are unable as a society to come to terms with the extent to which our prosperity has been purchased by the devastation of the earth, and so cannot digest the urgency with which deep change is needed.

Each student, Baldwin declares, must be taught that he or she “has the right and necessity to examine everything.” But Baldwin also set his sights beyond the temptations of cynicism or despondency. “I can’t be a pessimist because I’m alive,” he ruefully remarked elsewhere, speaking of the need to say “yes” to life even at its most terrible. If we must hold loosely self-inflating activist fantasies of ultimate triumph or vindication and detach from the notion that we can force others to change, we can also abandon fruitless self-pity. We can still embrace imperfect, self-abnegating action, the kind of karma yoga that may, God willing, actually ripple the space between hearts. Teachers who can learn to model this posture with grace may be in the best possible position to help students see through their own defenses and claim the freedom to speak and act in truth.

At least, that is my hope.

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