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What Do Your Students Know?
November 15, 2011 - 10:59pm

I didn’t want to write about the Penn State scandal. People smarter and more insightful than I have already written about it (and continue to) and I have to admit the topic makes me physically ill. I also have never wanted to write a post lamenting all the current events my students know nothing about or even know exist; it’s not particularly constructive, and would only serve the purpose to vent. And yet today, I find myself compelled to write about both those subjects.

And, no, my students know EXACTLY what is going on at Penn State.

In my peer-driven class, one group chose to talk about Law and Government, focusing on the subject of police brutality. The two examples that the group presented to us to reflect on, debate, and then apply readings from the textbook to, was the Rodney King beating in 1991 (as one of the students put, when I was only a few months old), and, closer to home, the 2001 police shooting (and killing) of an unarmed 19-year-old African-American boy in Cincinnati. They showed news footage of the police crackdown that occurred in Cincinnati as a result of the shooting, and we watched as a middle-aged African-American woman was sprayed in the face with mace by a police officer in full riot gear (sorry, I can’t find the link).  

We talked about use and abuse of force and power. We discussed how laws are often unequally enforced, crimes unequally punished, often because of racial and class issues. Was there something inherent in wanting to become a law-enforcement officer that made you more likely to let power go to your head? Did these reports of abuse and accusations of racism actually discourage those “good” people who might otherwise want to become a police officer?

And, did they know that these issues are very relevant today given what happened (and now what is currently going on) at Occupy Oakland? Did they know that a Marine veteran who was peaceably filming the police at Occupy Oakland was shot in the head with a rubber bullet?

Most of the students hadn’t heard of Occupy Wall Street and the other protests in cities across the country and beyond. I had the same reaction when I mentioned the movements in my other class as we were talking about Wealth, Poverty, and Social Class. I was a bit dumbfounded. They hadn’t heard? Really? I have actively encouraged my students in my peer-driven classes to relate what they are reading to current events. What was more current than Occupy Wall Street? Or that the issue of police brutality, given the uneven use of force to evict peaceful protesters, is more relevant than ever?

Instead I recommended that they do some research and come back next class to continue the discussion. Then I asked, what about those officers standing next to the riot police officer who sprayed that woman in the face? What would you do? Would you help her? Report the other officer? Cover for him? Most agreed that they would keep their mouths shut, stay in their place, and protect their job. Unless they were ordered to do so, they would remain in formation. One brave student actually said they would help the woman, consequences be damned, because it was the right thing to do. For a very vocal majority of my students, however, keeping their jobs (and thus doing the right thing for their family) or following orders (doing the right thing for the organization) trumped helping the woman.

What would you do, then, if you saw one of your superiors, say, sexually assaulting a young boy in the showers? What about what is being revealed right now at Penn State, the seeming cover-up, or at least gross indifference? One student spoke up and said that when Joe Paterno first found out about the allegations, he was under no legal obligation to report what he knew directly to the law, so he followed procedure and reported it to his superiors within the university. He did, my student said, his job.

Keeping out of things in order to keep ones job. Just doing the minimum of what the job required of you. One might be tempted here to make the arguments that the economic instability and uncertainty has lead students to develop a mercenary attitude towards employment. And that they, too, willfully remain in the dark about movements like Occupy Wall Street because it in large part upsets their world-view.

Or it could just mean that my students care about sports and not so much about larger economic issues. But in my role as a teacher, it’s not just about knowing what they know and don’t know, it’s understanding why.  I’m still working on it, but I think that’s key to getting them to sit up and pay attention.

Even if it breaks every single one of my rules. 

 

 

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