Years ago a student asked me if I watched Grey’s Anatomy. I replied no, adding that I tried not to watch shows that constantly featured people committing adultery. The student, in his late teens, was taken aback, but after a moment admitted I was on to something.
I didn’t say that to criticize his viewing habits, or even to lift up my own, but to demonstrate that we need to compare the world around us to what we say our values are.
As a religious educator, I see part of my job as making a case for a Christian ethic, rooted in the Gospels and manifesting in love of God and neighbor. There have always been obstacles.
We promote simplicity and generosity in a materialistic world. We promote sexual restraint in a world where sex sells. We promote mercy and compassion in a world that glorifies vengeance and disdain. We promote community in a world that reveres the myth of individualism.
Sometimes this means keeping standards way higher than other places: “shut up” may have entered common parlance, but it’s not welcome in my classroom. Sometimes it means guiding students back tot he Gospel with a gentle reminder that they’re free to disagree, but they need to know with what and with whom they are disagreeing.
It is challenging but good work, and for more than ten years I have returned to it with only the worry that a student will have read the DaVinci Code and want to ask me about it.
Last week, still more than three lovely weeks between us and the first day of school, I was struck with a dread I’d never felt before. It hit me how much harder this election season could make my job.
I’m not so much concerned about heated conversations. I have learned a lot from my gifted colleagues about moderating and encouraging substantive discussions, maintaining high standards without revealing personal opinions. Current events can provide a perfect opportunity to model the application of Gospel values. What makes me nervous are the things we don’t talk about – the values that become acceptable and saturate the environment unnoticed.
Name-calling has reached new highs: Trump has made it a central feature of his campaign, Elizabeth Warren shoots back ferociously, Tim Kaine mocked Trump in his nomination speech…these are the unspoken rules of the game now. How can I convince 12-year-olds that ad hominem attacks are beneath them?
Often when a student is caught doing something inappropriate like pushing or teasing, they explain it with “but he’s my friend!” as if that friendship mitigates the fact that another student is on the floor. “But I didn’t mean it” is not an excuse. Sometimes action is more important than intention. But how can this be in an era when one can tweet “j/k, sarcasm!” after insisting upon something for days?
The hardest message of Catholicism to promote is that we are all in this together (the preferential option for the poor being a close, related second). To insist upon this tenet is not to deny the reality of our dividedness, but to force us to lament it. The ease with which we can argue online, the fragmentation of news sources into factions, the need to fill the 24-hour news cycle, and our technological bombardment with images of antagonism have all driven us further into our corners. We pick our sides: one wanting to keep out the “other”, one wanting to silence the “dumb white trash”, both rooting our motivations in basest emotion and cruel imaginings.
Many create little sanctuaries in the midst of this, where prudence and charity guide conversation and behavior, where friendship flourishes and collegiality lifts everyone up. Pray for us educators that we can sanctify our classrooms this election year, when it feels harder than ever.
Image by Dsw4 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
How do you keep political nastiness out of your little sanctuaries?