I think most educators have a growing sense of concern that their students are turning into a generation of observers. The many watch the few. Arenas and auditoriums fill with spectators, televisions blare all day long, and YouTube fans number in the billions. My concern, mind you, is not with the passive viewers, but with the pseudo-participants—those who may equate appreciating and recalling the accomplishments of others with doing something meaningful themselves. I worry that, in our classrooms, we have become focused on celebrating the lives of others, at the expense of the act of creation.
For me, the most striking example of this gap between worthy celebration and needful action came when I was teaching at a historically black college several years ago. During Black History Month, one of the great leaders of the civil rights movement was invited to campus to speak at the college’s weekly convocation. The speaker eloquently addressed his experience with the movement, but after his address, I realized my students were disheartened.
They had enormous respect for the speaker’s work to advance the civil rights movement, but they had heard what he had to say many times before. Someone needed to speak directly to their concerns, which grew from their personal sense of commitment to their community’s ongoing struggle with issues around child care; the large number of young black men who were incarcerated; the rise of AIDS; and the job market they would soon face.
In 2013, this disconnect between observer and doer seems little changed in the classroom. A good deal of what we continue to celebrate are things over which people have no control, such as the circumstances of their birth. We celebrate gender, race, and ethnicity with Black History Month, Women’s History Month, and Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, to name but a few. We create events, celebrations, activities, and lesson plans that shift our students’ focus away from themselves. While those whom we remember may share a cultural history or racial identity with some of our students, it is the cultural association that is being honored, not their work.
We celebrate history and science, physical education, and music. There are celebrations associated with school sporting events, including homecomings, fundraisers, rallies, and, of course, the games themselves. There are victory celebrations, even celebrations around losing.
In On the Use and Abuse of History for Life, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “The fact that life does need the service of history must be as clearly grasped as that an excess of history hurts it. ... " It seems only fair to ask: Where does a reasonable sense of institutional appreciation and celebration begin, and where does it end?
Nietzsche’s point is an excellent one as we consider how to hang onto that which is vital, while making sure not to hurt our students by excesses that distort and undermine our mission to teach them. Unfortunately, the history of the teaching profession isn’t promising in that regard. We are a profession of expansion. We expand disciplines and services in terms of hours, days, and years, so it’s not surprising that we find more and more ways to celebrate and witness. A betting soul might expect a future rich with gestures and symbolism, events and pageantry, if classroom past is prologue.
We create events, celebrations, activities, and lesson plans that shift our students' focus away from themselves."
Schools need to be more than repositories of good intentions and forums for the celebration of the accomplishments of others. Attending a breakfast, listening to a motivational speaker, or marching across campus may create opportunities for reflection or draw attention to the good work of others, but these acts should not be confused with the work they honor.
In the end, the fine line between the multiple—and, at times, burdensome—celebrations, and those that sustain us, may be found within our own consciences. As we go forward, might it be worth asking if we are informing students or merely acting out of habit and expectation? Is it joy that motivates us to celebrate, or is it a sense of duty, guilt, or fear? Do we honestly believe that our actions will bring about meaningful change?
As educators, what is important is not that we have ready answers to these questions, but that we be willing to engage our students and the communities we serve in a discussion about these issues. As Socrates noted over 2,000 years ago, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Perhaps, in 2013, the unexamined event is not worth perpetuating.
A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as Celebrating Without Accomplishing