James Baldwin’s Lesson for Teachers in a Time of Turmoil

The New Yorker

Baldwin insisted that a more honest reckoning with history was necessary.

Photograph by Ted Streshinsky / Corbis via Getty

“Let’s begin by saying that we are living through a very dangerous time.” So opens “A Talk to Teachers,” which James Baldwin delivered to a group of educators in October, 1963. (He published it in the Saturday Review the following December.) That year, Medgar Evers, a leading civil-rights figure and N.A.A.C.P. state field director, was murdered in his driveway by a white supremacist in Jackson, Mississippi. That year, four young girls—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—were killed when Klansmen bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, in Birmingham, Alabama. That year, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated as he rode in his motorcade through downtown Dallas.

I make a point of revisiting this essay at the beginning of each school year, and while Baldwin’s words have always felt relevant, this year they feel particularly so. Students have returned to school after a summer of political and social tumult. In August, white supremacists and neo-Nazis brazenly marched across the campus of the University of Virginia; one shot at a counter-protester, and another mowed down a crowd with a car, killing a woman who had showed up to oppose their hate. A few weeks later, the White House announced that it would be rescinding the protections set in place by President Barack Obama’s daca program—a move that left eight hundred thousand undocumented immigrants uncertain about their futures. Many teachers are wondering how to address these events in their classrooms. Should they incorporate potentially contentious issues into their lessons? Should lessons be pushed aside to tackle the urgent matters of the day?

Recently, I was chatting with a friend who teaches at an elementary school in Washington, D.C., where I live, and he shared with me how confused and disillusioned his students were by what they had seen on television. He sat them in a circle and gave them space to ask questions. “Why was somebody so angry that they wanted to drive a car through people who were asking for their rights?” one student wondered. My friend shared with me another story from a community meeting that he had just attended. A mother stood up and said, “I’m tired of having to teach my two-year-old how to duck; I’m tired of having to teach my two-year-old that certain nights when we get home from school we have to sit on the floor.”

“Yet we send them to school and we’re not allowing them to be a part of an opportunity to address that,” my friend said, hurt and perplexed. The next evening, he brought his students to a local candlelight vigil, where hundreds of people showed up to honor Heather Heyer—the demonstrator who had been killed in Charlottesville—and to protest the hateful actions that led to her death. Throughout the evening, people talked about what had transpired. Some of the students chimed in, too. Later, my friend recalled, the kids told him that doing so made them feel important. “People wanted to listen to me,” one student said.

Baldwin’s talk offers a way to think about this. I first read it when I was a high-school English teacher, in the winter of 2012. I was sitting at my desk one day, after the bell had rung, staring at a clouded chalkboard, leaning back in my chair, its beige foam crawling out from beneath red cloth. I had just struggled through a lesson on the different types of sentence structure—not the most riveting topic for most fifteen-year-olds, I realize—and I had seen my students stare blankly past me, disengaged. I wondered how preoccupied they might be by what was happening outside school walls. A string of senseless murders had taken the lives of some of their friends. In Florida, a boy named Trayvon Martin had just been killed, too, and his killer had yet to face charges. But that day, like most days, I stuck to the book, keeping politics on the periphery.

My decision was based, in part, on Maryland’s educational standards. The state had recently adopted Common Core and parcc (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) assessments; there was little incentive to teach beyond the bounds of the new curriculum. This wasn’t why I had signed up to be a teacher, but job security and paychecks were directly linked to student test scores. I found myself becoming a part of a system of incentive-based learning that I opposed. That day, a friend, who had been a teacher for many years, gave me a copy of “A Talk to Teachers.” The essay might quell some of my frustration, she said.

Baldwin delivered the talk on the heels of the March on Washington, where he was famously pulled from the list of speakers because organizers—who knew the writer’s habit for speaking extemporaneously—were unsure if he would stay on message. “A Talk to Teachers” is emblematic of Baldwin’s proclivity for candor over political appeasement, and, like much of his work, focusses on history and the American consciousness. “It is almost impossible for any Negro child to discover anything about his actual history,” he writes. Young people are constantly absorbing—through media, textbooks, and policy—the myths of American exceptionalism; for black children, this means that what they are taught in class does not match the world that they navigate daily. “On the one hand he is born in the shadow of the Stars and Stripes and he is assured it represents a nation which has never lost a war,” Baldwin continues. “But on the other hand he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization—that his past is nothing more than a record of humiliations gladly endured.”

A more honest reckoning with history is necessary, Baldwin insists. Of slavery, he says, “it was not an accident, it was not an act of God, it was not done by well-meaning people muddling into something which they didn’t understand. It was a deliberate policy hammered into place in order to make money from black flesh. And now, in 1963, because we have never faced this fact, we are in intolerable trouble.”

It’s this focus on history that rearranged my thinking. In Baldwin’s view, it is the only thing that can help disabuse black children of the stereotypes that have been projected onto their community—and it is necessary for white children, too, who oftentimes serve as the purveyors of these myths, and who do not know the truth about their history, either.

Baldwin understands that learning this history can leave students in a state of cognitive dissonance and frustration. Imagining his own hypothetical students, he writes, “I would try to teach them—I would try to make them know, that those streets, those houses, those dangers, those agonies by which they are surrounded, are criminal.” Here, Baldwin, with literary sleight of hand, adopts the terminology used to pathologize black people and applies it to the system in which they operate. What follows is a medley of lessons that is disquieting in its contemporary applicability. “I would try to make him know that just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful and more terrible, but principally larger—and that it belongs to him,” he writes, adding, “I would teach him that he doesn’t have to be bound by the expediencies of any given administration, any given policy, any given morality, that he has the right and the necessity to examine everything.”

After reading “A Talk to Teachers,” I altered my approach, placing less emphasis on the standardized tests and using literature to help my students examine their world. I realized that rigorous lessons were not mutually exclusive from culturally and politically relevant ones. Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” did not have to be sacrificed in order to make room for a discussion on community violence. Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man” did not have to be abandoned in order to tackle immigration. “A Talk to Teachers” showed me that a teacher’s work should reject the false pretense of being apolitical, and, instead, confront the problems that shape our students’ lives.

The most quoted line from “A Talk to Teachers” may be this one: “The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” A teacher, Baldwin believed, should push students to understand that the world was molded by people who came before, and that it can be remolded into something new.

  • Clint Smith is a writer, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University, and the author of “Counting Descent.”

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Preparing Young Americans for a Complex World

Last year, the Council on Foreign Relations and National Geographic commissioned a survey to assess the global literacy of American college students. Over 1,200 people participated; less than 30 percent earned a passing grade. Below are six questions they included, each of which a majority of respondents answered incorrectly. See how you, or your students or children, do. (Answers below.)

1. In which of these countries is a majority of the population Muslim?

a) South Africa

b) Armenia

c) India

d) Indonesia

2. Which language is spoken by the most people in the world as their primary language?

a) Russian

b) Mandarin Chinese

c) English

d) Arabic

3. Which country is the largest trading partner of the United States, based on the total dollar value of goods and services?

a) Canada

b) China

c) Mexico

d) Saudi Arabia

4. Approximately what percentage of the United Statesfederal budget is spent on foreign aid?

a) 1 percent

b) 5 percent

c) 12 percent

d) 30 percent

e) 40 percent

5. Which countries is the United States bound by treaty to protect if they are attacked? (select all that apply)

a) Canada

b) China

c) Japan

d) Mexico

e) North Korea

f) Russia

g) South Korea

h) Turkey

6. True or False: Over the past five years, the number of Mexicans leaving the United States and returning to Mexico has been greater than the number of Mexicans entering the United States.

Why is it so important to understand the world and the United States’ role in it today?

To begin with, the American economy is inextricably linked to the global economy. It’s estimated that one-fifth of jobs here are now tied to international trade. Moreover, many of the world’s major challenges — climate change, instability in financial markets, food and water insecurity, infectious diseases, migration, war and terrorism — are complex, interdependent and borderless. And with 40 million foreign-born residents, the United States is itself a global society with deep emotional ties to many nations and cultures. To survive and thrive, Americans have to learn how to manage greater complexity and collaborate across lines of difference.

During the Obama administration, the federal Department of Education recognized this imperative. Since 2012, its strategy has emphasized “global and cultural competency” as a core educational priority. In 2018, the Program for International Student Assessment, an international testing system that sets benchmarks for student performance in which the Department of Education participates, will add global competence as a new domain.

Nevertheless, many American schools have remained poorly prepared to deliver education in “global competence” (defined by American education leaders as “the capacity and disposition to understand and act on issues of global significance.”) The focus on traditional achievement and test scores has narrowed the delivery of instruction at a time when students need to learn to think more broadly. In the wake of “Brexit” and the election of Donald Trump (both far more popular among older voters than among the young) — and amid the global rise of nationalist movements — schools need to help students navigate the forces shaping the world they will inherit.

“What are the values, attitudes, skills and behaviors that must be cultivated if we’re going to live in a peaceful world?” asked Dana Mortenson, one of the -founders of World Savvy, an organization that has worked with thousands of teachers to integrate global competence into their lessons.

What’s needed is not just scoring well on standardized tests. “It’s an openness to new opportunities and ideas,” she added. “It’s a desire to engage. It’s self-awareness about culture and respect for different perspectives. It’s comfort with ambiguity. It’s the skill to investigate the world through questions. Empathy and humility are big pieces of all of it.”

Teaching these higher-level skills and attitudes might seem a tall order for schools that struggle with the basics. But World Savvy has seen impressive results among its partner schools, a majority of them in high-poverty areas. By raising the bar, teachers say, it becomes easier to engage students.

That’s been the experience of Carla Kelly, a special-education teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx who completed a Global Competence Certificate, a 15-month graduate-level program developed by World Savvy, the Asia Society and Teachers College at Columbia University.

“I saw that I needed to teach so that my students could contribute anywhere in the world,” Kelly said.

Kelly teaches a variety of subjects — including science, health, Spanish and life skills — in a school that has students and faculty members from 46 countries. She tries to integrate global competence concepts throughout her teaching.

In a unit on nutrition, for instance, students explore foods from around the world, graphing diets against life spans. “We compared diets high in starchy vegetables with places where they eat dark green or sea vegetables,” she said. The connections the students drew were powerful: They learned that people in China live longer than black people in America. They discovered that wherever the American diet was introduced, life spans declined.

In a unit on death, Kelly added an exploration of 11 funeral rites. Students learned that in Ghana, caskets are woven in the shape of objects beloved by the deceased; in South Korea, a person’s remains may be pressed into jewelry; and in Tibet, the mountaintop “sky burial” in the open allows a dead person’s soul to exit the body and be reincarnated. “I asked them to choose five rituals that would be a good fit with their values and cultures,” Kelly said. “I wanted them to make connections, to see how other cultures see life and death.”

“Every class that I’ve revised to include international representation,” she added. “I found that the students made more connections because they had a cultural anchor. And when I assessed what they retained I got content-specific vocabulary because it stuck, especially where they could see aspects of themselves and of people they knew. And the questions I got were better. I stopped getting ‘what’ questions and started getting ‘why’ questions, and ‘what if’ questions.”

At Mill Valley Middle School in California, two teachers, Rod Septka and Maggie Front, working with more affluent students, have seen this approach evoke a similar response. When the recent drought in California was daily news, they looked at how people in the state were conserving water. Then they examined how people cope with water-related problems in Bangladesh, Israel, Sudan, Bolivia, China, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Peru and Syria. The students did extensive research and data gathering. One student was astonished that so many people around the world couldn’t just go into their kitchen and get water from a tap. Then the water crisis in Flint, Mich., became news, and they looked at water access in terms of wealth and race. That led a student who had been previously disengaged in school to discover her activist voice, said Front. And studying water rights brought her to a related concern: women’s rights.

“A lot of this helps the kids to understand what actions they can take toward solving world issues,” said Front. “It’s not the mission to create activism, but that tends to come out of it.”

In a culminating experience, the students, working in twos, carried five-gallon buckets of water for half a mile. They experimented with ways to do it efficiently, while minimizing spillage, and collected data about time, distance and volume to calculate how long it would take them to provide water for their family. “It was a lot harder than they thought,” said Septka. “It gave them a newfound appreciation for people who have to do things differently than we do.”

Each of these teachers described learning alongside the students, making mistakes, and improving their own global competence in the process.

For now, teacher education that is focused on this area remains at a nascent stage, says William Gaudelli, an associate professor at Teachers College at Columbia University who is a founder of the college’s Global Competence Certificate program and the author of a book titled “Global Citizenship Education: Everyday Transcendence.”

“By and large, our curriculum in the United States is a European great civilization approach — Plato to NATO — with some add-ons for cultural diversity,” he said. “But the condition we live in is fundamentally global. There’s literally nothing that’s not connected far beyond our borders. When people 100 years look back on our generation, they’re going to wonder: How did they know so much about what was going on and do so little to educate about it?”

For Mortenson, a core hurdle is moving beyond the “aversion to complexity in our education system.”

“The system was set up that way because the idea was to standardize knowledge,” she said. “That was appropriate when someone was being trained for a job they might hold for 40 or 50 years. But the world has changed in such profound ways that developing an understanding of complexity is paramount. Whatever the policy, the idea that things are simple, or black and white, and we can put a blanket on them and feel that it’s going to have the desired impact — that idea can become very dangerous.”

*Answers, with percentage of respondents who gave the correct answer.

1. d (29 percent)

2. b (49 percent)

3. a (10 percent)

4. a (12 percent)

5. a (47 percent), c (28 percent), g (34 percent), h (14 percent)

6. True (34 percent)