Can Schools Teach Not to Hate? – An Interview with Alan Singer from Hofstra University

Jan 17, 2020 by

By Michael F. Shaughnessy

1) Professor Singer, you recently posted about plans to have schools teach students not to hate. I am pretty sure I know what events that recently transpired precipitated this discussion, but please give us your interpretation of the event or events.

There have been a series of anti-Semitic incidents in the New York metropolitan area. The most serious were attacks that occurred in Jersey City, New Jersey and Monsey, New York in December. In Jersey City, four people were killed, including a police officer, two Orthodox Jews at a local grocery store, and a store employee who was not a Jew. The two assailants responsible for the attack were killed by police responding to the incident. It was later learned that the assailants, both African American, were part of a religious sect known as the Black Hebrew Israelites who believe American Jews are imposters. In Monsey, five Orthodox Jews were stabbed during a Hanukah celebration by an attacker who is now believed to be mentally ill and is also African American. During the past six months there has also been a significant increase in minor incidents that usually involve ethnic slurs, graffiti, or harassment. A big part of people’s concern is that these incidents followed attacks on Jewish houses of worship in other parts of the country. In October 2018 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania eleven Jews were murdered by a self-proclaimed white nationalist. In April 2019, at a synagogue in Poway, California, one person died and three others were injured in an attack by an assailant who posted anti-Semitic and racist diatribes on the Internet.

In my post on Daily Kos I expressed concern that for political reasons politicians were painting everything with the same brush. Organized rightwing ethno-nationalist assaults on Jews are very different from explosive behavior by people who are mentally ill or inappropriate, even criminal, teenage behavior. Almost two-thirds of the anti-Semitic incidents in New York City are by teenagers in communities where expanding ultra-Orthodox Jewish congregations bring them into conflict with largely black, poorer, neighbors who feel themselves being displaced. These incidents are definitely not the same as what happened in Poway, Pittsburgh, Jersey City, and Monsey.

I am a secular Jew and I live in a Brooklyn neighborhood not far from where some of these incidents took place. The Brooklyn incidents have targeted an ultra-Orthodox community known as the Hasidim who are distinguishable because of their traditional clothing. While attacks on the Hasidim are not acceptable, all Jews have not been threatened

2) Now, speaking objectively – is it the school’s job to teach tolerance, to fight against bigotry, and especially anti-Semitism, or should that come from parents?

It is the school’s job, it is society’s job, and it is a parent’s job to combat racism, anti-Semitism, and bigotry of all sorts. But we know from past U.S. history that parents sometimes either do a very poor job of this or even encourage the bigotry. We have photograph of children being brought to the lynching of African Americans by their parents during the first decades of the 20th century. A big problem today is that the United States has a President, Donald Trump, who continually makes insulting remarks about African Americans, Latinos, immigrants, and Muslims, feeding into racial bigotry and making the job of schools much more difficult.

All this being said, there are limits to what school’s can do. I am a teacher and I believe in the power of education, but I also understand its limitations. In 1996, the New York State Assembly and Senate passed legislature, signed into law by Governor Pataki, mandating a human rights curriculum where students learned about the Great Irish Famine and the right of people to food, the European Holocaust and the right of people to life, and slavery and the Underground Railroad and the right of people to freedom. But despite the new human rights curriculum, there is still hunger in the world, there have been additional genocides, and racism and human bondage continue.

I anticipate an anti-hate curriculum, scheduled to be introduced in New York City during the 2020-2021 school year, will be just as ineffective as similar curriculum initiatives were in the past because it will fail to address the actual experience of students who continue to live in racially, ethnically, and economically segregated communities and, in many cases, are subject to debilitating poverty, gang violence, homelessness, and discrimination that have nothing to do with anti-Semitism.

The city’s Department of Education is rushing to launch hate crime awareness programs in February for public middle and high school students in areas of Brooklyn. But the ultra-Orthodox Jewish students attend private religious schools, so there will be no interaction across differences.

3) We as teacher can teach acceptance of all races, creeds, religions, racial and ethnic groups and advocate for tolerance. But where is it in the curriculum?

In the United States there is no national curriculum. Each state set’s its own standards and they vary widely. The National Council for the Social Studies defines tolerance as a major civic virtue and advocates for curriculum that “helps students to see the world through others’ eyes, to increase their understanding of group dynamics, and to develop tolerance of differences” (73). The national organization Teaching Tolerance is a major proponent of preparing students to respect others and live in a diverse world. In states and localities, children are exposed to the importance of respect and tolerance but it is rarely expressed in a systematic way. I argue that this is partly because of the excessive focus on skills acquisition because of Common Core and Common Core aligned standardized assessments. I also think schools and districts might shy away from addressing bigotry because they do not want to get embroiled in controversy with parents or religious groups. There is a long history of Christian anti-Semitism and the contemporary anti-Semitic White Power movement that we saw parading in Charlottesville, Virginia strongly equates anti-Semitism with its Christian beliefs.

4) Do we need a longer school day or year to cover the curriculum as well as discuss subjects that are current and appropriate such as church shootings and the invasion of a rabbi’s home?

I think nothing will turn students off like a longer school day or year. I would hate to see Jews or another minority group get blamed. That is a recipe for increased anti-Semitism.

5) Children grow up in an environment and learn values from their parents. If they express what they learn at home, should they be referred for counseling or evaluation?

This is a difficult question that also arises when we teach about religious freedom. We want to respect the rights of parents, but on balance I think we have an obligation to the school community, and to these kids, to intervene. We already mandate things like school attendance and vaccination because otherwise parents might not make the best choices for their children. Bullying and hostile acts towards others in school are prevented. A more forceful action in response to expressed bigotry and hostility might have prevented some of the school shootings that plague the country. Bottom line is that parenthood does not establish an absolute right to dictate the lives of your children.

6) How should schools respond to a high school student who expresses an interest in the ideas of Adolf Hitler or the KKK?

Multiple step procedures need to be in place. The first question is whether it was just an idle comment in class. In class, a teacher should express their opposition to Klan and Nazi ideology and how they contradict American laws and values. Teachers also need to be prepared to meet with a student privately to further explain the consequence of Klan and Nazi actions. Given recent history, a teacher should notify school administrators. If the statements and behavior are more extreme there needs to be intervention by school counselors and meetings with parents. If statements and behavior are threatening to others, it becomes a disciplinary matter.

7) Professor Singer, it is the year 2020, I remember the 1960s quite well and I thought that we had accomplished a lot. How much do we still need to do and work on?

There is an old Civil Rights song that says, “Freedom is a constant struggle.” It is just as true now as it was in the 1960s. Monday, January 20, 2020 is the national holiday celebrating the accomplishments of Martin Luther King, Jr. so I think it is fitting to paraphrase him here. In Memphis, just before his assassination in 1968, Dr. King proclaimed that he had been to the mountaintop and seen the other side, but would not be able to accompany people into that future. In the speech Dr. King was making a biblical reference to the story of Moses and the Israelites. Much has been accomplished in the struggle for civil rights, but I think Dr. King, if he were alive today, would agree that much more needs to be accomplished as well. He would also be disturbed by the election and Presidency of Donald Trump and positions taken by some of his extreme supporters. In another speech Dr. King asked the SCLC leadership “Where do we go from here?” We still ask that question as we struggle for a more just and equal America.

8) In one Star Trek episode Captain Kirk says “Leave any bigotry in your quarters; there’s no room for it on the bridge. Do I make myself clear?” How do we communicate to students to leave their bigotry at home – because it has no place in our schools?

The Star Trek quote is probably from Season 1, Episode 14, “Balance of Terror,” when the USS Enterprise encounters a Romulan battleship on the border of the Neutral Zone. Captain Kirk was responding to a ship’s navigator who made a disparaging remark about Mr. Spock’s Vulcan origin. The interchange between Kirk and the crewmember is posted on Youtube. In this case, I disagree with Captain Kirk. It is not enough to tell students to leave their bigotry in their quarters or at home, because it will always seep out. That does them and society a big disservice. Bigotry has no place in our world, not just in school.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

Putting an end to anti-Semitism, to racism, to anti-immigrant nativism, to gay-bashing, and to gender bias in the United States requires much more social and cultural change and government action than a just a new anti-Semitism or Holocaust curriculum. I am concerned that a curriculum initiative provides an excuse not to address broader, underlying, social tensions in our society. Schools have a role in challenging bias, but schools and teachers cannot do it on their own. People who are interested in my views can follow me on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ReecesPieces8.

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