I am heartbroken and concerned.
I am heartbroken because last saturday, as members of the Tree of Life congregation in Pittsburgh celebrated the Sabbath, an armed man entered the Temple and shot on those there as he made anti-semitic statements, murdering eleven people who had come keep the holy day, and hurting four policemen who came to assist them and two additional members of the congregation. I am heartbroken for those who were shot, and for their families, for their pain is our pain in a country which was founded on the promise that we would give ‘to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance’, in the words of George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790. The hate crime this morning demonstrates that we have not been able to keep Washington’s promise that “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid”.
But I am also concerned because this hate crime is not an isolated incident. Just last week, another man murdered two African American men at a Kroger grocery store in Kentucky after he had tried to enter a predominantly black church nearby minutes before the shooting. Earlier in the week, another man sent pipe bombs to prominent Democratic figures and to the CNN newsroom. These events add to the well-documented pattern of rising hatred and hate-crimes in America over the last two years as documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Anti Defamation League in several recent reports. The Anti-Defamation’s yearly publication, for example, in its annual Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents, “found that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. rose 57 percent in 2017 – the largest single-year increase on record and the second highest number reported since ADL started tracking such data in 1979. The sharp rise was in part due to a significant increase in incidents in schools and on college campuses, which nearly doubled for the second year in a row.” (ADL 2018).
Of concern also is the number of open forms of anti-semitic expressions, whether they are the proposed US Department of Health and Human Services ruling to fund a foster agency in South Carolina that denies Jewish foster parents the right to adopt children, or whether they are the increased activity, often violent, of white supremacist groups in rallies in college campuses, such as in the University of Virginia a year ago, and cities, such as in Washington, DC.
The rise of anti-semitism and bigotry is not unique to the United States. Similar hate has been growing in Europe, particularly in France and Germany. This growth in anti-semitism, racism and bigotry is happening at the same time as national-populist movements are rising, challenging respect for human rights and democratic institutions.
Democracy at Risk
A recent study of the breakdown of democratic regimes, and an analysis of the risks of a breakdown of American democracy, argues that contemporary democracies break down constitutionally, not as a result of military coups as some did in the past, but as elected leaders use the instruments of the democratic process to progressively curtail freedoms and democratic checks and balances (Levitsky and Ziblatt, 2018). In their analysis of how democracies die, Levitsky and Ziblatt argue that two specific norms are central to sustaining democratic rule: mutual toleration (the acceptance of those with different views) and self-restraint on the part of those who have political power in any of the branches of government. These norms are, I argue, squarely the product of what educational institutions do, or fail to do.
It is no accident, for example, that one of Hitler’s first targets to begin the process of ‘othering’ as he rose to power were schools and universities. Hitler saw academics and teachers as an enemy who would resist his attempts to impose an ideology of racial supremacy. Once appointed Chancellor, he achieved control of the university curriculum to eliminate education in the humanities and to control appointments of university faculty and leaders, firing faculty who were Jewish, social democrats or liberals. Academics who spoke against the regime were brought to concentration camps. Many professors and administrators became collaborators of the Nazi regime, aligning teaching and research with the efforts to create a society based in white supremacy. Many German academics went into exile.
A recent issue of the journal Foreign Affairs reflects in the title of a special dossier “Is Democracy Dying?” a question and concern increasingly asked in academic and political circles in response to the recent wave of elections around the world in which populist leaders who have advocated clear antidemocratic views, have been elected.
The most recent Freedom House survey on the state of democracy around the world concludes that democracy faces its most serious crisis in decades as its core tenets –free and fair elections, rights of minorities, freedom of the press and the rule of law– are under attack around the world. In the past year, seventy-one countries suffered declines in political rights and civil liberties, while only 35 experienced gains. This makes 2017 the 12th consecutive year in decline in global freedom. The report indicates that the United States retreated from its traditional role as a champion and exemplar of democracy as political rights and civil liberties decline in the United States (Freedom House, 2018.)
This global democratic setback is the most severe since the rise of fascism in the 1930s (Inglehart, 2018). It includes the rise of populism, authoritarian and xenophobic movements in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom (Ibid). Inglehart’s analysis of the global democratic decline attributes it to a reaction against immigration and increasing racial equality, and declining job security. “If the developed world continues on its current course, democracy could wither away. If there is nothing inevitable about democratic decline, there is also nothing inevitable about democratic resurgence” (Inglehart, 2018, 20).
Along with decline in support for democratic institutions and increase in ‘othering’ and attacks on the rights of some groups, rising populist movements are undermining the value of reason and of the institutions that enhance it, such as science and education. Political debates now include references to ‘alternative facts’, and some politicians question the value of education. In the last Presidential campaign, candidate Donald Trump made virtue out of the lack of education of some of his supporters: “I love the uneducated,” he said in several campaign rallies.
Michael Hayden, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, has warned of the dangers that this assault on facts and intelligence poses to US national security (2018):
“It was no accident that the Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year in 2016 was ‘post-truth’ a condition where facts are less influential in shaping opinion than emotion and personal beliefs. To adopt post-truth thinking is to depart from Enlightenment ideas, dominant in the West since the 17th century, that value experience and expertise, the centrality of fact, humility in the face of complexity, the need for study and a respect for ideas. President Trump both reflects and exploits this kind of thinking” (Hayden 2018).
Why teachers must lead in confronting anti-semitism and racism
Addressing the most visible attacks on human rights resulting from anti-semitism, racism and other forms of hatred, once they happen, requires the specialized knowledge and organization of law enforcement. Preventing such hatred at the roots, however, requires deeper and earlier action in communities and schools. While it may be tempting to attribute the current spike in anti-semitism to immediate political conditions, such as the highly polarized nature of our politics or the deficient leadership of President Trump as he has capitalized on and exacerbated divisions and intolerance, the roots of our current predicaments run deeper. Similarly, the severity of this challenge cannot be dismissed attributing it to a few deranged individuals, in a country where they have ready access to weapons.
While these factors likely play a role, they are not the roots of anti-semitism in America or in Europe. Those roots run deeper and include communities where segregation limits the opportunities for children from different religious faiths to come together, and to learn about their common humanity, appreciating their religious differences. In addition to geographic segregation and isolation, the roots of anti-semitism include religious, civic and political leaders who propagate anti-semitic views, and the hate communities which carefully recruit and indoctrinate people, moving them along the pyramid of hate towards more open and violent expressions of hate. And these roots include, especially, schools and universities which have abrogated their responsibility to help students learn to live in a religiously diverse society, to appreciate such diversity, to recognize anti-semitism and other forms of bigotry, and to stand up to it and stop it when they encounter it.
In the United Sates, even though we have curriculum that can effectively provide all of our students the opportunity to be well educated in recognizing and stopping anti-semitism and other forms of bigotry, such as the programs offered by the organization Facing History and Ourselves or the Tolerance Curriculum of the Southern Poverty Law Center, there are vasts regions of America, entire school districts, where such opportunities to learn to live up to the promise of religious freedom George Washington made in Newport in 1790 are systematically denied all students. This is a problem we can solve in short order. We must form an advocacy coalition to ensure every student in America the opportunity to learn to accept, respect and love those of other religious faiths, and not to hate them, that includes our two main teacher unions, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Departments of Education and the police agencies which investigate hate groups, Congress, and communication groups and other industries.
We need not wait for someone else to do this work for us. Democracy is, after all, not as spectators sport. Each of us working in education can begin where we are, within our respective spheres of influence, making the case for a curriculum that explicitly prevents anti-semitism and other forms of bigotry, identifying the shortcomings of the educational institutions under our watch, and reaching out to others so that, together, we do what is immediately within our reach to close those gaps so consequential to our democracy. We should in short order develop and make public maps of every school district in the country identifying the opportunities available to students and to teachers to access such resources, and integrate relevant information indicative of hate and bigotry, so we can clearly identify the regions of the country were civic education is most needed.
Taking action to doing this work, not tomorrow, but starting today, is an essential step in beginning to stop hate in America and in Europe and teachers should lead this process for education was created first and foremost to teach people to value difference and to learn to work together across lines of difference, as outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (article 26).
Over the last year, I have been working with networks of teacher leaders around the world developing curriculum aligned with the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and with the UN Sustainable Development Goals . In this work with teachers, I often hear three reactions from those who participate:
- Developing this curriculum, and discussing with colleagues how to teach human rights, is extremely motivating. It aligns with the purposes I chose to be a teacher, which were to help my students build a better world.
- Doing this work, as part of a structure and well supported network, is feasible and within reach, easier than I would have imagined.
- For the most part, this form of teacher collaboration, to produce high quality, rigorous curriculum, aligned with a hopeful vision for our students, societies and for the world, is not common in schools.
As we see anti-semitism, racism and other forms of hate rise, the words of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel have great relevance for all, but especially for teachers:
“I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must always take sides.”
Note from the author: This essay is a collation of a previously published essay I wrote ‘It is time to Stop Hate in America’, and of sections from my introduction to the book ‘Learning to Collaborate for the Global Common Good’.
Anti Defamation League, Audit of Anti-Semitic Incidents. https://www.adl.org/resources/reports/2017-audit-of-anti-semitic-incidents
Freedom House. Freedom in the World 2018. Democracy in Crisis. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2018
Michael Hayden, “The End of Intelligence,” The New York Times April 29, 2018.
Ronald Inglehart, “The Age of Insecurity. Can democracy save itself?” Foreign Affairs. May/June 2018. Pages 20-28.
Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die. (New York: Crown Publishing, 2018).
Fernando Reimers et al., Empowering Global Citizens. (Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2016).
Fernando Reimers et al., Empowering Students to Improve the World in Sixty Lessons. (Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2017).
Timothy Sneider, On Tyranny (New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2017).
George Washington, Letter to Moses Sexas August 17, 1790. http://www.mountvernon.org/digital-encyclopedia/article/moses-seixas/
 Two recent publications present this work. The first, a publication of the National Education Association Foundation, titled ‘ Twelve Lessons to Open Minds to the World’, was developed by a group of 50 outstanding teachers, the second, ‘Cittadinanza globale e sviluppo sostenibile’ was developed with a group of teachers part of Rete Dialogue, a teacher network in Italy focused on teaching human rights and the promotion of tolerance. In collaboration with my graduate students, we offer additional curricular approaches aligned with Human Rights and with the UN Sustainable Development Goals: Empowering Global Citizens, Empowering Students to Improve the World in Sixty Lessons, and Learning to Collaborate for the Global Common Good. I have made these resources freely available online, and the ministries of education of Argentina and Mexico, have included them in portals for teachers, to support learning communities to develop the capacities of teachers to make education more relevant to the needs of our times.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.