The Danger of Discouragement
Advocates for the progressive cause in the United States are currently facing one of our most difficult tests. In addition to constantly wondering what could have caused such a disastrous election as the one we just witnessed, we are forced to bitterly fight for mere survival under such a hostile administration. Many may feel inclined to give up, or simply wait until a time when activism is easier. I have personally had experience with this feeling before; facing powerful and entrenched opposition is frustrating and disheartening. However, one of the greatest regrets of my life came from when I succumbed to this pressure when I should have continued to advocate for what I believed in.
In my junior year of high school, I went before my local board of education to speak about an issue that I cared about. Our bi-weekly board meetings always had a 30-minute allotment for public comment, and I, a shy teenager, decided that I had an issue worth commenting on.
The most formative teachers that I ever had were history teachers. My 7th and 8th-grade history teacher taught me the foundational principles of the subject as well as an incalculable amount of life lessons, an especially important task in those turbulent years of junior high. My 10th grade AP United States History teacher taught me to look at history from a variety of perspectives - even if it was difficult to do so (she once spent an entire class period teaching the Cold War from the Soviet point of view). My 11th grade AP European History Teacher taught me the foundations of Western thought, in addition to dispensing valuable insights about how to have a good and satisfying life.
The aforementioned issue first came to my attention in January of 2015 while I was talking to my brother, who was in 8th grade at the time and was learning history under the same teacher that I had. I was quite taken aback when he told me that he didn’t have the same experience that I did. He dealt with a new compressed schedule that made it virtually impossible for my teacher to provide to his new students the same experience that he had provided to his old ones, forcing him to replace the innovative symposia and independent study he had championed with lectures and note-taking in preparation for tests.
This prompted me to contact that teacher and ask him about his thoughts regarding the new curriculum. He, unsurprisingly, was not thrilled about it. He described the difficulty that he experienced under the heightened pressure to teach the material twice as quickly, as well as the painful feeling of not being able to teach his students the way he felt, and they felt, was most effective after decades of experience. I then spoke about how this issue manifested itself in the high school with my AP European History teacher, who told me that it was not a new problem. The wound in the history and social studies curriculum had been festering for years, with a variety of courses, including Current Issues, Legal Studies, Military History, and AP World History all being cut.
Believing this to simply be another consequence of the failed school levies of the last decade that the school district had endured, I decided that there was very little that I could do and ended my investigation.
That changed, however, when I heard a comment by one of the members of the school board at a meeting I later attended in February.
At the beginning of every school board meeting, there is a portion of time set aside for students in the district to be honored for their achievements in sports, academics, music, or whatever else was worthy of praise. At this meeting, the recipients of these accolades were a group of computer science students with a Tech Olympics team who had designed an app that won a local tournament. They put on a presentation for the board and the audience and then posed for a picture with the board members.
However, this was not before they were asked, by one of the board members, “Are there any classes that you would recommend that we add to our schedule?”
Naturally, I was quite taken aback by this question. From everything that I had learned, the district was in the process of cutting classes, not adding them. Why would they be asking a student, of all people, what they should be adding to the district’s curriculum?
I searched a bit deeper into the high school course availability of the last few years, and I encountered something surprising. While the options for history and social studies courses had shrunk, the options for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) courses, especially in engineering and computer science, had grown dramatically.
At this point, I finally understood the true purpose of the history department cuts. Students, if they so choose, would now have the ability to be completely finished with their history education by the time they reached the 10th grade and finished with social studies in general by the following year. This was, apparently, to make available the option for students on the honors track to almost completely fill their 11th and 12th-grade schedule with newly developed STEM courses.
With this realization, I decided that I would make my concerns about the ailing history department public by speaking to the school board. Since they had outright asked for student input on new STEM course offerings, I reasoned that they would be equally open to different student suggestions.
I spent a month preparing for my address to the school board. I carefully crafted the text of my prepared speech, sharing it with multiple teachers for input. I scoured the board’s rules and regulations regarding public comment to ensure that nothing procedural would interrupt my message. I constantly practiced delivering my speech, making sure that it fell within the confines of the 3-minute time limit without feeling rushed. I went to every board meeting that I could make it to. I built up my presence by inviting other like-minded students to attend. Once I was ready, I decided on the first meeting of April to make my comment.
Upon arriving at the meeting, to my surprise, the room was packed. Normally, there were very few people who attended these meetings. It didn’t represent a particularly large town, and they generally only dealt with the minutiae of policy and budgeting. However, on the night that I planned to make my speech, the large meeting room was filled to the point of having standing room only for audience members.
After the board honored a group of high school artists, they opened the floor to public comment. To my further surprise, two other students coincidentally spoke before me about their own concerns. Once it came time for me to speak, I fought my nerves and intimidation at the prospect of speaking before elected officials and went up to the podium to make my address. This is an excerpt from the speech:
History is one of the most valuable subjects ever taught to a student, and one of the only ones that each and every student will directly benefit from. In a democratic society of public participation, voters have to be informed about the world around them. This knowledge cannot exist without history. How can a voter understand the nuances of foreign policy without understanding the history of imperialism and the Cold War? How can a voter understand the contemporary debate over economic policy without understanding the results of Reagan’s supply-side economics or FDR’s New Deal?
This lack of a knowledge base is perpetuated by the education system which is apparent in this district. Because courses are so heavily compressed, rather than being given time to understand and analyze the ramifications and meanings of different historical events, students simply have the information piled on them in preparation for their next test. This leads to apathy toward the subject, and ultimately apathy toward world events.
According to the School Board’s public philosophy on education (section 2110 of the School Board policies), “the District will strive to…provide students the opportunity to work cooperatively with others, to understand common needs of all people, and to understand the requirements of a changing world society… [and] provide learning experiences that emphasize our nation’s heritage including the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship.” I feel that the Board should do everything it can do to reverse this downward trend in the quality of students’ education, in order not only to do what is right for the students but to live up to its own promises.
The address was met with raucous applause from the audience, which was largely made up of parents and faculty who had never met me. I returned to my seat to receive compliments from fellow audience members, which served to boost my confidence about how well the speech would be received by the board itself.
At first, I felt my confidence was well reflected in what transpired following my speech. The district’s superintendent said that she shared my concerns, and other members asked for my email and promised to get back to me within 2 weeks.
I got my first indication that this might have been disingenuous when I was stopped by my 8th grade English teacher on my way out of the meeting. After complimenting my speech and thanking me for speaking out for the interests of the neglected humanities, she warned me that I should be prepared to be ignored. She told me to be ready to bring this concern to the public and to be prepared to write letters to the editor for our local newspaper if it wasn’t properly addressed. I thanked her for her suggestion, but felt it was overly paranoid-the board had publically, on the record, promised to get back to me, hadn’t they?
The following day, I learned what the board’s actual response was to my comment.
Instead of either respectfully telling me the reasons for the cuts in the curriculum or ensuring that they would look into the problem further, they contacted my high school principal - my chief disciplinarian - and told her to deal with her insubordinate students. I was called into my principal’s office during my first class period and reprimanded for not coming to her with my concerns first, despite the issue being district-wide and outside the jurisdiction of her control. After speaking with the two other students who had spoken (one of whom was the top-ranked student in his class), I learned that this was the same dismissive and disciplinary response that they received.
Unsurprisingly, the board never contacted me personally, even though I held out hope, constantly searching my inbox and spam folders, for months. They apparently had no response to my concerns, aside from annoyance at a malcontent student.
After this, I largely grew apathetic and lost hope that I would be able to make any kind of change or even have a voice, in my school district. I made a half-baked plan to speak again that never panned out and kept putting off writing any kind of letter to the editor of our local newspaper. After having my youthful optimism crushed in such a manner, I, essentially, gave up.
In retrospect, I deeply regret this. If I had been more prepared for my concerns to be disregarded and continued speaking out at every board meeting as well as bringing the issue to the public, perhaps formulating a pattern of dismissive responses to student concerns as well as gathering statements and opinions on the record from more teachers, the potential existed for me to effect actual change and pressure the publicly elected board members to address the concerns of their students, teachers, and the public. I, instead, allowed myself to be defeated.
As a current student of history in college, I regret not firmly standing up for my beloved subject. I still believe that history is one of the most important subjects ever taught to students preparing to participate in a democracy and that while scientific and mathematical literacy is important and should be encouraged by our schools, understanding the nuances of quantum mechanics and advanced calculus will not directly benefit every student in their daily lives. History, due to its relevance to informed civic participation, will. Therefore, to have it set aside in favor of more STEM courses is anathema to the mission of public education.
In the context of the current political environment, where a great deal of attention is placed on the March for Science and support has been heaped on the sciences that have been under assault by our current presidential administration, we need to always remember that history also has a vital place in both our public discourse and our educational priorities. Furthermore, forgetting our history leads to disaster; this election has made that quite apparent, and it will not be an isolated occurrence if we continue to neglect the education of our students.
I have also become much more intimately familiar with the general difficulty associated with activism and advocating for change. It is very easy to become fatigued and discouraged in the face of opposition - especially when that opposition is powerful and does not take you seriously. However, if defeat is accepted when the cause is just, whether it is standing up for the rights of immigrants under threat of deportation, advocating for economic justice against some of the most wealthy elites the world has ever seen, or speaking before a local school board, all that awaits is remorse. The only way that one can truly effect change is if they combat discouragement with determination, fatigue with drive, and apathy with hope.