The Fear–and the Power–of Change

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Discrimination by any other name is just as rancid.

What is it that defines a person as an individual?  It is how he sees himself or herself in the world?  Or is it how the world sees him or her?  Is there a particular condition or mannerism or peculiarity or talent or quality that makes a person stand out from others?  If there is, by what standard is that concept judged, and by whom?  Is that what makes a person good or bad, righteous or evil, kind or cruel, beautiful or ugly, “abled” or “disabled”?  Can someone be considered successful despite having imperfections, or deemed a failure though seeming perfectly normal?  And what is “normal”, anyway?  Who gets to decide?  And what if a person far exceeds or is far below that definition?

            As sad as this may sound, I did not pay much attention to many of those questions in the past.  No, let me rephrase that: when those questions came up in conversation or in thought, I would rarely if ever put myself as the subject.   Now, however, it seems I am asking myself these questions practically every day.  And with every new reading assignment, new questions come up about how I see myself, my community and the world around me—past, present and future.  My head hurts from all the information being poured into it, but at least I am getting answers—whether I like them or not.

            I believe the first real smack of reality I experienced in my “Disability in Contexts” class–and at Teachers College in general–came from our discussions and readings regarding eugenics.  In one of those readings, Snyder & Mitchell (2006) looked at the rise of eugenics, the explosion of entire medical, sociological and institutional efforts to cure or treat “idiots”, “morons” and the “feeble-minded”, and the wide-ranging effects of eugenics on American society from the late 1800s to today.  It was a difficult read, disheartening and stomach-churning yet wholly valid when you consider the ramifications.  The belief that those with “deficiencies” could be cured, rehabilitated or outright euthanized in order to prevent the spread of “human debasement” sounds almost nonsensical at first, but in light of such strong evidence—from well-meaning but misguided medical and psychological theories to the creation of institutions to the actions of apartheid and genocide—the concept of eugenics quickly moves from the absurd to the frighteningly real.  Adding to this horror was the fact that it was actually done here in America, home of the “all men are created equal” credo.  Whenever I hear this line, I am always reminded of one of Napoleon’s re-written “rules” from Orwell’s Animal Farm (1948):

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For eugenicists, even that statement isn’t enough.

            I don’t mean to sound naïve; I have seen how cruel human beings can be to each other, both from a distance and up close, where their differences are concerned.  Whether it was watching young black men and women being hosed on TV as a child, or bemoaning the outcome of the recent “stand your ground” cases in Florida, I have seen that discrimination is just a prevalent (and more tangible) than what we learned in our history books about slavery.  I have been the target of slurs from both blacks and whites as a child, and until recently had trouble finding my place in the socioeconomic landscape.  When I tell people that I am disabled, or someone takes notice of my “dancing eyes” (nystagmus), people tend to apologize or look at me with curiosity, as if I was suddenly stricken with a curable malady which caused some disfigurement or other impairment to what used to be a perfectly healthy body.  Telling people I was born with my eyes like that (one of the many “symptoms” of albinism) only makes the pity deepen and curiosity grow.  When you add the fact that I come from a multi-ethnic background, have poor eyesight, am overweight, well into my middle-aged years, unemployed, unmarried, and without children…well, the eugenicists would be lining up to put me down in the name of God—oh wait, I’m also an atheist, so that would most likely add more fuel to the already towering inferno.

            I had come across the topic of eugenics before, but only as a side note while discussing Darwin’s Origin of the Species in one of my sociology classes.  In our class, however, eugenics was laid out in all its ugliness—not just for its anti-racial aspects, but as a whole vile entity, covering the spectrum of what hegemony aimed to create.  While Snyder & Michelle’s (2006) article laid the groundwork, other readings—most notably Smith’s (2008) argument that the eugenics movement did not end with the fall of Hitler, and Baker’s (2002) exploration of how eugenics shaped America’s “special education” system—enhanced my knowledge of the subject and to what degree it has (and continues to) affect our lives.  Looking at the effects of eugenics also helped to better understand terms such as “ableism” and “disabled”—the latter being far more complex (especially when pitted against the concept of “normal”) than I previously thought.

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The fallacy that is the “normal curve”

            Armed with this knowledge, I have begun to look at myself—and how others see me—in a different way.  I try not to play the “disabled card”, much as I disdain the use of the “race card”, when identifying myself.  I go about my life as I normally would, but now I can see why there are stares of disbelief if I do something like pull out a magnifying glass to read a menu in a dimly-lit restaurant.  When I see kids in a public school get less funding and poorer-quality technical and faculty support than their more affluent—and less “deficient” peers, I know that it’s not simply a case of “rich vs. poor”, but “power vs. powerless.”  And while my own disabilities do not come with accessories like canes, walkers, hearing aids and such, it by no means proves I am more or less “fortunate” than those who uses such items.    Unfortunately, I do not get to dictate how others see me, or react to me.  For better or worse, understanding their point of view helps me to better relate to them.  Understanding my own point of view—where it comes from, what stereotypes I play into or beliefs I need to change–helps me to better understand myself.

            I can better understand that everyone has differing levels of “disability” or “ability”, just as there are no living, breathing “normal” people.  As Dudley-Marling & Gurn (2010) theorize, the “normal curve” is a fallacy.  Those who use standard deviation to assess how far above or below the mean a person’s given characteristic must understand two very important things: 1) “normal” is a relative term, defined only by those who coin their own definition of what “normal” is; and 2) most people fall below the norm, such that the “true” norm is substandard to what the definers would suggest.  As such, what you end up with is a group of people who believe they are not only “normal”, but above the norm—or elite.

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“Hmph!”

            Whether part of the One Percent of America’s social hierarchy; a genetically or surgically-enhanced symbol of beauty or athletic excellence; an elected or self-appointed leader who believes his or her position was the result of divine order; or one of Dr. Seuss’ star-bellied sneetches (Geisel, 1961), those who follow the idea of eugenics (or any euphemism it may be known as today) are anything but normal—they are the true outliers, the real abnormals…the very things they are trying to eradicate.  They would not exist without having someone to compare themselves to—their interpretation of “deficient”.  Yet they cannot see this: perhaps they have their own “deficiency”—which even an “idiot” can diagnose as “moral blindness”.

            I have learned more in nearly a half-semester of this class than I have in five semesters of sociology and most of my educational life combined.  While the reading may be over-abundant, deep and often harsh, it is also challenging, enlightening and viscerally real.  It not only arms us to understand how power is gained (or lost)—especially in terms of “ableism”, but how such power can be taken apart, examined, and reconstituted in order to give power to the powerless.  The Law of Conservation of Energy states that power cannot be created or destroyed, only converted.  After this class is done, I hope to have learned enough to be a very “able” power converter.

Can We Teach the REAL American History?

Mr. Peabody & Sherman

“Sherman, my boy, I’m afraid this may be a problem even we can’t solve!”

“History”…to me, it was probably the moldiest word in the English language.  “Social Studies” would rank a close second, if not for the fact that it is actually two words.  Anytime someone started talking about anything “historical”, my mind pictured Mr. Peabody and Sherman—a brilliant dog and his adopted pet boy, respectively—setting the date on Peabody’s “WABAC Machine” and setting off to correct fractured versions of past events, often using similarly and anachronistically fractured means (Ward, 1959).  As funny as those cartoons were, it seems they were prophetically congruent to the history we’ve been taught in elementary and middle school; it too was mostly fractured, if not completely incorrect.  I’d like to step into the WABAC Machine myself and look at how history has been shown to us; how it differed from what I learned outside of the school setting; and how my experiences have affected (and will affect) how I teach in the future.

Being as I had spent very little time in elementary school (attending parts of the fourth and sixth grades), my experiences with history at those levels were in short bursts.  My main sources of education came from old books, movies, television, or stories from my grandparents.  Even so, something about the lessons I learned at the time did not seem to fit in with the reality of the world of the early 1970s.

Cristobal Colon

@ChrisColon: “Google Maps? Hah! I know EXACTLY where I’m going!” smh! #wrongwaystupid

In school, we were told that “we” always won…”we” meaning America as a whole.  Even when we fought ourselves, “we” won.  Places were “discovered” or “won”, and their peoples “conquered” or “freed” (after being enslaved by the very same “conquerors”, of course).  History was, to use one of my mom’s favorite terms, “color-struck”—it always seemed to favor White European (and later White American) males over all others.  We were taught famous people, places, events and dates to memorize and parrot back; many even had their own little mnemonic devices (HOMES for the Great Lakes, for example).  The sad part about the whole affair was that there was no “me” there.  Sure, there was a lot of American history, but it happened either before I was born or in places I only heard about in class or on TV or in movies.  Considering the “current events” of the day, one would think there would be all kinds of questions raised by the students, or even brought into the classrooms by the teachers.  As Cowhey (2006) rightly points out, however, there was no room for controversy in the curriculum (p. 12). When you brought in your own information, it was censored and re-edited to fit the mold, never to deviate from it.

I wanted to deviate.  I wanted to know why I could have friends who were Hispanic and Jewish (both Orthodox and Hassidic), and many different kinds of “Black”, while the news showed everyone else fighting and hating each other.  I wondered why real people lived in crowded, run-down buildings while everyone outside of New York lived like “The Brady Bunch”, in nice houses with two-car garages.  I wanted to know why going to the moon was so important if no one could live there.  I wanted to know if people like me who didn’t believe in God could still pledge allegiance to the flag.  We never talked about food stamps, though most of us had them; or teenagers, who were our older siblings or cousins or “aunties”, having babies; or why our fathers or uncles came back “wrong” after being in “the ‘Nam”.  The word “holocaust” was something we heard from the “crazy cat lady”, because no one else wanted to talk about it.  I wanted to know so many things, but was told what I was told, and told to repeat what I was told, and told to write it ten times in my composition book so I wouldn’t forget it.  I was told that we were “one nation, under God, indivisible”; yet, we always seemed to be divided about something, including God.  I wanted to know why, but I wasn’t told.

As with hooks (2010), we seemed destined to remain placed within our socioeconomic status, both by the educational system and by our own local society.  We were expected to succeed at the passing level; anything more than the teachers met with surprise and enthusiasm.  However, getting high marks also brought scorn and taunts (if not beatings) from other students.  Girls were especially fearful of standing out, lest they lose their popularity with their friends and the positive attention of boys.  The idea of going to college was never brought up in class, even during middle school.  We were simply primed to get through high school (or get our GEDs) and get whatever jobs we could…or remain on welfare.  Our parents weren’t rich or famous or in political power, so unless we were very lucky, there seemed no point to look past the next grade.

If there were students who had a physical disability or psychological illness, we didn’t see them at our school, though they definitely existed in our community.  I myself am visually impaired, but not totally blind—I was a curiosity to my fellow students, but I managed to avoid the “special classes” label by fitting in and doing my work.

Stepping back into 2014, I was surprised to find out how much had changed in terms of what is being taught in schools—and what still is not—since the days of disco.  Unfortunately, there is so much yet to be taught; things that fall outside the “teacher-proof” textbooks of our curriculum (Cowhey, 2006; p. 12).  How are we supposed to teach our children about freedom, fairness, justice, equality, ableism and the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” when what is taught to us—and what we see in the real world—tends to contradict all of these “American” ideals?  We all deserve to learn the true way of things, but at what price?  At what age is it okay to expose a child to the song “Strange Fruit”, with its poetic yet grisly depiction of a Black man hanging from a tree?  How do we get children to relate to child armies in Somalia or school shootings here at home?  Can we get a child whose family lives on EBT to understand how people survived the Dust Bowl or the Potato Famine?  Or that the chances of getting a good job after obtaining a college degree are far better than signing a multi-million-dollar sports contract or being the next big entertainment star?

We could do the radical thing—ask the children.  Regardless of the era, children have always been curious about the world around them.  They also have their own history—their own “social studies”—that they can share from, learn about, and compare to those of their classmates (Jones, Pang & Rodriguez, 2001; Levstik & Barton, 2011).  In this age of instant-access information, students need to be able to understand the events that shape their lives.  My goal as a teacher is to do for them what my teachers had not done for me—help them to find answers in ways they can comprehend.  I want to help them find ways to connect those facts to the present, or vice-versa; that they matter in the grand scheme of things, and that they won’t need to step into the WABAC Machine to see history as relevant, interesting, and fun.