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2017 November 16 - 09:16 am

Respect and Responsibility

Can We Pause for an Armistice of Understanding?

As the month of November moves forth, people around the world are called upon to remember the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918, when political and military leaders who had been directing deadly battles that decimated populations came together in a wagon in the French countryside to sign an armistice, a call for a peace that would put a written end to a war that had supposedly been waged to end all wars. But I see as 2017 is coming to a close, humanity has had little respect for its own written call for peace.

I read in an online journal sent to me from middle America that at least one gathering that had supposedly been called last weekend to honor veterans who had fought in various wars that have taken place since the date of that armistice almost 100 years ago, a speaker used his lectern as a bully pulpit for political commentary, for talk of the divisions among Americans, and not for much unity or grace. The person who had sent me the journal article is a former community college student of mine and a veteran of two of our modern wars; he is also the son of a veteran of World War II. He feels, he writes in his commentary, a lack of respect.

Then I saw that I had received online yet another of the many requests sent to me each day for support of laborers around the world who work for what they call “supplier companies (that) produce for multi-national brands.” I noticed this petition in particular because it concerns people who work in Turkey at a factory producing clothes and sporting materials for a company that has as one of its top executives the husband of another of my community college students; the executive is also the father of a soccer player whose international team uses the products in question...at a discount, of course. The workers in Turkey are calling in their petition for leaders such as my student’s husband to take some responsibility for the fact that company leaders are being paid outlandish salaries while workers are being laid off and their factories closed in places where no other work has been available for years. I asked my student, the wife of the company executive, if she knew anything about any of this, and she timidly replied that it was “probably the same complaints we always hear. They won't take responsibility for what they do, and they try to put it on us.” I asked her if this question of who is responsible for what might be better addressed in a context of mutual respect, of humane treatment, one side of the other. “What is this about respect?” she snapped back in an instant message online, and “What does that have to with responsibility?” And, as I read her subsequent diatribe, I wondered yet again about the connection between responsibility and respect.

Raphaelle Bellon, a professor of history in France, writes in the French newspaper Le Monde that we teachers are responsible to give our students “the keys to understand a complex world”; we must also open doors for them and help them to understand various types of authority and governance. But “the job of being a professor has changed,” Bellon reminds her readers: “We must realize that society no longer holds respect for the job a priori.” It is for us to incite, to generate respect in our learners, Bellon claims, and we do that best by taking responsibility for the subject matter that we are transmitting and the way in which we are transmitting it. It is, after all, quite easy to verify anyone's claims by doing a bit of research online; it is our responsibility to incite learning through question-asking, through querying of convictions. “Facts! And more facts!” Bellon writes. And a search for facts and the support that underlies them will lead students to have to recourse to... books, Bellon cries out!

And there is another object of respect that I believe cannot lose its importance, particularly in college: Books. As I see colleagues creating “study packs” and “coursework collections” that are made up of journal articles and a few excerpts from various “important works” related to the subject being taught, I continue to demand that students become learners, that they come to “contextualize” what they are learning today alongside what has been learned before, as Bellon puts it. Many of my 21st Century community college students are not used to reading books; they flip through screen representations of subject matter, they listen to audio feed and they watch video lessons. As Bellon suggests we all must do who learned our subject matters many decades ago, I listen to my students’ frustrations, I try to meet them where they are mentally and emotionally, giving them respect, and taking responsibility for what they might learn. And I ask them to begin to love genuine books.

The world is going through a rather “in-your-face” era of challenges right now, I believe, in which every thought and belief is accorded equal time and equal status. The Atlantic magazine fears that this tendency has helped make us moderns “go haywire”, particularly in the USA, at once granting respect to those who may not merit it and protesting loudly in the faces of those to whom we would rather that respect not be given. In the cold light of no context, students should be listened to when they do not understand and when they cry out for some sort of systemic justice. It is our responsibility to listen, to call for reasoning and critical thought, and to respond.

Bellon finishes her article for Le Monde by saying that we professors in twenty-first century classrooms must not only guide and criticize, educate and participate. Rather, we must realize: “We are not born what we are. We are becoming it. Continuously. Within the social and cultural contexts of life, we evolve. We respond to our environment and are thus responsible even as we respect all that it encompasses.”

Perhaps the in-your-face mentality might, if we can pause a moment to respect one another, lead to an armistice in understanding, to a peaceful sense of responsibility?

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