Ends And Means

Jill at Jack and Jill Politics has a post about what it’s like to be a black student at Sidwell, the school Malia and Sasha Obama will be attending come January. It’s a great post: very interesting and thoughtful, and well worth reading. But I found one part of it troubling. The background: the Reagan administration, led by its Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Chester Crocker, is carrying out its odious policy of “constructive engagement” with South Africa. Crocker’s daughter, Rennie, is one of Jill’s classmates; Mr. E is their teacher.

“Mr. E taught us, among other subjects, history. On learning about Rennie’s father, he conceived a plan whose brilliant strategy I only fully appreciated years later.

Mr. E conceived of a Team 4 learning segment and associated field trip. Kids learn about current affairs starting in Lower School (elementary) so most kids had some awareness of South Africa’s political situation. Mr. E took us on a deep dive into South Africa’s socio-political dynamics and America’s role. We held discussions where we debated the pros and cons of apartheid for the citizens there. We came to our own conclusions that apartheid was very wrong. Mr. E told us about the history of the struggle against apartheid. We were informed that we would be protesting in front of the embassy as a school trip to our great delight. Permission slips and waivers were sent home. My parents, former civil rights activists themselves and educators, were so proud — baby’s first protest! There was a growing spirit of purpose and excitement for all of us in class save one person — Rennie Crocker.

Rennie was a sweet, soft-spoken, shy, studious and popular girl. This process slowly became exquisitely painful for her in the way that only sticking out can be when you’re 13. As we excitedly made posters and signs for our protest, thinking up snappy anti-apartheid, anti-U.S. government-position-on-apartheid slogans, Rennie became increasingly moody and withdrawn. When we all came to school waving our permission slips proudly in the air, Rennie murmured quietly that she wouldn’t be able to join us, “Because, you know, of my dad.” Rolled eyes, heavy sigh … sad, sad shoulder shrug. Reaction from us kids: sympathy that she was missing out mixed with “Sucks to be you! Laterz!”

On the day of the protest, we took about a half day of school and with our signs was driven in a Sidwell school bus down to protest. It was so incredibly fun. (…)

“During our fall adventure in global socio-politics and direct action, one girl sat alone in a classroom while her peers enjoyed the unforgettable experience of a lifetime. Rennie. While us kids were convinced that this exercise was all about learning and ethics and history and justice (which it was), I see now that Mr. E was leading the school in leveraging the presence of Chester Crocker’s daughter in his class to place direct pressure on the man and his now-discredited policies in the way that only a man’s daughter can. He was forced to explain in detail, unconvincingly apparently, why his position was correct and why her teacher, her school and all of her friends were somehow wrong in their assumptions and beliefs that apartheid was intolerable. He was forced to defend his lack of moral spine to one of the people who mattered most to him.”

First things first: the way Jill writes about Mr. E, both in the post and in comments, suggests that Mr. E was a very, very gifted teacher. He clearly inspired her, and to inspire a student is a rare and wonderful thing. I don’t want to deny that for an instant. Nor do I want to get too hung up on the question whether it’s OK to take a class to demonstrate (I think not, for the same reasons that make me oppose making kids say prayers.) What really bothers me is the idea of using a thirteen year old to get to her father. And not just any thirteen year old: one whom it is your job to teach and to nurture. I think that is just wrong.

My dad was well known in the town I grew up in; and one of my friends has a father who was both much more famous and much more controversial than mine. Being thirteen is tough enough in its own right; it doesn’t help when people assume that you’re just an extension of your parents, and that you can be used to get to them, or to score political points. One of the two (2) guys who ever asked me out in high school did so because he thought that that would help him into the university where my dad worked. This was obvious at the time, and it did not make me happy.

Obviously, this kid, whom I will refer to as The Jerk, wasn’t trying to do anything so noble as change America’s South Africa policy. He was just a jerk. But what The Jerk did was similar to what Mr. E did in this respect: Mr. E was treating Rennie not as a person in her own right, but as an extension of her dad; and his actions were intended not to respond to her needs as a student, but to get her dad to do something. That’s wrong in general, and doubly wrong for a teacher.

At this point, someone might be thinking: but changing American policy towards South Africa is much more important than the feelings of one (very privileged) American kid. She might have become “increasingly moody and withdrawn”, but kids in South Africa were getting shot, or losing their parents, or growing up in squalor and deprivation. And of course this is true.

One of the reasons I wanted to write about this is just to say: that might be relevant if we knew, somehow, that our only two options were (a) to use Rennie in this way and have a chance to save the children of Soweto, or (b) to do nothing in the face of the massive injustice of apartheid. But that’s almost never the kind of choice we face, and the idea that it is is similar to the idea that Bush and Cheney had a choice between (a) torturing people and (b) letting Osama bin Laden blow up Manhattan.

The existence of a genuine and serious problem does not automatically mean that you can freely disregard any smaller injustices or cruelties you engage in in fighting it. It does not mean that if you’re Dick Cheney: the fact that bad as what we did to Khalid Sheikh Muhammed was, the deaths of millions would be even worse, does not make what we did OK. It does not mean that if you’re a gifted teacher concerned about a genuine injustice either.

There were a lot of ways of fighting against the apartheid regime that did not involve using a child to get to her father. While Mr. E sounds to me like a great teacher in many respects, it was his job as a teacher to find them. Because it is always part of our jobs as adults and people who aspire to decency to find ways to confront injustice without engaging in cruelty of our own.

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