Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Imagine Something Better

Imagination matters. And we are failing our children when it comes to the fullest use of imagination.

Experiences of play wherein different locales, ways of being, changing movement, and evolving responses are critical to our children's emotional and psychological development. Opportunities for imagination come naturally to most children and if we, as adults, ask questions, encourage, and give healthy shape to such play, we are then shoring up a strong mental and ethical foundation for our children.

Because moral imagination is a real concept and, I would argue, a real thing. Moral imagination, even in play, involves the capactity to wrestle with ethical concepts and frameworks and apply them in new and different settings. In order to be grow into an adult ethic that seeks justice and wholeness, children have to be taught the truth of certain historic events. Girded with historical realities, in all their complexities, children can imagine their reactions, test those responses with adults or in their minds, and then sort out how to choose between options. This skill becomes the moral imagination adults require to be responsive and compassionate citizens of communities.

In recent weeks, I learned of two particular failures to tell the truth that will, if unchecked, compromise the development of moral imagination in the children who interact with these situations.

This screenshot is from Twitter and was a school assignment for upper elementary/middle school students in North Carolina. There was a long conversation between some parents regarding the assignment, mostly centering on parents who believed there was no problem with the assignment and parents who found it appalling.

Initially the assignments seem benign, offering children a variety of opportunities and ways to respond to lessons about the Holocaust. Presumably there is a list of recommended books or resources that accompanies the assignment to help. Additionally, this assignment is asking for some level of imagination. So, what's the problem?

The problem is that such an assignment cannot be fully rooted in having been told the truth about the Holocaust. This is not an assignment that would come after reading The Diary of Anne Frank or Elie Wiesel's Night. A letter from a concentration camp? It's not summer camp. There are no letters. There is survival, and barely that.

Assignments that actually wrestle with honest accounts of the Holocaust would ask children for their own reactions to what they read and heard. They would write letters about their own response to pictures, accounts, film clips, or novels. Students would be presented with the truth and then accompanied in how to emotionally, intellectually, and psychologically process the horror.

Assignments like "write a letter to your parents" or "write a skit" are the imaginative equivalent of skipping rocks across a pond. It takes some skill, but it tells you nothing about the depth of the pond. Additionally, a child who completes this type of assignment to success in the grading parameters for this class will believe themselves to have understood the depth of the assignment. When later confronted with additional information about concentration camps or the Holocaust- such as children were only kept alive for medical experimentation or days were spent in back-breaking labor or in fear for your life or the potential that you survived via the Kindertransport, but you never saw your parents again- when confronted with these realities, a young adult will retreat mentally to the reward of what was previously imagined (that sixth grade skit they wrote) and treat that as the truth.

It is very hard to write over mental scripts, which is why we have to be honest from the beginning.

Which brings me to the second failure: the Roar Vacation Bible School (VBS) from Group Publishing. You can read an excellent reflection on this VBS and its problematic issues here. Long story less long, this is an "Africa"-themed curriculum in which children pretend to be Israelite slaves, Africa is refered to as a "country", and students are asked to add "clicks" to their words to mimic an particular language and dialect.

What's the problem here? (Besides having an all-white creative team at Group Publishing.)

First, Africa is a very large continent with 54 separate countries, most containing a variety of people with differing ethnic identities. Nigeria and South Sudan are two different places with a variety of ways of being. We don't say that Belgium and Italy are the same, so why is conflating African nations acceptable.

Second, slavery is both a historical and contemporary issue. Even if you want to make the (not good) argument that it was/is an economic system (as opposed to a system of oppression), it remains true that enslaving people, particularly implying that people can be owned, is neither just nor good nor a viable economic system. Enslaving people is wrong. Furthermore, enslavement based on race or ethnicity creates generational trauma. We have no idea how long it takes that generational trauma to heal because we haven't stopped doubling down on some of the lies about enslavement in history and in modern times.

Third, the internet is real. If you want to show what a "click" language is like, get thee to YouTube and find a video with a native Xhosa speaker. It takes about thirty seconds unless your internet is slow. Then it takes 45 seconds.

Yes, the enslavement of the Israelites is a biblical reality and Pharoah's treatment of them was particularly harsh. Children can, however, be told the truth and asked to consider what people may have felt or thought without actually being told to reinact enslavement. Similar to some of the Holocaust assignments, pretending to be a slave while being faux-yelled at in a (safe) VBS setting makes a mental imprint on kids that they understand what this experience is like. They don't. Without being told the truth and then guided into processing the horror, they are imprinting a lesson that may never be written over. "I understand what X is like because I had this experience/lesson when I was a kid."

I know what it is like to water a huge garden from a five gallon bucket, refilled repeatedly, in the North Carolina heat. I know what it's like to be yelled at while doing it. I do not know what slavery is like. I can only imagine slavery because I have read accounts and historical information. I have enough understanding to comprehend a horror that I have not experienced and to be able to extrapolate, morally, that I should keep alert to prevent, to the best of my ability, such circumstances in the future. Prevention is not because I'm a savior of people, but because I am moral participant in the universe and enslaving people is not in the arc of justice.

It would be easy to say that this is just one assignment or one VBS experience, but a failure to be honest hobbles the moral imagination for years to come. If I think my imagination suffices for the truth of an experience, rather than someone else's own account of it, then I will never actually extend my ethics beyond myself.

I've been pregnant twice, so I can "imagine" what women who seeks abortion services are feeling/thinking.

I've been broke, so I can "imagine" what people who are without funds experience.

I've been sick, even to the point of being unable to work, so I can "imagine" the implications of various long-term illnesses.

I've been spanked, so I can "imagine" the consequences of long-term physical and mental abuse.

My country has been attacked, so I can "imagine" the impact of growing up and living in a war zone.

I can imagine all day long, but there are truthful accounts of real people who do tell their own stories. Reading or watching their own words, their owning of their experience, strengthens my moral imagination so that I live in an ethical framework that includes other people's truth, not just my imagining of it. And I am trying to raise my children to do this same thing.

Each assignment, each VBS or Sunday School lesson, each car conversation, or library visit matters because they are all blocks in the foundation of who our children are and who they will be. If we want them to be fully functioning, morally imaginative adults- then we have to equip them with the truth, good and bad and ambivalent, of human history. When we tell the truth, and the whole truth, there is no place for lies or fake news to take root.

And then, I imagine, the world becomes a better place.

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