Over the past two weeks as students and teachers have headed back to school, there have been two big defining happenings on the domestic and international fronts that are much more than just teachable moments when it comes to our country’s national character. The first came on August 28 when hundreds of thousands of activists and observers gathered at the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Basking in the glow of MLK’s dream, we were compelled to both look back through 50 years on some uneven, yet substantial, progress and to look forward at just how much more must be done to achieve “the content of their character”. That day brought out a unique sort of tension tugging at our national identity —- at one and the same time, we were inspired by how strong we can be as a democracy, but also deeply dissatisfied by how imperfect we can be in pursuit of justice.
A similar kind of tension reared its head again a couple of weeks later by the wrenching choices surrounding a US response to the escalating tragedy in Syria. As we watched in horror at the immense human and political tragedy in the Middle East, we were (and still are) faced with questions both about the moral imperatives of our democratic heritage as well as about the national security needs of the last remaining super power. Indeed the debate in Congress over what to do next is a defining test of who we are as a county.
With these two big events capturing our national attention, what would you do as a teacher during these first weeks of school with your new students? After all, schools at their core are laboratories of democracy and have a civic mission to nurture informed and responsible citizenship among students (in addition to advancing academic achievement). And so what better way to teach civic lessons than with these two events that put our civic character on the line. The March on Washington and the Syria dilemma represent teachable moments … and much more. They delve deeply into our most fundamental beliefs as a country. Isn’t this what schooling should be about during these pivotal times in our nation’s history?