As School Starts Up, N.H. Teachers Prepare For Conversations About Charlottesville

Aug 28, 2017

White nationalists are met by a group of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Credit Joshua Roberts/Reuters

It’s been just over two weeks since a group of white nationalists and neo-Nazis - including a man from Keene - marched with torches across the University of Virginia campus.

A 20-year-old woman was killed when a man drove his car into a group of counter protesters.

Now, as the school year gets underway this week, teachers in cities and towns across New Hampshire are preparing to talk with students about what happened in Charlottesville.

Tom White, coordinator of educational outreach for the Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Keene State College, has been working with teachers to provide guidance and resources on how best to approach this topic.

He joined NHPR’s Morning Edition.

Classes are starting up right as this national conversation is going on about race and the existence of these types of hate groups. How important is it for teachers to have a dialogue with students about what’s happening?

I think it's really important and I think it's under the framework of the civics education that I think public education is all about. The very first thing I want to advocate is to get away from this cycle of violence – violence serves no purpose at all – and to embrace hope and not despair because we have values that are deeply rooted in our country almost uniquely that I think will help us navigate this. So I would say, quoting the four freedoms of the Second World War, that we have the right to have freedom from fear but we also have the responsibility to assert that these views are intolerable or unacceptable and to do so in ways that reaffirm our dignity and our humanity and therefore illustrate how wrong incitements to violence are.

What’s your advice to educators about how to approach starting a conversation about Charlottesville with students?

One of things I found very helpful is to shift the conversation away from who is righter. We know what's at stake here. We know what's going on and I think it’s really important here that we focus on those who are feeling targeted or isolated or their identities are being stripped away to become the sort of symbol of something. I think what you want to do is to shift the perspective to those who feel targeted or isolated by this language and by these behaviors. It's not so much about have I proved my point; none of that really matters, as much as those who feel targeted. And so this synagogue in Charlottesville that was on almost lockdown where they had armed militia – it was an event that so echoed the brown shirts in Nazi Germany – and here was the synagogue, people afraid to even go out and were in hiding for a day or two afterward, along with the black community there, as well. Is that who we want to be as people? And so I think if teachers can in their classrooms have students really look at others in our lives in our communities. And suddenly you begin to talk about targeting and some of it's overt, some of it is subtle. I think that's where the discussion needs to go, so we are aware of the results of these actions are on our democratic experiment.

What's the appropriate age to have that conversation? I imagine there are different approaches that a teacher would take to talk about these kinds of topics. Obviously it's going to be different in the 5th grade than it would be in say the 10th grade.

Sure. And that actually interestingly reflects how we do our curriculum as well in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. And of course each level is going to be different to what you approach. So I think you start off in the elementary school and you're talking about basically everything from bullying to how we treat each other as human beings and as you get to the older ages, you talk about more substantive stuff and really getting into what kind of values or attitudes do we really need to be good citizens. And so I think you're right. I think every age will be different based on what we're trying to do.

Tom White
Credit Keene State College

The issue has of course become political with the fallout from the president's response. How do you handle that? Is there concern among educators about saying the wrong thing or creating some kind of controversy?

There is and for I feel for the teachers right now because they themselves are being targeted. There is a lot of fear that I'm getting from teachers, especially female teachers, around the state who feel targeted by a very small group but mostly male who somehow feel this empowerment. So my role is to sort of say let's pull back. We have a huge support network. You're doing very important work and the advice I gave them sort of on opening day was to divide it into sort of a number of things. First of all, we should not reduce these discussions to an ‘us versus them’ kind of conversation. Don't make simple equivalencies. And the sort of the elephant in the room of course is racism in our country which we still wrestle with and struggle with. So I think it's very helpful to kind of look at the context of really what the point is behind statues and the memorialization which again often serves an agenda, not so much to sort of embrace history but to sort of tell a story. It's important to bring up when those statues were made, by whom and when, and often those were done really in time to marginalize others and to reinforce that marginalization, so I think that's a very important discussion to have in our country going forward.

I want to ask you about media attention in general and how that shapes you know the discussion with an education. How much do you worry that when the media talks about these kinds of things, do you worry that that attention actually is outsized and causes even more problems?

You know I think it's a terrific question. Thank you for raising it because I have been deeply concerned by the coverage, not by NHPR, but a set of networks where you know people are given equal play here. And I think we do ourselves a disservice if we enlarge the threat. I often think of those early Nazi rallies in the 30s where you have sort of the full screen and Leni Riefenstahl doing the ‘Triumph of the Will’ movie and you have this full screen of Nazis and you sort of you come away with a sense of overwhelming power and they're very popular. But at the time the Nazis are pulling 27-29 percent of the vote. So we have that real danger I think of enlarging and empowering these people for free and we don't want to do that.