Tag Archives: society

Facing the challenges of the high school pastime of dehumanizing your peers

 

AP photograph of suicide victim Eric Mohat, 17 years of age.

 

“1 Ohio school, 4 bullied teens dead by own hand”

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20101008/ap_on_re_us/us_bullying_one_town

The photo above goes with the Yahoo! news link below it.  They are further evidence that somewhere in our society we’ve messed up.  As a historian, my brain creates unsettling parallels.  As a human being, my heart hurts.  I see several problems.  In the above story, the particulars of one school’s recent tragedies is laid out, but no apparent progress seems forthcoming.  In the last two years, Mentor High School in Ohio has seen four suicides and currently has two independent law suits laid against it for its neglected responsibility in two of the deaths.  The most recent young lady, Sladjana Vidovic, 16, was an immigrant from Croatia.  Before her two students, friends, ended their lives within three weeks of each other; Eric Mohat, 17, whether he was gay or not, was mocked as though he was, and his friend, Meredith Rezak, 16, a well-liked athlete had recently confided in friends that she thought was gay.  Jennifer Eyring, 16, was “developmentally delayed and had a hearing problem.”  All were harassed, sometimes physically.  All came to the same conclusion that they just couldn’t go forward.  As much as the students responsible for tormenting these victims are guilty, an even greater responsibility lies with the people in their lives who should be mentors.  Teens make mistakes–horrible ones, sometimes–adults, parents, teachers, coaches have the responsibility to correct these mistakes.

 

AP photograph of Mentor High School--less than excellent.

 

Why do teens lash out at other teens?  Whole books have been written on the subject and I am not an expert in that field.  I do, however, worry that our society reinforces the wrong things, poisonous things, that do more harm than we may wish to acknowledge.  In this post, I want to cover some ideas I have about what we can be doing (and what challenges our ability to do it).  To do this, I want to cover some things I have mentioned in the past–Sam Wineburg’s belief that history can humanize us, and the creation of the “other” or the use of dehumanizing language to undermine our obligations to each other–and a new program I read about a few years ago founded by Erin Gruwell–the Freedom Writers Foundation.

The History-Humanizes-Us Argument

One of my first concerns is the unrealized potential in many history classrooms across the country.  Sam Wineburg has pointed out the inherent value in teaching history as a subject by teaching historical method.  Question:  What do the historians we admire most all share in common?  Answer:  A deep knowledge and understanding of past peoples and experiences.  Even if that knowledge is not entirely correct, the act of engaging someone distant, foreign and strange and getting to know there culture is an important task–something every education should provide and very difficult to achieve.  Most of the history curriculum at schools and even to extant and colleges and universities emphasizes a survey format that is really about packing one’s head full of trivia, but not really learning about another culture and people that different, even strange.  Amidst that difference and strangeness there is similarity, too, but even if there is not it is irrelevant!  It is especially beside the point in this country where we are, in our founding, flawed though it might have been in its acceptance of slavery, committed to a society that lives in the pursuit of life, liberty and happiness, not fear.

To realize history’s humanizing qualities fully, to draw on history’s ability to, in the words of Carl Degler, “expand our conception and understanding of what it means to be human,” we need to encounter the distant past—a past less distant from us in time than in its modes of thought and social organization.  It is this past, one that initially leaves us befuddled or, worse, just plain bored, that we need most if we are to achieve the understanding that each of us is more than the handful of labels ascribed to us at birth.  The sustained encounter with this less-familiar past teaches us the limitations of our brief sojourn on the planet and allows us to take membership in the entire human race.  Paradoxically, the relevance of the past may lie precisely in what strikes us as its initial irrelevance.  ~Sam Wineburg

I think a focus on this skill-building, methodology-based approach could really help open the eyes of young people–even if it only plants a seed that take a few years to blossom.  The best teachers find ways to do this even with obstacles such as survey courses, testing-directed teaching and unimaginative adminstrations.  They challenge students to try to step out of their boxes and see things from different perspectives.  Developmentally, this is a challenge for teens, but it is good to push them to the edge of their abilities–sometimes you push and they go beyond the point they thought was their limit.

The Freedom Writers Argument

 

"The Freedom Writers' Diary" by the students of Erin Gruwell

 

Erin Gruwell was a student-teacher when she was assigned a high school freshman English class of students everyone expected to fail.  Maybe they would have if a student had not passed a caricature of another student emphasizing racial features in a crude way.  Gruwell snapped.  She did not hesitate to compare the act to the Nazi caricatures of Jews and other undesirables.  Her English class started down a path of personal journal writing inspired by Anne Frank’s and investigated the way society’s turn on their own.  She took them on field trips and arranged to have speakers that would speak on the issue–most of what she did initially she paid out of her own pocket, because she cold not get funding.  Realistically, most teachers probably cannot do all the things she did, but she has set up a program to help educators do the most important part: in teaching her students to read and write she taught them about the historical atrocities born out of racial or religious prejudice.  It was extremely poignant in this inner city school in Los Angeles with many mixed influences on the youth, few of them positive.  Her students learned self-confidence not because she praised them but because she challenged them and they succeeded.  She cared enough to challenge them and they took that and built a strong and positive community, helping each other deal with troubled home-lives, difficult economic situations and their own demons.  In the end, a class of students that was never suppose to make it out of the ninth grade and was regarded as a criminal element graduated, a group of young people unafraid of others’ differences.

The cases in the article above are not from a “ghetto” school, they are from a suburbanite public school.  The very safety and comfort is sometimes the biggest challenge for students who do not really understand questions of hunger, suffering or danger.  When I worked at the Close Up Foundation with students from every demographic, the kids who were the most difficult to reach about citizen-involvement were often some of the ones from comfortable suburban schools.  I do not mean to say that all suburban schools or high school students are like this!!  Nor am I saying that we should deprive our children of comfort, but I am saying that we should be aware that it is often difficult for a teenager to grasp troubles that are foreign to them, or for that matter to accept people who are different from them.  It is why we–all of us!–are there to educate and, again, plant seeds that will eventually bring forth fruit: healthy, compassionate citizens.

The Society-is-letting-itself-down Argument

 

Brennan's "Semantics of Oppression"

 

But in the meanwhile, we have to acknowledge our failure as a society.  The students in the article above who were bullied to death represent the same demographics that the law fails to protect, today: the disabled, immigrants and gays.  These are our society’s failings:  The disabled, so often labeled as burdens to their caregivers and to themselves as having low-quality lives, are frequently aborted or euthanized, legally.  The range of  disabilities that are targeted is expansive.  Immigrants are being targeted by private citizens and increasingly by governments, currently more at the state level than the federal level.  Finally, the persistence of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and the Domestic Marriage Act, not to mention the various state same-sex marriage bans, continues to establish a second class status for gay citizens and their families.  What do these issues all have in common?  They are not all in the same party platform!  But, they all reinforce the notion, established by the government–so, in other words, our society, us!–that certain groups of people should be treated differently–not just differently, but beneath the rest of society.  In a society founded on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, we cannot expect to be successful and rely on future generations if we continue to tell our children, “there is something wrong with these people and they need to be treated differently.”  Is it any wonder that our children, in this society, follow this pattern?

 

AP Photograph of Sladjana Vidovic's (remembered in the framed picture) grieving family.

 

HOPE:

Suicide hotlines:

http://suicidehotlines.com/

http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/?gclid=CKnKjvqfzKQCFUNM5Qod1Wf8iw

For gay teens:

http://www.facebook.com/pages/It-Gets-Better-Project/158071744210603

http://www.glaad.org/

http://community.pflag.org/Page.aspx?pid=194&srcid=-2

http://ellen.warnerbros.com/2010/10/donate_to_the_anti-bullying_organizations_ellen_supports_1005.php

For disabilities rights and protection of disabled or elderly:

http://www.dredf.org/?gclid=COWzjqKgzKQCFc9L5QodIlf7iw

http://www.ada.gov/

http://www.dredf.org/?gclid=COWzjqKgzKQCFc9L5QodIlf7iw

http://www.nrlc.org/medethics/index.html

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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Historian's Journal

A Pittsburgh fan’s case for sports in history

"Stan, Guy, love the show!"

Earlier this week I wrote about history and journalism.  I posted that day with a heavy heart because my favorite radio station had just been unceremoniously scrapped.  (In fact, I had been following the Twitter pages of the afternoon show hosts, The Drive, and they literally were planning their afternoon show Monday when they got the news that they were done.)  I think sports represent a really interesting an important part of social history.  My station was ESPN 1250 on the AM.  It was the Pittsburgh ESPN affiliate radio station.  One of the hallmarks of the station was the Stan and Guy show in the 10-2 slot.  This was a special show, because for years the two sports personalities had previously aired their show together on the local Fox affiliate’s TV station with devoted fans. Pittsburgh is a serious sports town.  There is a long loyalty born out of the economic trials during the 1970s, relieved by the success of the Steelers.  While the Steelers were irrelevant before before the ’70s the Pirates were not, playing in an America whose sports scene was still dominated by baseball (ironically, Pittsburgh and the Pirates face the reverse situation, now–maybe someday Lemieux will buy them).  This blog post is a short argument (admittedly, colored in black and gold) for the relevance of sports history in “real history”–especially, but not exclusively, for the 21st century.  (And, a tribute to Stan and Guy and the guys on the Drive for their unfortunate dismissal by a national sports media company who, as Stan has so often said, don’t get Pittsburghers or the black and gold nation.)

A Pittsburgh legend: Myron Cope, inventor of the Terrible Towel.

When he was alive the great Myron Cope dominated the airwaves in western PA.  Cope was not just a great personality, he was a great human being.  He inaugurated the Terrible Towel era (and in 1996 gave the rights to the Allegheny Valley School which cares for people with mental and physical disabilities, such as Cope’s autistic son).  The affection for this man was genuine from players and fans alike.  People connected with him.  The city’s history was connected to him and through him and the world of sports.  He was also a huge influence on every sports voice and journalist who came out of Pittsburgh.  It is illustrative of how important a sports community can be in some cities and how important the local media is in bonding that community together through its discussion.  It is that much more evident when you consider the charitable power that these same individuals have and exercise for important causes, locally, nationally and sometimes internationally.

To my mind a beloved sports personality and team in a beleaguered city is a unifying and positive force.  And, any city that puts so much heart and soul into its sports and sports personalities, as Pittsburgh does, has to have that element acknowledged when its history and self-identity are explored.  There are genuine points of interest for sociologists, anthropologists and historians.  Pittsburgh, in particular, is such an interesting case study, because so many people left during hard times creating a widespread but ever-loyal fan base (as with a case like me, exiled in Baltimore!) and because the city has evolved so much in the years since its sports teams stood for success while the city’s success, in general, had faltered.  We can’t ignore the relevance of sports in society, nor should we, be it negative or positive.  The problems in sports are reflective of society’s problems, both because of how they often represent examples of excessive and indulgent behavior in society’s vices and because of the heroism attached to these players.  But, by the same token some of the victories in sports have also been essential in our evolving society, including the emotional victories, such as the Lake Placid’s Miracle on Ice and the Saints victories in post-Katrina New Orleans; and, also the social victories, such as Jackie Robinson’s courageous first step dismantling the color barrier in sports and society, during segregation.

Consider the Pittsburgh Pirates, who drafted Roberto Clemente.  Clemente, a Puerto Rican, would become the first Hispanic player to win a World Series as a starter (1960), win a league MVP award (1966) and win a World Series MVP award (1971).  He died in plane crash, in flight on a mercy-aid mission to earthquake rocked Nicaragua.  While Major League Baseball maybe littered with the stats of Latino-American ball players, today, Clemente was inspiration to a population that was treated like second-class citizens–maltreatment that continues even now.  In an era when one’s race still carried suggested undertones of one’s ability, Clemente challenged those notions with his work and gave back generously when he could have withdrawn in bitterness.  His foundation continues to give to Pittsburgh youth and awards others who give.

Art Rooney, the Chief--a damned admirable man.

During the 70s, as much of the country fell on hard times, the steel mills cut back and Pittsburghers felt the times more harshly than many.  Seemingly out of nowhere, behind a young head coach, Chuck Noll, the Steelers helped lift up a depressed city.  As the team gained momentum and became the standard bearer for the city, the team’s chief, Art Rooney, the Chief, became an accessible hero for the fans.  He walked through the city with a warm smile, a friendly handshake and cigar for anyone who came up to him.  Rooney was humble and generous.  He was the unofficial leader of the city.  When he died the whole city attended the funeral.  Despite some recent blemishes, the Rooney family is still one of the most loved and respected of NFL owners because of what they gave the city and society.  (At the bottom of the page is a link to the NFL Films special on the Chief.)

Super Mario! Twice the savior of hockey in Pittsburgh and a man who had a hand in every Pens' Cup!

Mario Lemieux educated Pittsburgh in ice hockey.  I tend to think that it was essential that he do so, because the arena the Pittsburgh Penguins played in, the Civic Arena, later the Mellon arena, but always the “Igloo” in our hearts–a unique architectural building now at the end of its life–had been built on top of a neighborhood that had been confiscated by the city, displacing one of Pittsburgh’s minority communities, through eminent domain.  (It is, of course, a recurring challenge for cities–just ask the former residents of Southeast D.C. who were displaced by the National’s new stadium–one constantly justified by promises of economic growth that do not often pan out.)  Lemieux turned a largely apathetic city into great fans of the fastest sport!  When, in the 1990s, the team suffered financial woes, Lemieux saved the day, again, and bought the team.  Only a couple of years ago, he saved the team for the city, managing to keep it in Pittsburgh instead of losing it to Kansas City, despite a sweetheart deal awaiting them in that other city.  The days of limbo were awful and as a fan then and someone now living in Baltimore, a city that knows something about uprooted teams, I will always be grateful to that French-Canadian along with thousands of other Pens fans.  Since then, Lord Stanley, the prize of the NHL finals and the most unique trophy in sports, has returned to the city that sits on the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers!

Redemption for Big Ben? Too early to say . . .

On a less triumphant note, I submit, Exhibit D, the 2010 summer of Ben “Big Ben” Roethlisberger.  I do not know exactly what happened in Milledgeville, GA, but I do know it smells bad.  If Ben did not sexually assault the college girl who accused him, he still behaved intolerably.  The emotion in the city was palpable; and, yes, I could feel it all the way in Baltimore.  What is so depressing is the deplorable behavior of all involved: if Ben did it, we will never know, because the alleged victim was too intoxicated to provide the necessary testimony and evidence; regardless of what occurred in the end, it is hard to understand why the bodyguard, a Pennsylvania state policeman, let it go as far as it did, clearly an accessory; and, finally the apparent utter lack of respect for other human beings exhibited by the big man on campus, and shared by so many other hot shots in our society, at some point along the way became an integral part of Ben’s personality.  Now, what we all wonder, is can he reform–does he even want to?  Again, I cannot answer that, and certainly not at this juncture, but preliminary evidence suggests he might redeem himself.  Perhaps, it would be fitting of me to traverse the Keystone state and consider Michael Vick.  If both men are guilty, Vick’s crime is the lesser but remains deplorable.  Vick, now working closely with the Humane Society, has returned from the pallor of a jail sentence and the probable conclusion of his career as a humbled man and one who still has game.  One may hope he is truly a repentant, new man.  I would be hard pressed to judge anyone for not forgiving Ben, but I would like to believe a second chance is out there if he is responsible and determined enough to fully earn it, all the more so because jail time will not be served to punish any action that might have happened.  I know that for more than a few Pittsburghers it will take more than a winning season to embrace him, again.

In a society where history is often regarded as drab, boring or irrelevant, I think it is important to take advantage of fans’ passion.  In this case, I am clearly talking about more than just statistics.  I believe that there is legitimate course of study and a way to catch the interest of a broader segment of the population.  Imagine, for example, the depth and value of investigating the removal of the Baltimore Colts from a city devoted to them by a young Ravens fan today.  Covering the Baltimore scene would bring up many fruitful research segues into the economic times and trials of the city that coincided with that unfortunate event.  (No offense Indianapolis, but the NFL gave you the team and Baltimore’s football history and heritage!)

Legends: Guy Junker, Mike Lange, Steve Blass, and Stan Savran (left to right)

So, sports are an important window into society’s soul.  In order to reach that window, we rely on sports journalists to boost us up and give us a glimpse through it in our contemporary world which shapes history.  Where some are comedic, like NFL Network’s Rich Eisen and ESPN’s Kenny Mayne, others are brash and contrary, like ESPN’s Colin Cowherd and Pittsburgh’s Mark Madden, and still others are in touch with the pulse of sports in society, like ESPN’s Chris Berman and Pittsburgh sports guys Stan Savran and Guy Junker.  Stan and Guy brought genuine emotion and real insight.  I will miss that and hope to hear from them again, soon.  In the meanwhile I want to thank them for great and moving times that I experienced as a listener.  Guy’s savant-like knowledge of Pittsburgh baseball earlier this year, a fantastic interview at this year’s training camp with “Mean Joe Green” and this summer’s discussions about childhood games and crotchety neighbors are just some of my favorite memories from this year alone.  I have been moved to anger, tears and laughter over some jubilant and trying years in the Pittsburgh sports scene and ESPN 1250 (online) was there through the last decade of it!  It was great being reunited with former Mountaineer and Steeler Mike Logan!  And, it was great having the Stan and Guy show reunited on ESPN while it lasted–may it return again, soon!!

Go Stillers!  Go Pens!  Pittsburgh is the City of Champions!  (Except Pitt!)

Check out this short film about the “Chief” from NFL Films:

http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-game-highlights/09000d5d801c5078/NFL-Films-Presents-The-Chief

Myron Cope:

Decorative relief from the Basilica of St. John, Ephesus, Turkey

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Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Historian's Journal