Curriculum, Engagement, Teaching

The King of Denmark and the Naked Mole Rat: Teaching Critical Thinking for Social Justice

The King of Denmark and a Class Divided

There is a well-loved, but apocryphal story about the King of Denmark. It goes like this: When the Nazis invaded Denmark during the Second World War, they ordered the Danish Jews to don arm bands displaying the yellow star of David. Jews would no longer be permitted to appear in public without these symbols in plain view. The morning following the Nazi invasion, so the story goes, the King of Denmark rode out on his horse through the parks and streets wearing an armband with the yellow star. While this story is not factual, it has created an archetype, a symbol of bravery in the face of injustice. And, in truth, only a small number of Danish Jews ended up in the hands of the Nazis because their non-Jewish friends and neighbours found ingenious ways to protect them, to hide them, and to spirit them out of harm’s way.

Many people have seen the film of Jane Elliott’s attempt to teach her Grade 3 class about racial discrimination. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, teaching in a small Iowa town populated largely by White people from homogeneous backgrounds, Jane Elliott decided to introduce her students to an experience that she believed would simulate racial discrimination and thereby teach them to become more tolerant people.

Her blue-eye, brown-eye class division exercise has become legendary. Over the course of a few days, Ms. Elliott alternately privileged and then disadvantaged her students based upon the colour of their eyes. The film, entitled “A Class Divided”, focuses on children who are humiliated by the experience and also on those who exult in their newfound positions of privilege and liberty. While it is painful to watch children suffering the negative effects of exclusion, we must not forget to look at the smiling children who are experiencing the other side of Ms. Elliott’s coin.

We need to ask why there seems to be a belief that the children in the experiment will only learn from one half of the experience. The unstated hypothesis of the experiment seems to be that they will suddenly be brought to realize the “right answer” to the question we all ask a child who has hurt another: “How would it make you feel if she did that to you?”

Has that ever actually worked? We know that a large number of bullies have, themselves, been bullied, so why do we persist in the belief that there is only one thing to learn from an experience like the one Jane Elliott created? If we cannot teach children to see a multiplicity of views, we are – none of us – learning from the experience.

Where is the King of Denmark in this story? Where are the students who refuse to comply with the demand to exclude their former friends or refuse to stand by while others are denied an extra helping of lunch? Why don’t we see Jane Elliott’s “diversity training” in the same light as we see Stanley Milgram’s experiments? When experimental subjects were given orders, which 65 percent of them obeyed, to apply shocks they believed could be lethal, there was an outcry. Yes, we learned that even ordinary and decent people would follow orders to the extreme. We learned what we have always known about how to train soldiers to kill the enemy and how to make the “other” seem inhuman. But did anyone expect that the experimental subjects who applied the shocks would learn to be more compassionate or tolerant? It does not stand to reason. We cannot close our eyes to the observations and the views that may contradict the “nice” or popular way of examining uncomfortable issues.

The Naked Mole Rat, Freedom of Expression, and Equality Rights

One of my favourite picture books is by Mo Willems, of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus fame. This charming exploration of freedom of expression is entitled Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed (New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 2009). The book’s main character is a naked mole rat named Wilbur, who likes to wear clothes. When the rest of the naked mole rats see him dressed, Wilbur is met by a chorus of “Eew Yuck,” from the others, who inform him, “NAKED MOLE RATS DON’T WEAR CLOTHES.” His response: “Why not?”

This two-word sentence elicits an outcry from the majority of his community, but also a response from the great leader, Grand-pah, who upon consideration, decides to don clothing, himself. The questions he asks while pondering Wilbur’s “Why not?” amount to a legal and rights-based analysis, suitable for five-year-olds. Does wearing clothes hurt anyone? No. Does everyone like to wear clothes? Also, no. We do not need a head count here to determine fairness. We need to approach the question in another way.

Democracy does not, in fact, depend solely upon the rule of the majority; it depends upon the understanding that the majority should be subject to questions and that minority values and views will be tolerated where they do not cause significant harm. And “Eew Yuck” is not harm.

Democracy does not, in fact, depend solely upon the rule of the majority; it depends upon the understanding that the majority should be subject to questions and that minority values and views will be tolerated where they do not cause significant harm.

Giving the franchise to women, First Nations peoples, prisoners, and others who did not previously have the right to vote; integrating neighbourhoods, industries, schools; joining people of different races or of the same sex in marriage; covering or uncovering our heads and faces in public have all, at one time or another, met with scorn, offense, and strong negative feelings. Nonetheless, principles of equality and freedom have slowly gained the upper hand. This did not happen by silencing either side of the conflicts involved in these issues.

Here is the hard part – we also need to hear from those who say “Eew Yuck”. As people who care about justice and who also know that we do not and cannot have all the answers, we need to be open to the questions. Did the King of Denmark love the Jewish people? Did the Danes? Not particularly. They just understood that rather than acting upon arbitrary instructions or upon emotions, they needed to act upon first principles.

But how do we teach principles in an era when our diverse societies are constantly engaging in conflicts of values and points of view? I believe that we teach justice by actively and purposely engaging those whose views differ from our own. We must do this consciously and creatively. We must invite disagreement, but also acknowledge that all points of view are not equally valid or justifiable. But if we find everyone to be in agreement, if we quickly find a consensus, we should acknowledge that someone must be missing. Whose voice is not being heard? We need to actively seek out views that contradict our own, or we may never truly understand our own views. (If you have ever seen a naked mole rat, you may be more convinced than ever, that clothes are a good idea!)

If we find everyone to be in agreement, if we quickly find a consensus, we should acknowledge that someone must be missing. Whose voice is not being heard? We need to actively seek out views that contradict our own, or we may never truly understand our own views.

Huckleberry Finn, Freedom of Expression and Equality Rights

A few years ago, I decided to read aloud to my granddaughters one of my favourite books. Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is a classic of American literature and has been taught in schools and universities for generations. It is genuinely funny, and is also an early anti-racist work of art. What could go wrong? I was unable to get past the first few pages before my granddaughters told me they did not want to hear any more. They were not bored; they simply could not stand hearing the word that is used pervasively in the story – and that was used frequently and commonly at the time the novel was written. The “N” word comes from the mouths of nearly all the characters and appears more than 200 times in the text.

A number of solutions to this problem have arisen. One such solution is to read a Bowdlerized version of the book recently published (not for the first time), that replaces the word “nigger” with the word “slave.” It also eliminates the word “Injun”, which is also used numbers of times in the text. Do these alterations change meaning and context? Without question.

Others think a solution is to simply stop teaching or reading the book altogether. After all, there are many other wonderful examples of late 19th century American literature deserving of our attention. If we use this new version of Huckleberry Finn, or if we stop reading and teaching it, what does this say about our commitment to teaching and engaging with our difficult history, with art, and with critical thinking?

What do we say to the parent who reports that her child is in a class reading Huckleberry Finn and is now, for the first time, being called “nigger” in the school yard?

But, what do we say to the parent who reports that her child is in a class reading Huckleberry Finn and is now, for the first time, being called “nigger” in the school yard? Whether we choose to engage with the past (or with the present), whether we choose to avoid conflict by ignoring potential controversy, we inevitably make a choice that leaves someone out. In order to make an informed choice, we need to listen to as many views as we can find. And yet, a choice must still be made.

Citizenship, Democracy, and Tins of Tomatoes

Teaching citizenship to young children in many schools has come down to a well-known exercise – the charity fundraising or food bank drive. Many schools teach children to “give back” or to appreciate how lucky they are in comparison to others who do not have the material possessions or security that they are presumed to enjoy. Certain schools enjoin each class in a competition to bring in the most money or the largest number of tins. At the end of the collection period, the class that brings in the most wins a prize, perhaps a pizza lunch or coupons from a fast food restaurant.

The tacit understanding is that the children in these classes will learn to be good citizens who assist people in need – particularly those who are less fortunate and who live in far-off countries. This seems like a rational and uncontroversial lesson because very few people object to “good works”. And the fundraising drives often involve videos of grateful people in Africa who have had a school built for them or who now have access to clean water because of a new well drilled for them by the funds raised by Canadian children.

But, rarely are our children shown videos of First Nations people in Manitoba or Ontario who do not have clean and safe water, or decent school facilities. Nor are they shown the excellent living conditions enjoyed by the leaders of the countries in which people have no safe drinking water or schools. As Wilbur asks, “Why not?”

There are questions we should invite from students who are learning about democracy and citizenship – questions we may not realize we are actually avoiding. When we want our students to be grateful for their good fortune, do we know if some of the children in our classes are asking their families to give them the tins of tomatoes they received that week from the very food bank the school wants them to support? When we gather funds for far-off people, do we ask why their living situations are different from our own – or ask whether there are people in Canada whose lives are similar to the needy or grateful people in the videos?

Asking hard questions is just that – hard. But if we are truly committed to teaching for social justice, we need to encourage our children to find as many points of view as they can, and to ask questions we may never be able to answer, knowing that education for citizenship lies in the process of thinking critically about the many sides of a question and working toward addressing the inequities this process reveals.

EN BREF – Poser des questions difficiles est effectivement – difficile. Mais pour enseigner vraiment la justice sociale, nous devons encourager nos enfants à obtenir le plus de points de vue possible et à poser des questions auxquelles nous pourrions ne jamais arriver à répondre, en sachant que l’éducation à la citoyenneté réside dans la réflexion critique au sujet des nombreux aspects d’une question et dans la réduction des iniquités qui sont ainsi dégagées. Si nous constatons que tous s’entendent, si nous arrivons rapidement à un consensus, nous devrions reconnaître que quelqu’un est sûrement absent. Quelle voix n’entendons-nous pas? Nous devons activement chercher des points de vue qui contredisent les nôtres, sinon nous ne pourrions jamais vraiment comprendre nos propres points de vue.

Meet the Expert(s)

Danielle McLaughlin

Danielle McLaughlin is Director of Education for the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Canadian Civil Liberties Education Trust. dsmclaughlin@ccla.org

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