To Be a Knowledgeable Citizen During a Bad Year

This post is part of a series of articles, blog posts, and short briefs produced by EXPLO Elevate focused on supporting schools’ virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

by Ross Peters | Vice President of School Strategy (Incoming)

To read more of Ross’ writing, visit his blog.

At noon today in Collierville, TN just east of Memphis, a siren sounded.

The siren sounds at exactly the same time every Saturday. One might think it voices a kind of normalcy in its predictability, however, this is not the case this Saturday. Even the things that represent the rhythm of our lives have taken on a new connotation in the wake of our Covid19-masked national reckoning with systemic racism. This moment is absolutely necessary even when it feels unwelcome. It has been coming for a long time, too long. No one can outrun the alarm any longer.

The fifty-star flag in my mind is waving up-side-down–we are a nation in distress. My family is in distress; I am in distress, and I am feeling for every peaceful protester knocked mercilessly from their feet, as well as for every priest, teacher, mother, father, sister, brother weeping from the recent memory of tear gas in Lexington Square, along boulevards and inside parks across the country. I am also feeling for all those law enforcement officers who approach their work in the spirit of public service to all Americans.

The image that is haunting me most is of Tamir Rice. In the photograph that flashed around the world in the split seconds of a November 2014 news cycle, his countenance is smiling, bright, and at ease. This young man, only twelve years old, from Cleveland where I used to live, looks like someone I would’ve liked to have in my class when I taught seventh grade. To reveal my own blindness, his story, one well-known in myriad iterations for generations of African-American communities, seemed unfathomable to me. It should not have been as much of a surprise to me as it was. It revealed how much I have to learn in order to become the knowledgeable citizen I seek to become.

It takes several seconds for the siren’s sound to get to our house–the distance between somehow accompanies the sound and makes it as much an echo of the past as a telling of the current time. For me that sound is both a container for the past and a wave pulling us inexorably into an uncertain future.

With basic understanding and truth (inclusive of scientific knowledge) under persistent assault in what many have called an era “post-truth,” we must decide how to react. At the same time, however, we must listen and learn. We must not fall into a cycle of reflecting only on the actions of others with whom we disagree and over whom we have little to no control, nor should we think that preaching to our own choir is in and of itself action—it is actually only a kind of largely ineffective therapy. In a recent post, “Calling Out and Calling On Myself in the Face of a Bad Year,” I started on a path of envisioning who I will strive to be in this difficult time.

In this post, I am focusing more narrowly on how I want to be a knowledgeable citizen wrestling to access and understand things that are true in a culture that can appear to value truth less and less.

  • In the context of focusing on controlling what I can control, I have an evolving list of knowledgeable citizenship compass points I commit to follow during this moment of extraordinary transformation:
  • When people tell me not to trust my eyes, ears, or reason, I will look, listen, and study more carefully, and
  • I will not trust those who tell me not to trust my eyes, ears, or reason.
  • I will seek voices that represent knowledge and experience different than my own in order to develop a more complete perspective.
  • I will believe in and support excellent journalism as it is vital to our republic and to our thoughtful citizenship. (Note: the word “excellent” is vital here. Carefully-researched by journalists who are more drawn to produce a clear and complete telling of a story than they are writing or performing for click-bait.)
  • I will find knowledge-based resources of information and analysis. I will also keep in mind that just because someone, or some entity, is a good resource in one arena does not equate to that person or entity being credible in all areas.
  • When possible, I will maintain connection to those with whom I may disagree. Civility and kindness do not imply agreement, however.
  • I will not accept shoddy rationale or fail to call it out when my voice can be valuable.
  • I will not engage in talk that pretends to be conversation where members of rival groups talk past each other. This has no useful end, and it is a dangerous cultural addiction (though it is a large factor in the financial model of Facebook and Twitter).
  • I will use my voice to emphasize the existential value of scholarship, inquiry, science, knowledge, the arts, and the humanities.
  • I will vote, and I will encourage you to vote.
  • I will seek beauty and write about it, take photographs of it, and share it.

An important note for parents and educators:

We have a responsibility, one that looks more and more vital by the day, to help our kids develop their own knowledgeable citizen compass. While we should certainly make sure they wash their hands and wear their masks, the role of teachers and parents in this moment is bigger than a necessary, but limited, personal hygiene safety to-do list. By helping young people build their own list, you give them (or perhaps better, give them back) their sense of agency as the world around them seems increasingly determined to tamp it down. Among the learnings from the demonstrations is that under-represented people seek and deserve a platform, and when it is stifled, they find venues to express themselves, particularly in this republic that promises such venues to them as part of its founding document.

Next Saturday, a few seconds after noon, I will hear the sound of the siren. The week ahead of us now will accompany it and inevitably, we will be called to follow.