Tuesday, December 29, 2009
Monday, December 21, 2009
The men of the 133rd just missed two major battles (besides the one over the future of Lieutenant FlannIgan). The first was the Second Battle of Bull Run, First Bull Run being one of the earliest engagements in the war, one that went horribly for the
Then on September 14 an enraged 133rd went to meet the enemy in
Friday, December 18, 2009
Dr. Wang Yi sent us this article some weeks ago. And it should have been published weeks ago. It is wonderful. One gets distracted or "busy" and more important things get neglected. And then the realization comes that one shouldn't have gotten distracted from something like this.
Xenophobia and Civic Virtue of Citizenry
“Trends in Literature in a Diverse Society” is a required graduate course in our reading program. After teaching the course for two semesters, I felt distressed by a number of students’ formulaic approach to their paper writing, which lacked a specific purpose or in-depth analysis. In order to improve the situation, I decided to make changes to my instruction so that my students would have a genuine purpose for research. I decided to ask students to organize a panel discussion before they started working on their research papers. The books which students are required to read for the course are organized into a number of unit topics which are related to social diversity, such as “xenophobia,” “poverty,” “American Eyes,” etc.. Each student is required to be on the panel for at least one of the topics. They are allowed to choose the unit topic they are interested in and feel comfortable to be on the panel. Each unit has three books and the panelists are required to read them more than once and keep a reflective journal. They are also encouraged to read beyond the required books for the topic. Before the panel holds discussion with the large class, I schedule a meeting with them (usually at the end of class of the previous week) and help them prepare for the discussion. The students of the panel share what they have researched on the book and some relevant information in other related areas and decide, based on their research, the key issues to be included, important concepts to clarify, and possible questions to ask during the discussion. As a result, the number of humdrum research papers has been reduced and most of the students’ papers ameliorated in quality. Inadvertently, my students emphasize in discussion the need to make a conscious effort to seek literary images and incidents in teaching abstract concepts in Social Studies. The panel on the topic of “xenophobia”, for example, indicates how the discussion of these literary works can be integrated into civic education in classroom. Evidently, the feeling results naturally from the inquiry approach to handling the literary discussion with a genuine purpose.
The three books required for the panel discussion are Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, Yoshiko Uchida’s Journey to Topaz, and Marina Budhos’s Ask Me No Questions. The unit takes three weeks; basically, each week is focused on one of the books. Before they read the books, the students are informed that in order to understand the issues reflected in the books accurately, it is important to expand research to related areas, such as history, sociology, psychology, anthropology, etc.. They are also reminded that in literary analysis it is critical to learn how to use cognitive skills like pattern observation, abstraction from complexity, symbolic or allegorical representation, etc.. They are told that the goal of their research is to develop some insights into understanding of human nature and society and that in order to do so they need to consciously develop their own discussion questions as they analyze the book and information from related areas. All the three panelists on the unit are elementary or secondary in-service reading teachers. In their reflective writing for the unit of xenophobia, the panelists all mention, one way or another, that literature can offer powerful aesthetic leverage in fostering civic character in children and young adults if they are appropriately guided in discussion of human nature and society. They believe that the images of heroic characters in literature are contagious in cultivating civic dispositions when children are exposed to and emotionally touched by characters’ behaviors. From guided discussion of heroes’ deeds and words in the books, children learn how to maintain a reasoned commitment to the fundamental democratic principles and ideals in their private and public lives. This article is to demonstrate how fostering civic virtues could be a natural part of reading curriculum when literary discussion inspires insights into deep understanding of human nature and society. In fact, my students’ panel discussion did not take an ethical perspective from the very beginning, but as they research and discuss the books with their focus on human nature and society, they realize that xenophobia is a moral issue which is related to human rights. In fact, the students in my literature class all agree that xenophobia is a kind of racism and define it as bias, intolerance, and encrypted prejudice which targets a different race and can go beyond the concept of race. It could be in fact a perception of any ethnic or religious group which is different from one’s own.
Heroes and Bystanders
Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars is the first book to be discussed in the unit. The students are touched by the Johansens, a Danish family, who were so brave during WWII that they risked their lives in order to protect Jews from Nazi persecution. The oldest daughter Lise joined the Danish Resistance and was killed by the Nazis. And her fiancé Peter was later captured and executed. In the story, the family worked in collaboration with the Danish Resistance to rescue their friends the Rosens and other Jews. Toward to end of the story, due to a desperate situation, the protagonist, a ten-year-old Danish girl Annemarie, had to walk alone in the dark woods before daybreak. On her way to Uncle Henrik’s fishing boat which is her destination, she ran into the Nazis and successfully fooled them. In the end, she passed to her uncle the drug-processed handkerchief which was used to distract the Nazis’ sniffing dogs from Jews hidden in the fishing boat.
The students in my class are sensitive to notice the parallels between Annemarie’s scary experience of walking alone in the dark woods and the traditional fantasy of Little Red Riding Hood. Also, one student points out the allegorical representation of the title by saying that even though the author says that Peter turned to the page in the Bible he had opened at random, and began to read the psalm, it is a deliberate allegory by the author of the runaway Jews’ journey and the tough task of rescuing them: “O praise the Lord./… / The Lord is rebuilding Jerusalem; / He gathers in the scattered sons of Israel. / It is he who heals the broken in spirit / And binds up their wounds, / He who numbers the stars one by one” (p. 86). Lowry continues to connect the psalm with Annemarie’s reflections on it: “Outside, she [Annemarie] knew, the sky was speckled with stars. How could anyone number them one by one, as the psalm said? … The whole world was: too cold, too big. And too cruel” (p. 87). She adds that the author is suggesting with the psalm that in spite of the formidable task to save the Jews, it is the command of our conscience to save them one by one. Another student mentions that the psalm marks Annemarie’s growth over the time in the story that she has now realized that the world is big, cold, and cruel, but the Danish people have confidence and they are determined to help Jews.
The discussion switches to the ethical implications of heroes and bystanders when one of the students raises a provocative question upon hearing the reading of the conversation between Annemarie and her father:
“She turned to her father. “Papa, do you remember what you heard the boy say to the soldier? That all of Denmark would be the King’s bodyguards?” Her father smiled. “I have never forgotten it,” he said. “Well,” Annemarie said slowly, “now I think that all of Denmark must be bodyguard for the Jews, as well” (p. 25).
The student says, “The truth is… heroes like the Johansens were very few at that time. How can we explain that throughout the Nazi occupation, cases of citizens rescuing Jews were the exception, not the rule?” She also adds by quoting Gorman (1992):
Why did they [heroes] refuse to hide behind the mask of the innocent bystander donned by so many of their fellow citizens in Germany, Poland, France, and elsewhere?... Again and again, the rescuers protest that what they did was natural and even quite ordinary… But by insisting on the banality of their heroism, they have launched a powerful challenge to our jaded moral notions of the status quo… On the other hand… [t]urning protectors into paragons would let the rest of humanity off the hook (p. 65).
Truly, where were the majority of the people in those countries when their Jewish neighbors were first branded and driven out of normal life, then herded into cattle trucks to be slaughtered like animals? Was the hellish immorality of the Nazi atrocities not strong enough to harrow human conscience? If the answer to the last question is positive, should we, then, hold innocent bystanders accountable for the crimes with which they have nothing to do? A Jewish student in my class, who is one of the panelists, has brought to the class discussion with a book titled Rescuers: Portraits of Moral Courage in the Holocaust (Block & Drucker, 1992), the prologue of which is written by Cynthia Ozick. The student tells of her relatives’ sufferings during the Nazi occupation in Europe. Then she reads to us a quote from the prologue (Ozick, 1992):
The conduct of the bystanders—again because there were so many of them—defined what was common and what was uncommon, what was exceptional and what was unexceptional, what was heroic and what was quotidian. If the bystanders in all their numbers had not be so docile, if they had not be so conciliatory, or, contrariwise, if they had not been so “inspired” (by slogans and rabble-rousers and uniforms and promises of national glory), if they had not acquiesced both through the ballot box and alongside the parade—if, in short, they had not been so many—the subject of heroism would never have had to rise. When a whole population takes on the status of bystander, the victims are without allies; the criminals unchecked, are strengthened; and only then do we need to speak of heroes… Hoping to confer no hurt, indifference finally grows lethal; why is that? Can it be that indifference, ostensibly passive, harbors an unsuspected robustness? The act of turning toward—while carrying a club—is an act of brutality; but the act of turning away, however, empty-handed and harmlessly, remains nevertheless an act. The whole truth may be that the idea of human passivity is nothing but the illusion of wistful mortals; and that waking into the exigencies of our own time—whichever way you turn, toward or away,--implies action (pp. 17-18).
I, as well as the students, am shocked by the vigor of the language and the whole class is silent for a few seconds when the panelist finishes reading it. I ask the student to read the passage all over again. When she finishes the second reading, it appears that everyone is stunned by such an extraordinary perception of bystanders’ indifference that no one has expected it to be raised to such an ethical level. Shortly, one voice asks tentatively, “Does that mean it is, sometimes, guilty to be a bystander?” One of the panelists admits that he has been overwhelmed by the new perspective and felt like reconsidering bystanders’ or governments’ indifference to crimes like genocides that happened recently in the world. Another panelist questions whether it is a kind of human weakness because the bloodbath that erupted not long ago in former Yugoslavia, Rwanda and Iraq involved so much of the population that blaming some individual monsters’ psychopathology for the massacre is too simplistic and that without the majority’s indifference, tyrants like Saddam Hussein could have never had his way. Later he seems to realize something and adds that he believes it requires a virtuous citizenry to advance the ideal of “liberty and justice for all.” Several students concur that in order not to let the majority of the young people slip into the status of bystanders, it is the classroom teachers’ responsibility to foster in young people appropriate civic dispositions.
Now the panel discussion comes to a turning point. The class discussion begins to concentrate on the ethical dimension of xenophobia for the whole unit. The students realize, as Haynes et al (1997) point out, that civic disposition are the habits of the heart and mind that are conducive to the healthy functioning of the democratic system. In everyday lives a strong civic disposition nurtures a commitment in children and young adults to such values as life, freedom to pursue happiness, equality, truth, etc. (pp. 23-24). It is a pivotal institution for combating xenophobia which may blind human conscience and give way to acquiescence in violation of human rights. My whole class come to an agreement that the bystander is culpable for being indifferent to others’ suffering. The inconvenient truth is, as Carmen Lawrence points out, “under certain conditions, we may all be capable of brutality or, at least, indifference to it” (2003).
Based on this consensus, the panel guides the class in looking for evidence in the book how the Johansens foster in their children values similar to the civic disposition we have defined. There are quite a few places in the book which indicate that the Johansens made Jewish friends and also cared about their safety. When Annemarie were concerned about what would happen to Mrs. Hirsch and other Jews now that they were not allowed to do business as before, her mother immediately assured her, “Friends will take care of them” (p. 24). So did Mr. Johansen. He reminded Annemaria of her responsibility to her friends as he said, “But you keep an eye on your friend Ellen. And stay away from the soldier. Your mother told me about what happened on Østerbrogate” (p. 25). Lowry presents a convincing process of Annemarie’s growth and her moral development. At first she was frightened: “It was only in the fairy tales that people were called upon to be so brave, to die for one another… And the courageous Resistance leaders, who sometimes lost their lives… But ordinary people like the Rosens and the Johansens? … she was glad to be an ordinary person who would never be called upon for courage” (p. 26). Nevertheless, in reality, Annemarie witnessed her parents’ compassion and courage in protection of Jews, especially when the Nazis came to search for Jews. Quite a few of my students mention the conversation between Annemarie and Uncle Henrik when she felt that the adults were lying to her.
“How brave are you, little Annemarie?” he asked suddenly… It was a question she did not want to be asked… “Not very,” she confessed, looking at the floor of the barn… “I think that is not true,” Uncle Henrik said. “…if the time came to be brave, I am quite sure you would be very, very brave. But,” he added, “it is much easier to be brave if you do not know everything” (p. 76).
Toward the end of the discussion on the book, the students agree that heroes’ actions are never based on impulse but goodness of their virtuous character. One panelist’ research also proves that in spite of the fact that heroes of Nazi-occupied Europe as a group could not be put into any social category we are used to since they came from all walks of life, according to Tec (1992), there is one thing prominent about them, that is, many of them are individualists who “are not constrained by the expectations of the group… and have a history of doing good deeds before the war” (qtd. in Gorman, p. 65). The student further points out that the rescuers formed the habit of responding to a need first and the danger second and shared a sense of universalism. Another panelist quotes Mordecai Paldiel (1992), the director of the Righteous Among the Nations of Israel as questioning: “Goodness leaves us gasping, for we refuse to recognize it as a natural human attribute… Is acting benevolently and altruistically such an outlandish and unusual type of behavior, supposedly at odds with man’s inherent character, as to justify a meticulous search for explanation?” (qtd. in Ozick, p. 21). When they wrap up the discussion, the panel mentions that books like Number the Stars are a good resource for classroom teachers to use and integrate character education. As their research indicates, the most astounding finding is the fact that in reality the majority of the rescuers believe that the gift of goodness can be passed on like flowers growing in a certain soil (Gorman, 1992, p. 65).
A Travesty of Justice
When the xenophobia unit comes to the discussion of the second book Journey to Topaz, the Jewish panelist is the first to voice her surprise: “I have never known before that Japanese Americans were sent to concentration camps, too, during the Second World War and it happened in this country! I only knew the Holocaust and what the Jews experienced then in Europe.” Upon hearing the comment, I immediately mention the terminology debate over what to call the internment camps: President Roosevelt and General Dwight D. Eisenhower referred to them directly as “concentration camps,” but this term is criticized for suggesting that the experience was analogous to the Holocaust. At the same time, former internees object to the euphemism of “War Relocation Centers” because they were literally imprisoned then (Wikipedia, 2009). In the book, Uchida, based on her personal childhood experience, brings back to us the saddening historical reality that America did, during WWII, make prisoners of its own innocent citizens. Two-thirds of the 120,000 internees were Nisei (American-born) and their children (Uchida, 1984). The story is set after Pearl Harbor attack and Yuki, an eleven-year-old girl and her family were uprooted from their comfortable home right before Christmas and shipped, together with thousands of other West Coast Japanese Americans, to the horse stalls of Tanforan Racetrack and then to the bleak desert concentration camp at Topaz, Utah. The xenophobic nature of the internment is beyond an eleven-year-old child’s understanding: “It was strange… that the United States should be at war with Italy and Germany, too, but that it was only the Japanese who were considered so dangerous to the country. ‘It doesn’t seem fair,’ she objected to Ken” (p. 29).
The three panelists all agree to guide the discussion by starting with the prologue which the author added to the book in its 1984 edition. Uchida includes in it the conclusion made in 1983 by the U.S. Congress Commission of Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians that “a grave injustice was done to Japanese Americans and that the causes of the uprooting were race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of leadership” (pp. vii-viii). The panel asks the class why such serious violation of human rights could also happen in a democratic country like America while we were accusing the Nazis of genocide of Jewish people in Europe and how the Japanese Americans’ internment should be interpreted compared with the persecution of Jews by the Nazis. Quite a few students have researched Japanese Americans’ internment during WWII before they come to the discussion and they are amazed that Uchida’s story so accurately reflects the sufferings and hardships internees experienced then that even the shooting death of Mr. Kurihara is based on the documented incident in which internee James Wakasa was shot by the armed camp guard at Topaz (Mikiso, 1990). My students have also studied the incidents of xenophobia or racism in other countries so they share the information of xenophobic experiences of different peoples they have researched and the students all agree that xenophobia is an ideology or belief which has a long history and has been existing with almost all social systems, democratic or not, as long as the society is not homogeneous in race, ethnicity, or religion. In reference to the “race prejudice” that caused Japanese American internment, one student points out that a major feature of the xenophobia related to the tragedy of that size is a kind of collective fear and subsequent aggression by a community against the Japanese Americans and that such collective fear had been brewing for many years before WWII and rose to a new structural level by the time of Pearl Harbor Bombing. He reads J. M. Vorster’s description (2002) of today’s xenophobia in the world: “Nowadays the international community witnesses state organized ‘ethnic’ cleansing in Central Africa and Eastern Europe. This ‘ethnic cleansing’ includes methods such as deportation, terror and so-called ‘legal forms’ of exclusion from the state concerned.” Other students also supplement the argument from a historical perspective. One student who notices the connections in history calls attention to the racism and discrimination Japanese Americans were faced with since they moved to this country. She quotes from her research:
In the first half of the 20th century, California experienced a wave of anti-Japanese prejudice in part because of the concentration there of new immigrants… Over 90% of Japanese immigrants to the USA settled in California… In 1905, California’s anti-miscegenation law was amended... In October 1906, the San Francisco Board of Education voted to segregate their schools based on race… That anti-Japanese sentiment was maintained beyond this period is evidenced by the 1924 “Oriental Exclusion Law,” which blocked Japanese immigrants from attaining citizenship (Wikipedia, 2009).
Based on the information shared in the discussion, the panel concludes that even democratic systems are not naturally exempt from violation of human rights so long as the society as a whole is unable to rid itself of inherent collective fear. For that reason, racially–based travesties of justice did happen in our history and are often implied in prejudice and discrimination against African Americans and other racial or ethnic groups. Japanese Americans’ internment was only one of the most eye-catching state-organized xenophobic actions from the very beginning. It is devastating to be wronged by one’s own country and feel helpless as Uchida emotionally says, “Most Americans, supporting their country in a war they considered just, did nothing to protest our forced removal, and might well have considered it treasonous had we tried to resist or protest” (p. viii). The students recall the discussion of heroes and bystanders with Lowry’s Number the Stars and vicariously perceive the desperate situation in which the Japanese Americans found themselves when confronted by the communal hostility. In spite of that, one panelist points out the difference in the two books. In Journey to Topaz, bystanders didn’t have to risk their lives if they chose to help Japanese Americans. As in historical reality, Yuki and her family still had faithful friends like Mrs. Jamieson, Mrs. Nelson, and Mimi who were able to openly stand by their side, express their sympathy, and help them the best way they wanted without feeling it was life-threatening. Mrs. Jamieson not only gave Yuki her best jewelry for keepsake, but also told her, “It is a ghastly thought, but what are we to do? I’ve already sent two letters off to President Roosevelt, but I fancy he’s not much inclined to listen to me” (p. 28). The panelist adds that unlike democratic countries, autocratic systems such as the Nazis are able to exert extreme violence to the target race or ethnic group because they are structurally one-dimensional, that is, they control all spheres of life. The situation with the Johansens in Number the Stars was extremely harsh and it was a life-or-death decision when they made up their mind to help their Jewish friends. In reality, such heroes were very few.
Of course, “race prejudice” or xenophobia was also attributed to the failure of leaders when they shared the xenophobic fear of the community. Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, who administered the internment program and was infamous for his a-Jap-is-a-Jap statement, actually spoke the mind of the collective fear when he testified to Congress in spite of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s opposition to the internment, “I don’t want them [Japanese Americans] here. They are a dangerous element. There is no way to determine their loyalty… It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese. American citizenship does not necessarily determine loyalty… We must worry about the Japanese all the time till he is wiped off the map” (Mullen, 1943).
During the discussion one student suddenly raised a question that changes the direction of the discussion: “Did economy play a role in Japanese Americans’ internment?” She asks why Uchida says that American leaders acceded to political and ECONOMIC pressure groups and imprisoned them with full knowledge that their action was not only unconstitutional, but totally unnecessary (p. viii). The panel responds positively and one panelist who had the same question in her mind during her research reads the interview of managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Association reported in Saturday Evening Post in 1942:
We’re charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It’s a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown man… If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we would never miss them in two weeks, because the white farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either” (qtd. in Wikipoedia, 2009).
The question, like the one about heroes and bystanders in Number the Stars, once again triggers the discussion of human nature. Some students read episodes from the book in which bystanders are described: “she [Yuki] noticed large groups of people gathered across the street to watch. She wondered what they were thinking. Were they relieved to see the Japanese go? Were they glad to be rid of them? Some of them chatted gaily, some looked grim, and some simply stared blankly” (p. 46). Also, there are those who had the heart to take advantage of their evacuation like the woman living from up the block to dig the best gladiolas Juki’s father planted and said, “I thought you wouldn’t mind… since you’re leaving anyway” (p. 39). Ken called her a vulture and said she was like the people in San Francisco who bought refrigerators for five dollars and cars for twenty-five dollars from the evacuated Japanese (p. 39); other students quote from the book and indicate that xenophobia or violation of human rights is detrimental to the society because it makes its own citizens be at odds with itself. For instance, Ken turned cynical, “growing more distant and inward” (p. 113). Like what happened in the book, in historical reality some Japanese American internees did reconsider their loyalty to the American government after finding themselves in internment camps and several pro-Japan groups formed inside the camp and more than 5,000 internees renounced their U.S. citizenship (Wikipedia, 2009). One panelist adds that as part of civic virtue, schools should use literary works like journal to Topaz to cultivate in children and young adults confidence in our democratic system. In the book Mrs. Sakane, Juki’s mother is a perfect embodiment of the character. Even in internment camp when Mr. Kurihara bitterly complained about the U.S. government’s mistreatment of Japanese Americans, she responded with equanimity, “Fear has made this country do something she will one day regret, Mr. Hurihara, but we cannot let this terrible mistake poison our hearts. If we do, then we will be the ones to destroy ourselves and our children as well… We must make the best of it” (p. 90).
The discussion takes an interesting turn when the students are debating whether humans are born evil. One panelist and a number of students insist that humans are born evil. The panelist uses Robert Middlekauff’s research (1987) about the founding fathers’ assumptions behind the Constitution to support his negative perspective of human nature:
We are much less daring today. We are not certain that human nature… is a meaningful conception… The founders, however, were not afflicted with modern timidity… Man, they believe, was self-interested and selfish. He was prone to be unstable in his behavior, to value his own interest over others, including society’s, to prefer the immediate, the ephemeral gain to the long-term achievement. He was easily corrupted (because he was essentially selfish) and willing to shed his ethical standards to increase his power or to fatten his purse… The founders, moreover, assumed that human nature is static. It has always been what it is today and promises not to change. Nor could the environment alter human nature in any important way. It might affect behavior and, by forcing changes in the action of men, might seem to be changing human nature itself, but it did not touch the core of man at all. That core remained selfish. Still the founders were not dogmatic, not doctrinaire: though they denied that human nature was good, they… did not suppose that it was wholly bad (p. 661)
When he finishes reading that statement, the panelist emphasizes that the strength of a democratic system is, as James Madison believes, that “no common interest or passion will be likely to unite a majority of the whole number in an unjust pursuit” (Middlekauff, 1987, p. 665). The revelation of human nature is somewhat discouraging to the discussion participants, but when classroom teachers’ responsibility comes to be discussed, the topic of citizens’ civic virtue resurfaces again.
In 1976 President Gerald R. Ford stated, “Not only was that evacuation wrong, but Japanese Americans were and are loyal Americans…we have to learn from the tragedy of that long-ago experience forever, to treasure liberty and justice for each individual American” (qtd. in Uchida, 1984, p. vii). Nevertheless, the attempt to preserve and expand our experiment in the ideal of “liberty and justice for all” is a challenge to us all. The founding fathers of the nation understood well that advancing this ideal requires a virtuous citizenry. As the position paper of the National Council of Social Studies (Haynes, et al, 1997), succinctly points out, “This nation’s commitment to inalienable rights, the cornerstone of our democracy, requires each citizen to uphold those rights for all others. Citizenship in this most diverse society is defined not only by an affirmation of democratic principles, but also by a willingness to engage in civic debate and to work for public policies that serve the common good” (p. 23). The panel wraps up the discussion with the conclusion that in order to foster public virtue and moral character in our children and young adults, it is important for families, schools, and communities to provide opportunities for them to observe and practice civic virtue and good character in their daily lives by making decisions based on our democratic principles. As Haynes et al (1997) observe, “civic virtue must be lived, not just studied” (p. 24). With that said, it is a good thing that the Congress decreed in 2001 that ten sites of Japanese American internment are to be preserved as historical landmarks and will forever stand as reminders that this nation failed in its most sacred duty to protect its citizens against prejudice, greed, and political expediency (Wikipedia, 2009).
Images and Moral Affinities
During the panel’s preparatory meeting before the class discuss the third book of the unit Ask Me No Questions by Marina Budhos, one of the panelists mentions the concept of home is important because it appears that the author deliberately wants readers to reflect on the idea in quite a few places of the book. Then the other two panelists mention that in a way the conflicts in all the three books of the unit reflect the difference between what the characters consider is their home and what the others think their home is. In Budhos’ book, Nadira symbolically indicates the difference by saying that maps “tell one story, yet no matter where people draw the borders, the land tells another. And I like putting the two parts together, figuring out the big story” (p. 20). The author seems to question what home means to ordinary innocent people like the Hossains when their fate puts them at mercy of forces beyond their control. In history as part of India, Bengal was ruled by the British. After India became independent, Bengal was lopped in half and their home was on the Muslim part which belonged to the new nation Pakistan which lied more than a thousand miles away with India in between. After that they separated from Pakistan and became Bangladesh. It was Nadira and her sister Aisha’s dream to make home of this country, but suddenly their dream was snapped and they were told that they didn’t belong here. Another panelist recalls JFK’s famous saying “America is a country of immigrants.” I share with them the definition in my culture that home is only the last stop of one’s parents or ancestors’ wandering in the world, which the panel find is an interesting way of viewing it. The story is about fourteen-year-old Bangladeshi girl Nadira and her family who lived in New York City on expired visas, hoping to realize their dream of becoming legal U.S. citizens. Unfortunately, 9/11 attacks changed everything and her father was arrested and detained at the U.S.-Canadian border and the whole family was faced with deportation. Illegal immigrant and terrorism are, of course, two key issues which are related to the book. The panel realizes that the first issue is very controversial, but the panel agrees that the discussion should be conducted with a focus on civic virtue which requires a reasoned commitment to the fundamental values of our democratic system.
During the class discussion, the students do not spend much time on the topic of terrorism. The class all agree that bad apples are very few and they have deep sympathy for innocent Muslims, legal or illegal, who were demonized, terrorized, and victimized in this country after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. As Nadira put it,
And in my head, words keep drumming: Special Registration. Deportation. Green card. Residency. Asylum. We live our lives by these words… We heard about a man who had one side of his face bashed in, and another who was run off the road in his taxi and called bad names… so many names of Muslims called up on the rosters. Abba had a friend who disappeared to a prison cell in New Jersey. We heard of hundreds of deported Iranians from California and others from Brooklyn, Texas, upstate New York. We watched the news of the war and saw ourselves as others saw us: dark, flitting shadows, grenades blooming in our fists. Dangerous (pp. 1-9).
Several students notice the parallels in the way Muslims were treated in this country after the 9/11 terrorist attacks as described in Ask Me No Questions and Japanese Americans were treated in WWII reflected in Journey to Topaz. Their similarities lead to a discussion of what we should do in civic education which is supposed to instill in our children and adolescents civility, open-mindedness, and tolerance of diversity. My students ask questions like: Why did American government do the same injustice to Muslims such as Special Registration and Deportation, etc. again fifty years after the Japanese American Internment? What is it that restricts our range of concern for them and justifies negative treatment of those who only look like the enemy? Is it human nature to be so indifferent to those who lie “beyond the pale”? Some students approach the issue of illegal immigrants from a moral perspective and state that people’s fears arise from a source deeper than the legal and economic implications. Immigration always impinges on issues like race and national identity. Most of the students believe it is human nature to feel close or some kinship with people who are like oneself. A number of students indicate the xenophobic nature of American fears by pointing out that while Caucasians who immigrate to this country from Ireland, Russia, or Eastern Europe causes little comment, Americans are worried about Asians, Muslims, and Hispanic people. One panelist uses her research to expand the perspective. She confirms that human moral community is based, to some extent, on similarities, but there are other factors like class. The student quotes Spohn (Markkula Center, 2009):
Class may play a greater role than race in determining who gets admitted to the American moral community. Assimilation into the middle class ethos was the price which previous generations of immigrants paid for admission into the American mainstream. It may still be the price today. Work hard, learn English, adopt middle class values and the similarities of class will overcome the dissimilarities of nationality, religion, or race… Immigrant groups which are perceived to be good candidates for the middle class are more welcome that those who are perceived as unable to move up.
Not all the students are convinced of her perspective. The topic of illegal immigrants instigates heated discussion on its legal and economic implications. At first a few students make the statement that they do not have bad feelings for illegal immigrants, but illegal immigrants do have caused problems and increased our financial burden on education, health care, law enforcement, etc.; other students do not agree and they cite the data from research which shock the class. For instance, “Urban Institute studies show that legal and illegal immigrant families pay $70 billion in taxes annually while receiving $43 billion in services” (Spohn, 2009). According to Deborah White (US Liberal Politics, 2009), it is the U.S. and Mexican governments that have been actively enticing illegal immigrants to enter this country and to work illegally for profit-hungry U.S. employers. Why so? one student quotes statistics to indicate that undocumented workers give $7 billion to the Social Security Administration and about $1.5 billion in Medicare taxes annually and they will never come back to collect the benefits (White, 2009). Moreover, they add, the fact that U.S. employers routinely hire illegal immigrants with little penalty causes illegal hiring to go on a rampage and encourage more illegal immigrants. For instance, in 1999, the Clinton Administration collected $3.69 million in fines from 890 companies for employing undocumented workers, but in 2004, the Bush administration levied no fines from any U.S. companies hiring illegal immigrants (White, 2009). Therefore, instead of vilifying illegal immigrants, we should blame the business owners who hired them and the U.S. government who simply looked the other way when they entered the country. The students also quote from the story to support the argument. As Aisha says in her Valedictorian speech: “In those days they didn’t enforce the laws… They let us in, and they let us believe that we belonged. That we could hope for a future here. That one day I could go to college and carry on. And then they took that hope away” (pp. 151-52). Budhos vividly depicts the unsettling situation and the psychological pressure Nadira feels: “All through social studies class, I keep having this weird vision of a police officer showing up at school… He and Mr. Laird [the principal] huddle together, and then their eyes comb me over” (p. 68). In reference to what Nadira says that “sometimes I feel like shaking their [teachers’] sleeves and blurting out, Ask me, please” (p. 30), one student in my class expresses her feeling which is shared by many others: “I feel sad because like the teachers in the book, I thought we’ve done enough as a teacher to ask no questions about their immigrant status since we are not INS but teachers. However, now I know that is not good enough to ask no questions. We should be more proactive, especially when I understand what kind of psychological burden they are carrying.”
My students agree that it is a good opportunity for classroom teachers to use discussion of stories like Ask Me No Questions or similar situation in public lives to educate children how to live out the ideals of virtuous character and citizenship. The same panelist again quotes White (2009) with regard to immorality of exploiting undocumented workers because of their illegal status:
An obvious moral drawback to allow U.S. businesses to pay under-market, lower than even minimum wage rates, is that it’s wrong. Minimum wage and standard minimal working conditions are established to humanely provide for the safety and welfare of all workers… not just American-born workers. It’s a matter of decency and human rights… It’s an updated form of economic slavery… With an economic gun at their back, they leave homes because hunger and poverty pushes them across the border.
At this point, I remind the class that the history of immigration is filled with tears and blood and urge them to visit Ellis Island National Museum if you have the chance. Immigrants’ stories are more or less similar. They are worse if they are illegal or non-Caucasian. In Nadira’s words, they were living a floating life, not knowing where they belonged (p. 8). After they stayed past their visa, they became “invisible”: all the bills were in her second cousin’s name. Her father had to spend a small fortune to buy a fake social security number. He did all kind of low-paid jobs -- selling candied nuts, working on construction site until he was injured, swabbing down lunch counters, bussing dishes in restaurants, cleaning factory floor, etc. (pp. 7-8). The special registration after the 9/11 attacks was rubbing salt into their wounds. Some people like her Uncle Mr. Rahman could not tolerate the humiliation and decided to go back to Bangladesh: “Better I am poor in a country where I can feel home. Where I am wanted, than to live like this… I cannot beg anymore” (p. 140). It is even more heart-breaking to see how their children suffer. Nadira describes their lives by saying, “Everyday is a piece of rubber stretched so tight it’s going to snap” (p. 93). Her desperation is obvious when she looked at lighted windows of buildings in the city and thought to herself, “Maybe if we knocked on their doors and just asked them to sponsor us, they would do it. It would be the opposite of those milk carton ads—instead of missing children, we would be found children. A found family. That’s all it would take. One door, opening” (pp. 145-146). What a powerful image!
The panelist mentions that according to White’s research (2009), the federal government clearly knows the companies that probably employ illegal immigrants because fake Social Security numbers can be tracked down from the earning suspense files but they do nothing about it. Using Pastor Robin Hoover of Human Borders’ words, our nation is posting two signs to illegal immigrants: “Help Wanted: Inquire Within” and “Do Not Trespass” (qtd. in White, 2009). Evidently it is an ethical issue for further discussion. The panel concludes that classroom teachers should be consciously aware of how the distorted images seen of illegal immigrants through xenophobic lens could mislead our perception and twisted our emotions. Also, open discussion in class, instead of asking no questions, of the issue of illegal immigrants and how they and their families should be treated is a good opportunity to foster public virtue and moral character in the younger generation.
From the perspective of social sciences, literature is always a subject which is focused on human nature and society. In literary analysis, we try to evaluate characters’ behaviors which take place in a particular environment based on our own knowledge and experiences of life, Therefore, we can admire, understand, regret, pardon, criticize, dislike, or reject them. In doing so, we understand ourselves and human nature and society better. Through the discussion of the three books in the unit on xenophobia, my students are consciously aware that civic character or virtuous disposition is of crucial importance in order to combat xenophobia. However, the down side of human nature is our self-interestedness, collective fears because of our differences, and limited moral affinities. Even in our democratic society, racial or ethnic groups as a whole could restrict the range of their concern and be indifferent to negative treatment of people who are not like us, or even give way to acquiescence in violation of human rights. In order to advance the ideal of “liberty and justice for all,” our society requires a virtuous citizenship to “uphold the rights of all others.” Through the discussion of the unit, my students understand that a reasoned commitment to the ideal, sometimes, needs courage, which does not come from impulse, but people’s virtuous character. Our hope relies on the virtuous character of the future citizens. Fortunately, civic virtue is a natural human attribute which can be cultivated like growing flowers in the right soil.
Aesthetically, literary images or characters in literature are powerfully contagious in helping children build up such a commitment. Characters’ heroic actions often engage young readers so emotionally that they often stay in their mind as a concrete implementation of virtuous character. The heroes’ deeds may become their internalized principles and their virtuous images may come out to interrogate readers’ souls at critical moments. As stated in the NCSS position paper, the values of your democratic society are “to be lived, not just studies” (Haynes, et al, 1997). One of the effective way to live them is using literary analysis to autopsy characters’ motives and actions based on their own knowledge and experiences of life and expand their research to related topics in daily life so that they can debate and work for public policies that serve the common good of the society.