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"WHAT NEXT?" A Teacher's Perspective on Change

By       Message Adam Bessie     Permalink
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Recently, I shared underground cartoonist Robert Crumb's powerful "A Short History of America" with my community college English classes.  Over twelve wordless panels, Crumb depicts how the "development" of the American landscape, as a lush, peaceful meadow is dramatically transformed into the congested urban sprawl of modern day America that my students--and all of us--are intimately familiar with.  In plain-spoken urgency, Crumb finally asks us, "WHAT NEXT?!"--to push us to consider our role in American history, and in it's future.  And this was the question I posed my students, the young people who many have said will determine the course of this Presidential election which has been defined by the theme of "change."

Needless to say, from our discussion, it appeared that most students saw "change" as  something that they watched, rather than something that they did.  And more broadly, they didn't seem to feel too much a part of "America's History," nor a part of it's future.

One student captured this sentiment quite accurately: "We will only know as time passes us by. Until then let's just kick back and watch everything around us."  In other words, history is happening to me.  Let's go along for the ride.

These students' real history is like Crumb's comic--something they don't live in, but look at as spectators, from a comfortable distance.

I believe this sense of powerlessness should not be confused with apathy, as it so often is.  No, most students appear to care deeply and passionately about our country, and our world.

But when it turns to the question of what we can do about the problems, when it turns to solutions, many of the students turned to the passive voice. "Oh well, that's just human nature," I read in many essays.  Or: sure, it sucks, but that's just the way things are.

This feeling of passionate powerlessness, of paralysis, is one many of us can sympathize with over the last 8 years.  When Bush won the first time, many of us felt that our vote, or voice, or passion, hadn't made a difference.  On 9/11, when history smashed into the World Trade Center Towers, we felt this way, as if our collective lives had been hijacked and taken in a new and frightening direction.   And when we invaded Iraq preemptively, despite protests, despite lack of evidence or a demonstrated link between Iraq and the 9/11 backers, many us felt this way--wanting to scream, wanting to change things, but feeling like spectators looking at a football game we're losing. Then Bush beats Kerry, despite it all.  And perhaps, this passionate paralysis becomes our home, this pervasive doubt that crystallizes into a dark, ugly cynicism.

Obama, for many of us, has shone a light through this cynicism, helping us to feel that "Change" is finally possible, that we can get ourselves out of this aggressive foreign policy, out of a failing economy, and towards a more kind and prosperous society.

Then, enter Palin, and this tenuous confidence recedes to cynicism, reflected in article titles such as "We're Gonna Frickin' Lose this Thing." Again, despite the flailing economy, despite a seemingly never-ending war, somehow, it seems, the Republicans are going to dazzle the American public into believing that Republican policies can change problems caused by Republican policies.

Let's not give into these feelings of passionate powerlessness, and in the final month, let's fight tooth and nail despite these feelings. And more broadly, let's keep in mind that this "Thing" is not just the election, but the future of our country, which will not be wholly determined by this election--no matter how pivotal it is.  That we will go on despite whatever happens.  And that ultimately, as Crumb's comic shows us, real change takes time, happening incrementally, so small that it doesn't even appear as if it is happening at all.

When we write our own answers to "WHAT'S NEXT?!" let's do it in the active voice.


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Adam Bessie is an assistant professor of English at Diablo Valley College, in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is a co-wrote a chapter in the 2011 edition of Project Censored on metaphor and political language, and is a frequent contributor to (more...)
 

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