By Dianne Bragg
March is one of those months that is filled with surprises. Often, the weather this time of year leaves us with one foot in spring and another still in winter. Our northern friends have been hit by weekly snowstorms and here in the South tornadoes have already left their destructive signature on several communities, including the campus of Jacksonville State University in Alabama. Fortunately, despite the extensive damage to the campus and student housing, no one was seriously injured because students were away on spring break.
Even so, March offers the promise of April, Spring and better days ahead. I would propose that it is the same with the state of journalism. As our country faces new political crises almost daily, it is the journalists who remain on the front line. Sometimes that means actually being at a march or protest and recording events for today and tomorrow. For us, as journalism historians, it often means looking to the past so we can make sense of the present, or maybe just offer another perspective. Too often, the average citizen (whoever that is) does not understand how our past informs our present. And, it is likewise with many of our students.
In the midst of the turmoil at many of our schools and across our country, there have been cries for curtailing speech or limiting speakers’ access to campuses. Although the fear is understandable, it is a moment of concern, one that calls into question our understanding of the First Amendment and what it means to allow space for the speech we hate. Within that debate, there has even been some criticism of students and their role in protests at their schools. Although we have historic student speech cases like Tinker, Frazier and Hazelwood to offer some guidance, particularly on high school campuses, we are left to debate what actually constitutes “legitimate pedagogical concerns.”
A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education questioned whether those of us in education are doing all we can to ensure that students, faculty, and administrators understand their rights and responsibilities. In “The Crisis of Civic Education,” Derek Bok, president emeritus of Harvard University, asserted that there is much more we could do to prepare our students for the challenges of living in a democracy. Bok suggests that we are requiring less of students in areas of critical thinking, American government, and news literacy. I agree with him. Instead of broadening our students’ views, schools too often try to create an insular environment, often under the guise of safety and legal concerns. We are all too familiar with the phenomenon of “helicopter” parents. It would seem, though, that many of our schools are becoming “helicopter” institutions, often at the behest of parents, politicians, and even political news commentators. Taking such a stance falls far short of our duties to help our students on their way to becoming fully participatory members of a democratic society.
And, as often happens, it is journalism historians who are able to shed insight on what has come before. In the midst of the student anti-gun “March for Our Lives” protests, more than one “adult,” over numerous media platforms, has seen fit to deride the protestors as being too young, disrespectful, and ill-informed. Slogans such as “Walk Up” not “Walk Out” have made the rounds. To be frank, I am not even sure I know what that one means. But, these young people have not been deterred, even as they have been the focus of ugly innuendo.
It is not the first time this has happened and, as fate would have it, Linda Brown died recently. Brown was 76 when she died in Kansas, but she was a Topeka third grader when her father tried to enroll her in an all-white school, a move that set off the events leading to the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education.
Recently, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County men’s basketball team stunned the NCAA tournament when it became the first 16th seeded team to defeat a number one team. There is more to this school, though, than their basketball program. UMBD’s president, Freeman Hrabowski III, grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and participated in a Civil Rights Children’s Crusade in 1963. Hrabowski, all of 12 years old, found himself face to face with the infamous Public Safety Commissioner Eugene “Bull” Connor, who spat in Hrabowski’s face and sent the young boy, along with many other children, off to spend five nights in jail. Hrabowski has acknowledged how this event shaped him and impacted his career in education.
History is all around us and it is our job as journalism historians and educators to bring such stories to light. They are pieces of history that could easily find their way into any classroom discussion, regardless of the course subject. Our students are our future, and the sooner they learn to use their First Amendment right to speak up and, if necessary, walk out, the better we all are for it.
Today, we are again watching young people cut their teeth on their civics lessons, and I, for one, think the future will be better for it.