It's that time of the semester--the time when students are frantically trying to salvage their grades, and scrambling to play catch-up, yet birds are chirping, the sun is warm, and the last place anyone wants to be is in the classroom. It's also the time of the semester when I feel most like...a mom.
"What did I tell you?" I say to student after student as they come into my office, worried they failed the last quiz. "I told you to BUY THE BOOK."
"I told you you had to study!"
"What did I say to you last week?"
I morph into the Nagging Teacher, the I-Told-You-So Teacher, the Why-Didn't-You-Listen-To-Me-Fifteen-Weeks-Ago Teacher.
The I'm-also-a-Mom-and-Don't-You-Forget-It Teacher.
Whether they like it or not.
I have been teaching Simon Wiesenthal's book The Sunflower: On the Possibilities and Limits of Forgiveness for many years. Wiesenthal, a Holocaust survivor, recounts an incident in which he was summoned to the bedside of a dying SS officer. The young man wishes to unburden himself to a Jew--any Jew will do. Wiesenthal is unable to offer the SS officer the forgiveness he seeks and, instead, turns and walks out of the room in silence. What would you have done? Wiesenthal asks his readers. Was it my place to forgive? Can one even offer forgiveness for murder? The second half of The Sunflower consists of Symposium responses to his questions; scholars, political and religious leaders, and historians thoughtfully weigh in on the issues of collective guilt, collective responsibility, the presence of evil in the world, and the recurring and ongoing epidemic of genocide. Here are some of the questions they respond to:
Why does evil happen?
How can we prevent the creation of mass murderers?
Can a people forgive genocides perpetrated against themselves?
Does forgiveness equal forgetting?
Are their limits to forgiveness
Does forgiveness blunt rage (outrage) and replace action?
What about reparations?
What about the future?
Students are asked to not only read Wiesenthal's section of the book, but the Symposium responses which follow. The transformation the students undergo is fairly typical: they first panic at the amount assigned to be read, then panic more as they realize their research papers center around some of the core questions discussed in the book, necessitating, of course, that they then complete the readings (and buy the book, of course). Panic is followed by initial interest as they begin to research their topic, then growing outrage and passion as we engage the ethical issues involved: questions about a country's or a government's collective guilt and/or responsibility in human rights' violations, in mass murder, in establishing an environment which would allow for hatred among ordinary people to grow and fester. One thing is always clear, though: as young black students from economically underprivileged backgrounds they never ever question the relevance of our discussions to their own lives and future.
I teach at a small, private, historically black college. While we begin our discussions of collective guilt/responsibility, forgiveness, the nature of evil in the world, with the Holocaust it doesn't take long for the students to apply much of what we discuss to the question of America's past with respect to her treatment of black Americans--both historically and, sadly, in contemporary terms. A few semesters ago our discussions coincided with the debate over Don Imus' racial slurs on national radio, giving our conversations about apologies and forgiveness a chance to even further develop. His comments dredged up memories around here--and elsewhere I'm sure--of America's shameful past; but it is important to revisit the past, nonetheless, however uncomfortable we may feel in doing so. If we don't, we risk repeating it.
What is to be gained by continuing to remember the past? By taking every measure to offer apologies and reparations?
Everything: Hope. Opportunity. Forgiveness. Future.