”My hope is that you will disturb the peace by devoting some or maybe all of your life’s work to protecting and expanding the greatest invention of human kind-the art of self-governance based on social justice.”
Tim Kipp, Department of Social Studies, Brattleboro Union High School
Disturbing the Peace – an Address to the Class of 2013
(shared with permission from the author)
“Parents, faculty, education officials, guests and the Class of 2013, I am delighted to address you on this exciting occasion. This is a particularly poignant moment for I am graduating as well, albeit it has taken me 39 years.
And as I have had the pleasure of teaching many of you, let me briefly relish the idea that I now may be able to have the last word, something that seldom happened in my classroom.
I will rely on insights from some of my favorite thinkers and take this opportunity to humbly offer some advice and be somewhat indulgent by reflecting on a lifetime of teaching.
I have titled this address “ Disturbing the Peace.”
Over sixty years ago one of my heroes, Ammon Hennacy, was arrested for refusing to pay his taxes because so much of our money was allocated for war and the development of nuclear weapons.
Ammon was one of the most frequently arrested activists in the peace movement in the 1950s and 1960s. At one of his hearings for tax resistance, the judge said, Ammon [they were on a first name basis by then] I am citing you for non -payment of federal taxes and for “DISTURBING THE PEACE.”
With a quizzical look of consternation Ammon protested, “Judge, I am not disturbing the peace! All my efforts over a life-time have been devoted “to disturbing the wars.” The judge was not impressed and sentenced Ammon to 60 days.
Ammon was an activist for peace and social justice with the Catholic Worker Movement. As a radical pacifist who refused to allow the government to define whom his enemies may be, he resisted US foreign policies that became and still are essentially a “permanent war for permanent peace.” [Gore Vidal]
As many of you are well aware [some I suppose painfully so]- my life ’s work as a teacher has been animated by a compulsion to teach you to become activists for social justice, be it local, national or around the world. I have sought to have you see history, political science, and law in the context of the vital struggle to transform our political economy into an authentic democracy.
Howard Zinn, another mentor, taught me to search for a “usable past.” How can what we learn in the classroom be a model for our future? Sure, “antique history” certainly has intrinsic value but lacks relevance and immediacy. I have always wanted more from the content.
John Dewey, the great progressive philosopher and educator from Vermont believed that the most effective education requires a good dose of empirical or experiential learning- he saw a natural continuum of reading, doing and reflecting.
What an exciting context from which to learn. Sometimes in one of my more ironic moods I feel that the imperfections of our political and economic system were developed so social studies teachers and the general public could hone their skills to be more effective actors in a democratic society. This may cause us to pay attention and enable us to have more relevant lives.
Using Ammon Hennacy’s admonition as a metaphor, my hope is that you will disturb the peace by devoting some or maybe all of your life’s work to protecting and expanding the greatest invention of human kind-the art of self-governance based on social justice.
Compared with you, growing up I had it much easier… I developed my values and ideology in the caldron of the 1960’s with the swirl of movements for civil rights, peace, women’s rights and the environment.
While it is myth that most young people of the 1960’s and 70’s were activists, mainstream media and conventional analysis had it, for better or for worse, that the majority of young people were devoted to some form of change from reform to revolution. Not so.
The publically held perception reinforced the myth of holistic activism and this myth became an ally for us in the movement and helped us attract more foot soldiers for the cause. These were actually times of optimism amid crisis as we truly felt that significant change could be won. Being an activist was “cool” in those distant days.
Your task today is more challenging. The public perception has changed and the corporate-dominated mainstream media has allowed reportage of movement activities to largely recede to the margins of the published and electronic world.
You have grown up in the most conservative times since at least the days of Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. The modern conservative movement is more energetic and sophisticated in its drive to protect capital and prerogatives of the “haves.” Remember Romney’s astute 47 percent analysis? In fact he was correct from the far right’s perspective.
Activists today can be vilified, marginalized or satirized by elites in the political and media spheres. This modern era of the conservative is, of course, aided and abetted by a Supreme Court that has elevated property rights over human rights.
Starting with Reagan and extended by Clinton and perfected by Bush II, our national leaders have seen fit to demonize the government’s role in society. The mantra is –the government is the problem, not a partner in the solution. Fortunately, Obama has made some diminutive steps to counter the prevailing ideology.
Your task is much more challenging: not only are the problems more daunting but also we now have a large sector of the political world hostile to government involvement. Diminished for now is the healthy consensus that we are in this together and that government indeed does have an important role to play. The New Deal coalition that emerged from the crisis of the Great Depression and World War 2 has dissipated but it- can- be -rebuilt.
This contemporary phase of conservationism urges us to venerate the individual over the group, to see government virtues as limited. Aren’t we a country of “rugged individualists,” a bunch of Horatio Algers thriving on competition to make us strong? Isn’t our system essentially a meritocracy where hard work is rewarded?
Sure, we all can value hard work and initiative-nothing wrong with this, but when Ayn Rand libertarianism becomes paramount, the ugly strains of social Darwinism can be manifest. Witness corporate behavior in the financial world- record stock market and banking profits with persistently high unemployment, witness the climate change deniers or listen to those opposed to making health care a universal right and not just a privilege. Think about the 1% vs. the 99% or more to the point the 10% vs. the 90%.
We can view the world and our place in it as an atomized experience that elevates the individual or we can strike a balance that places us in the larger social context that urges us to get involved and to give a damn. We make these choices. Ammon, in another context, said he wanted to create a world where it was “ easier to do good.” Think about it.
Noam Chomsky warns us to what any sentient being knows: we are faced with twin existential realities, both anthropogenic…yes… human-made in nature- global climate change and the scourge of war with its antecedents of class and skin color conflicts.
Today there is a galling political paralysis whereby power, party and class trumps citizens’ basic human needs. For those of us who are paying attention, we appear to reside in a Kafkaesque world where our leaders are mind-numbingly complacent or don’t have the political backbone to foster real change to save our planet. “We have carneval barkers masquerading as leaders.” [Frank Bruni]
While we remain the “richest” country in the world, compared to the other advanced democracies, we can lament having the highest rate of childhood poverty, the widest inequality gap, the highest rates of incarceration, the most gun deaths, and being the largest consumer of the world’s resources, including of course, petroleum.
Our idea fix on petroleum has us going to war to protect “our” national security, i.e. access to oil that we will consume at greater rates, which will ultimately threaten the globe.
Our military, larger, by some accounts then all others combined, enables us to be the cops of the world, where we are leaders in the number of countries invaded and the number of governments overthrown. We have substituted drones for diplomats. All of which has made us a prime target for the lunatic fringe of terror.
What an age in which to be cynical, it’s so easy! The challenges before us can indeed leave us cynical and psychically numb simply preferring to collapse on a couch of apathy. Perhaps every age induces cynicism?
Today you can get your news in the form of entertainment devoid of any serious analysis or real perspective. You can watch Stewart and Colbert and see the world as an endless comedic plot line or you can let the likes of Fox [Faux] News and bile-filled talk radio of the right and the left fill you with quarter-truths and hate. Oh, so much freedom of expression and so very little freedom of thought! This is a toxic brew for cynicism and its logical consequences: insularity, resignation and inaction.
As I have often told you: doing nothing is a conscious choice. By doing nothing you will guarantee that the status quo will prevail. Your hypnotic life will enable the “peace” of business as usual to continue. If you are satisfied with how the world is then by all means do nothing and your expectations will be rewarded.
I am confident today that most students of the class of 2013 will not choose the hypnotic path. You are labeled as the Millennial Generation by popular writers of today. As with any of these rather superficial appellations there is always the negative and the positive descriptors. So you are described as a narcissistic bunch barely capable of looking beyond your own personal world.
My work with young people over the past 4 decades both confirms and challenges the narcissistic adjective. I think every generation can be so described. While economics, technology and culture can mediate behavior; I believe most people want to help their neighbors.
I have seen kids commit to changing the world; to seeing well beyond themselves. This class is no exception. There are activists among us whom I will never forget, who will carry on long after BUHS. Interestingly a new study by sociologist, Helen Fox, finds today’s youth are more progressive than we were in the 1960’s. They have a more global and philanthropic outlook than previous generations.
This generation is more accepting of full human equality than any other generation in history. Interracial dating, gay rights, gay marriage: all of that seems normal to them.
Remember the crucial role played by young people in the Obama elections? Ask my students who volunteered over 600 hours in the last election.
You tend to be less confrontational then we were but no less ardent in you views. Less confrontational? I am not sure if this is a positive but of course this is coming from someone who still occasionally goes to the barricades after nearly 50 years.
You know knowledge is like manure… it only really works when it is spread around.
So how will you use you current and future knowledge?
Will you listen to the words of Noam Chomsky who tells us “knowledge is not enough”? Will your knowledge turn to action or will it sit in a steaming pile warming one small space on earth?
My teaching will have been in vain if the good people before me remain silent in the face of injustice.
My teaching will have been in vain if you only come away with a deeper critique that leaves you in stasis.
Will you “disturb the peace?”
The great Brazilian activist-educator, Paulo Freire, said the purpose of education is to develop a critical consciousness that will challenge oppression. His was a secular “liberation theology”’ for poor people of Latin America, and the world for that matter.
I wonder who you will be in 4 years, in 10 years, and for the rest of your lives. There is greatness here and it will mature into a powerful force if you cultivate it. Will you disturb the peace of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and imperialism?
Will you live a life larger than your own happiness?
May you hold to the world-view of the eminent theologian, Abraham Heschel of being a “pessimist of the intellect and an optimist of the will.”
During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Franklin, ill of health, sat and listened and only spoke a couple of times during the debates. As the proceeding concluded he struggled to his feet to address his fellow “disturbers of the peace”:
For months I have spied that sun carved high on the back of General Washington’s chair. I have wondered whether it is a setting or a rising sun and… I now know it is a rising sun.
So disturb some peace for social justice…
have some fun doing it …
and trust in your own fallibility.”
Tim Kipp, Vermont, June 2013