Friday, September 11, 2009

sharks and sea birds

As I write, I can clearly hear the roar of the NASCAR trials for the Richmond Raceway, at least five miles away as the crow flies: across the river, over the highway, through many neighborhoods. We're heading out of town to the Rockbridge Appalachian old time music festival.

I wanted to make note of an issue raised in my Senior Seminar class this semester. We just completed the third week. I was a juror for a student art and writing competition for children in foster care, sponsored by the Virginia Poverty Law Center. During lunch we talked about possible collaborations for my Seminar class and the issue of payday lending came up as currently a lightning rod for both the press and the upcoming Virginia legislative session. Jay Speer and Dana Wiggens from the VPLC have been ardently fighting for laws to protect the consumer from this practice that can impose up to 400% interest on loans, and entrap borrowers for years in an endless cycle of increasing debt. The met with the class and presented their case. Students were asked to define and research the problem and create a poster that addresses the problem.

Here is the issue. One student stayed after class and asked to speak with me in private. He explained that he didn't agree with Speer and Wiggens' demonizing of payday lenders and was having real difficult doing the project. He also commented on how he was not interested in social issues. I let that last comment go, and address his discomfort allowing him the option of choosing another controversial issue with which he felt less conflicted. He proposed to do a project about Arctic Drilling. By this time I had presented several readings and as a group we had researched the issue of payday lending, including issues of culture and economics, and demographics and psychology. The student presented privately to me his preliminary concept for a poster about the the negative impact of arctic drilling. He had a stock photo of oilsoaked bird, a few paragraphs of dummy text and a tag line.

“Oh dear”, I thought. “Hmmm”, I said aloud. “Hmmmm. I'm not sure this is going to work,” I commented. He looked nervous and throughout the next few minutes he held that nervous/frightened expression. If he had done some substantive research, I might have been more generous but his poster was more a spin on some ad for Canon or National Geographic, or something like that. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought that it’s okay for this student to be uncomfortable. So I told him that. I told him that it probably isn’t okay for a college-educated person to be ignorant about social issues. I reiterated that several ways: that to award him a college degree I would hope that he be able to engage with an issue, learn, research and have an educated opinion rather than just an emotional one. In the back of my mind, I was thinking about the health care reform debate and how so much effort to derail President Obama’s agenda banks on misinformation and fear. I was quickly reaching the opinion that it was at the very least a civic responsibility, if not a moral and professional and ethical one, as an educator to deliver the message to this student that ignorance and apathy is not okay for an educated person. I told him he didn’t have to agree with Jay and Dana but he did have to come up with an educated position on the issue. He didn’t argue. This student is not the argumentative sort, unlike the 7th graders my friend Susan has spoken about. I hope this is an experience that opens him up. It’s my response to many blatant demonstrations of disrespect ( our own congressman Eric Cantor from Virginia on his Blackberry during Obama's address to Congress) for the President's effort to bring dignity to young people, and to his office.