Historians deal every day with human tragedy. Whether it’s slavery, the holocaust, or the brutal colonization of the Americas, we immerse ourselves in horrifying events that have consequences centuries later. Thus, I was surprised to find myself absolutely shaken by the recent tragedy at Virginia Tech University. My husband gently pointed out that in Iraq the daily death tolls often exceed thirty-three and I could tell he wanted to point out that in Darfur the number of victims was unfathomable. My reaction, therefore, demanded further reflection. I realized that I believe in education as a series of practices and beliefs, which can better human history. When it works, albeit only part of the time, students and teachers accomplish great things. In a semester they can challenge one another’s most basic assumptions. They can dialogue about issues that don’t take place in other spheres. We examine and discuss racism, imperialism, violence, and women’s rights. Conversations that will be taboo in their future workplaces and social spaces take place in the classroom. I complain as much as the next professor about my students’ lack of dedication, their grade grubbing, and their materialism. But like someone who furiously defends their family member against outsiders, I feel a responsibility to my students. I doubt that I would have the bravery to shield my students from oncoming bullets as Professor Librescu. I am sure that most teachers can relate to his sentiment, if not his courage.
My own research on local politics studies an era in which civic associations involved people in their communities and engaged them in broader social issues. Universities are one of the few places left that serve this function. Our students do not have time or the forums to discuss the human condition, current political issues, or read literature. They don’t have faith that the world they will enter will treat them fairly, which is generally an accurate assessment. I believe that the classroom can function as the meritocracy that they will not find elsewhere. If I am to convince them that they can prevent the repetition of great errors and that there are possibilities to improve our lives, that indeed even the least powerful have changed human history, we need to create an ideal space for them, or approximate it as best we can. For I believe, as Gandhi once said, that you must be the change you wish to see in the world. I asked my students what they hoped the response would be to the Virginia Tech shootings. They expressed frustration that the positive aspects of their education and generation were rarely discussed in the media. They had fewer concerns about safety and more about public support for scholarships and loans. Lest I became too romantic, one of my students eagerly thrust his hand into the air. I called on him with great expectation. He smiled bashfully and said, “Professor, is this on the final?” I smiled and thought to myself, I love my job.
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