Literature is a powerful means of helping us understand things we don’t understand otherwise. It can offer us new perspectives. It can reflect ourselves, certainly, but it can also help us understand others who are not like us. It offers us an opportunity to see things from a perspective besides our own. It’s incredibly obvious to me that our current president doesn’t read because he lacks that important perspective.
We have all, at one time or another, been blind to others’ perspectives. For instance, I have been thinking a lot lately about homelessness. I have held some beliefs about it that I am questioning, and I’m also questioning why I believed these things when I admit now that I didn’t have certain information. My information about who becomes homeless and why was woefully incomplete. I have had an opportunity to get to know some young people who found themselves homeless, and not for reasons I would have thought.
I was watching some videos last night when I was having trouble falling asleep. Because I went to a U2 concert on Thursday night, my ears are still full of their music, and I’m still feeling that post-concert energy. (I had a really hard time going to sleep Thursday night after the concert.) I was really just clicking through different videos, feeling 80’s nostalgia big time with some of them, and I happened upon this short interview with the Edge in which he describes working on a documentary about homelessness and how he had begun interrogating his feelings about homelessness. It’s fairly candid. It’s hard to admit you were not open-minded about something in the past or that you held political or social beliefs in the past that you now disagree with. Watching that video, in which someone I admire a great deal admits to a certain blindness about a situation—I blindness I shared—helped me figure out what I wanted to say about the current crisis at America’s southern border. We all change. As Taylor Mali says in “Like Lilly Like Wilson,” “changing your mind is one of the best ways / of finding out whether or not you still have one.”
As I have learned from others, I have changed my mind many times. It’s not “waffling,” it’s adjusting based on information you didn’t have before. In order to adjust, you have to be open to that information. Many people reject information that conflicts with what they believe. Cognitive dissonance is not a rare phenomenon. People confronted with information that contradicts beliefs they have held will do one of several things:
- Change their mind or their behavior based on the new information.
- Justify it in some way.
- Ignore or dismiss the new information.
We should interrogate the source and strength of the information, of course, but if the information is both strong and comes from a reliable source or data, we are lying if we do anything except change our minds or behavior. Climate change is a good example. A lot of people are choosing either to justify not doing anything for the climate or to ignore it and say climate change is made up.
A long time ago, I believed every person coming into our country should follow the legal channels. What is the big deal? If you want to become an American, I thought, fine, but do whatever paperwork you need to do. I changed my mind after reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book The Bean Trees. What made me change my mind is that Kingsolver opened my eyes to the fact that a lot of people cannot follow legal channels and come to America for a variety of reasons: their governments are so corrupt that they will never be able to complete the required paperwork and go through official channels or their lives are in danger (often because of their corrupt government). Obviously, there are a host of other reasons.
In The Bean Trees, the protagonist Taylor Greer meets a couple, Estevan and Esperanza, who are undocumented immigrants from Guatemala. Taylor’s friend Mattie runs a sort of “underground railroad” for undocumented immigrants out of her home. Kingsolver allows Taylor to stand in for the uninformed reader. Her naivete about what is happening in the world around her mirrored my own, despite the fact that I watched the news, and I knew about the rampant corruption and violence in Central and South America. I didn’t see it because I didn’t know anyone who had experienced it, and one thing novels allow you to do is live vicariously through the characters.
Getting to know Estevan and Esperanza changed my mind about undocumented immigrants. They were fleeing a civil war in Guatemala. Their lives were in danger. Their child was taken from them in Guatemala. Kingsolver gets at the heart of the issue many Americans have with refugees and undocumented immigrants through Estavan. After the character Virgie May Parsons declares that immigrants should “stay put in their own dirt, not come here taking up jobs” because “before you know it the whole world will be here jibbering and jabbering till we won’t know it’s America” (143), Taylor feels she should apologize to Estevan for Virgie’s comments. Estevan says, “I understand . . . This is how Americans think. You believe that if something terrible happens to someone, they must have deserved it” (157). We blame victims of oppression instead of looking at policies and systems that created oppression.
Later when Taylor learns that Estevan and Esperanza’s daughter Ismene was kidnapped because Estevan was a member of an underground teachers’ union in Guatemala. Esperanza’s brother and friends are also in the union and are killed in a police raid. Ismene, Estevan and Esperanza’s daughter, is abducted as a form of “ransom.” If they will give up the information they have about the union, the government will return Ismene to them. Giving up the information they have will mean death for union members. Taylor is horrified when she finds out that Estevan and Esperanza had to choose to leave their daughter behind, and she says, “I can’t even begin to think about a world where people have to make choices like that.” Estevan replies, “You live in that world” (184).
I lived in that world, too, and like Taylor, I didn’t know. I didn’t know because I had the privilege not to know. The way I handled the cognitive dissonance that came with learning that not everyone can follow the proper channels when they are seeking to come to America is that I changed my beliefs. I don’t feel threatened by people coming to America to seek a better life, but I understand that for one reason or another, many people do feel threatened.
I had the opportunity recently to hear Clint Smith speak as part of the Multicultural Teaching Institute in Weston, MA. I didn’t attend the entire institute; I have attended in the past. The only part of the institute I attended was Clint Smith’s talk. One thing he said really resonated with me. It isn’t indoctrination to teach the truth. Present the information to the students and let them decide what to do with the information. For example, he cited the statistic from a Southern Poverty Law Center study that found that only 8% of high school seniors name slavery as the cause of the Civil War. This, despite the fact that many primary source documents written by secessionists name slavery as their reason for wanting to break from the union. Smith says that it’s not our job as educators to convince students to agree with us. Present the information in its totality, however, and let them grapple. It is our job to complicate the narrative, to show the complexities and contradictions. But the students will need to cope with the potential cognitive dissonance. And they have a few options. They can accept the new information and change their minds or behavior. They can justify it in some way. Or they can reject it. But we need to make sure students have the information they need to make that choice. They need to read books like The Bean Trees. Check out the work in #DisruptTexts on Twitter to learn how to share multiple, diverse perspectives with students.
“Home” by Warsan Shire seems appropriate to share.
Thank you to my friend Glenda for 1) reminding me to write about The Bean Trees, which has been much on my mind lately, and 2) to challenge educators to write about this issue.