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Education and Politics: Citizenship, Not Partisanship
Head of School Jeff Bissell
January 30, 2017
On Friday, January 27, not long after all our kids had been picked up from the Mass Greeting celebration, President Trump signed an executive order that indefinitely barred Syrian refugees from entering the United States, suspended all refugee admissions for 120 days and blocked citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, refugees or otherwise, from entering the United States for 90 days. Since that time protests have broken out at airports around the country, and a legal challenge to parts of the executive order has been sustained. This morning, Sunday, I find myself wondering, “what is our role, as parents and educators, in the face of all this?” I’d like to share some of my thoughts.
Over a year ago, in December of 2015, I read a piece in The Washington Post comparing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to then candidate Donald Trump’s call for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the United States. Is this a valid comparison? In 1882 the United States Congress passed, and the President of the United States signed into law, the Chinese Exclusion Act, prohibiting Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States. Successive federal laws made Chinese immigration to the US increasingly exclusive until its repeal some 61 years later in 1943 when China became an ally to the US in its fight against Japan in WWII. However, Chinese immigrants still faced restrictive quotas for more than two more decades. It was not until 2012 that both houses of the US legislature passed a resolution expressing regret, “for the passage of laws that adversely affected the Chinese in the United States, including the Chinese Exclusion Act.”
Here at CAIS, nearly three-quarters of our students and half of our faculty and staff claim some Chinese ethnic heritage. We claim this heritage in our school name: Chinese American International School, and in our mission: “Embrace Chinese.” Think about it, the vast majority of our school community members are descendants of people who were or could have been excluded from the US under the Chinese Exclusion Act.
If nowadays, as a part of our children’s education, we talk about the Chinese Exclusion Act, or about systematic discrimination against any historically marginalized group, would anyone in our community feel offended that we were criticizing their political party of preferred presidential candidate? Would anyone think that we were indoctrinating our students and preventing them from being free thinkers? How many people reading this are even familiar with which president signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into law or his party affiliation? It was President Chester Arthur, and he was a Republican, the party of Abraham Lincoln who had been selected as president 22 years earlier (for comparison, 22 years ago it was 1995, and Democrat Bill Clinton was president).
At CAIS our work on curriculum is and should be a process of ongoing revision and improvement. As your head of school, I believe there is a new urgency in our curriculum work around citizenship education. This means continuing and improving our emphasis on thinking critically about historical instances during which groups of people were marginalized, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, or historical movements in which engaged citizens organized and took a stand to claim their Constitutional rights, such as the Civil Rights movement. It means continuing and improving our efforts to learn from our history of immigration and systematic discrimination in our country. It means continuing and improving our commitment to provide our students with the tools they need to examine critically contemporary political events and make up their own minds. I am talking about tools like an understanding of the US Constitution—separation of powers, the Bill of Rights, the history of important legislation and judicial interpretations of constitutional law. And it means a greater emphasis on questioning—critically—the actions of our leaders today, actions such as the President’s executive order titled “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States.” This is not partisan education, it’s citizenship education. It is not political indoctrination, it’s critical thinking. I encourage you as parents to engage in similar conversations with your children at home, in conjunction with our zoomed in study at school, challenging your children to become engaged citizens.
For a long time as your head of school I have been applying a great deal of my energy and focus on the Chinese piece of Chinese American. It is time that I apply equal energy to the American piece of Chinese American. It’s patriotic, it’s inclusive, it’s respectful of a diversity of perspectives, and it’s grounded in the Constitution of our country. If I am completely honest, I do not know exactly what citizenship education will ultimately look like in the different grades given the new sense of urgency we now feel. But I do know that we need to adjust to a changing world if we want our kids to be able to create their places in it.
Finally, if there is anyone in our school community whose family has been impacted by the President’s executive order limiting immigration, please regard our community and our school as a resource and share any concerns you have so that we can support your children.
It is an honor to be able to serve as your head of school. Equipping your children to become their best selves is a responsibility that I and all of my colleagues take very seriously.