There isn't room enough on the calendar to honor every
American hero, but Aug. 16, the birthday of one such hero, is a day teachers
and others who cherish education should make a point of celebrating.
No one knows what drove Liviu Librescu, four months short of
his 77th birthday, to martyr himself to the cause of education. But that is
what Librescu, a Romanian-born Holocaust survivor and mechanical engineering
professor, did when he blocked a gunman from entering his Virginia Tech
University classroom on April 16 -- earning him five bullets, one of them to
the head -- so that most of his students could escape through the windows.
Because he was slain in a public learning institution,
public schools are where he should be celebrated. And because Librescu (the
root of whose name, "libre," is Latin for "free") came to
America searching for freedom, those who teach subjects like U.S. history and
government should make honoring him a lesson on where his adopted country truly
stands on freedom.
By the time they enter college, many students in this
country can't think critically about history and politics, having rarely been
encouraged in school to think creatively outside of art and music class. Yet
wolfing down hot dogs and soaking up sun on a field trip to celebrate Librescu
Day could amount to more than just indigestion and sunburn, if the day were
also an occasion for students to reflect on how their country, a magnet for
immigrants seeking freedom, too often deprives people in other countries of the
very freedoms Americans enjoy.
Throughout its history, the United States has -- in places
like Latin America, Haiti, the Philippines and elsewhere -- picked fights at
the drop of a dime whenever dollars were to be made, a fact that is largely
ignored in classrooms around the country. The result is that, as the country
gets bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, many students don't know any better
than to think thousands of their fellow citizens, most only slightly older than
them, are killing and being killed in those countries in the name of spreading
But freedom can mean many things. Librescu, born on Aug. 16,
1930, on the outskirts of Bucharest, was barely nine when World War II broke
out and could only watch as his government, also in the name of freedom, helped
the Nazis annihilate hundreds of thousands of Romania's Jewish citizens.
Luckily he survived, became an accomplished scientist and, in 1986, after
living several years in Israel, left for Virginia on a sabbatical and never
looked back. Little did he know that years later a frustrated, mentally-ill
college student would alone succeed where the focused efforts of the entire
Nazi Party had failed.
Still, Librescu's death will have been partly in vain if
teachers ignore the dedication symbolized by a colleague's choosing to die so
that his students might live to see another classroom. Ignorance that isn't
necessarily willful but rather the result of intimidation.
How else to explain that so many U.S. history and government
teachers go out of their way to avoid discussing the context in which President
Bush, in his second inaugural address, for example, used words like
"freedom" and "liberty" some dozen odd times? Or in which Vice
President Dick Cheney, during remarks to Westminster College in Missouri a few
years ago, paraphrased Winston Churchill's assessment of the struggle against
Soviet communism, in order to paint a picture of the chaos in U.S.-occupied
Iraq as a contest between "those who served an aggressive, power-hungry
ideology and those who believed in human liberty, freedom of conscience and the
dignity of every life"?
Words like "liberty" and expressions like
"freedom of conscience" are easily said; the challenge is living up
to the ideals they represent. But often politicians aren't so challenged to
begin with, and worse, sometimes rely on such words, as George Orwell wrote,
"in a consciously dishonest way."
Dignity of life, after all, means little coming from someone
like Cheney, whose central pursuit over the past few years has been to enrich
his friends at Enron and Halliburton over the dead bodies of an estimated
million or so Iraqi civilians -- people who might have lived in fear under
Saddam Hussein, but who at least could've expected to live with far more
certainty than can Iraqis today.
Propaganda and censorship is something that, growing up in
communist Romania, Librescu knew all too well. The same can be said of another
Jewish hero to whom he is often compared.
On Aug. 5, 1942, German soldiers stormed an orphanage for
Jewish children in Warsaw, instructing the man who ran it, Janusz Korczak, that
he was free to go, but that his 200 or so orphans and several staff members
were slated for extermination. Unlike Librescu, Korczak couldn't save his
charges from death. Instead, he followed them to the gas chamber, his final
gesture to children who'd had so little and died so young.
A renowned children's author and pediatrician, Korczak was
also a teacher, and instructed hundreds at his Dom Sierot (Polish for
"house for orphans") with little regard for convention. Those who
survived the war recount being allowed to form a "kind of a republic for
children, with its own small parliament, court and newspaper," according
to an entry on Wikipedia.org.
By contrast, a half-century later, American public schools appear intent on
turning students into automatons.
And even that they're getting wrong.
Students in the United States, in subjects like math and
science, which require learning mostly by mind-numbing rote, lag behind their
counterparts in miserably poor countries like Bangladesh, Burundi, El Salvador
and Nepal. Generally, though, American students also read less for pleasure,
visit fewer museums and attend schools with mediocre teachers, all easily
gleaned from comparing how flippant and addicted to pop culture many young
Americans are next to kids in less fortunate parts of the world.
Maybe that is because, as one credit card company likes to
say, there are some things money can't buy. China, where teachers get paid a
pittance by a government that looks with scorn at individual rights and free
speech, generally has a more well-read, independent-minded, smarter population
than ours. Which is what outright censorship does: breed rebellion.
Censorship, though, shouldn't be allowed any wiggle room in
a country billing itself as the "land of the free." Yet the United
States has become fertile ground for it, an indication of which is that
mainstream media, not satisfied with just obscuring the "who,"
"what" and "where" in its news coverage, goes to great
lengths to avoid the "why" altogether. It may be just as well, then,
that many kids come home from school in the afternoon only to get super glued
to MTV, video games or websites like Myspace.com,
since much of what's in the news would sooner confuse than educate them.
Were that not sad enough, the education that does manage to
seep into the minds of these would-be torchbearers of democracy is watered down
to the point of irrelevancy. Not because teachers are stupid, evil or lazy but
because most are simply too afraid to rock the boat.
Many teachers understand they swim in murky water. Water
that has swallowed teachers like Deb Mayer at Clear Creek Elementary in Monroe
County, Indiana, near Bloomington (home, ironically, to liberal arts-dominated
Indiana University). Mayer was fired in 2003 after she dared discuss the
subject of peace movements during a general class discussion about the build-up
to the war in Iraq.
Similarly, a school in Wilton, Conn., recently banned a play
about the conflict in that country.
�In Wilton, most kids only care about Britney Spears shaving
her head or Tyra Banks gaining weight,� 16-year-old Devon Fontaine, a cast
member, told The New York Times. �What we wanted was to show kids what was
going on overseas.�
The school administration's reply: "You can't always
get what you want."
Censorship is well documented in schools throughout the
country. Schools like Columbine High School in Colorado, where Alfred Wilder
was fired in 1996 for showing Bernardo Bertolucci's film, "1900,"
which explores fascism, to a senior class studying logic and debate. That
instance of censorship may even have cost 13 students and a teacher their
A video depicting students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold
rehearsing for the massacre they'd go on to carry out at the school three years
later wasn't allowed to be shown on school grounds because of the controversy
surrounding the Bertolucci film.
"If the video had indeed been shown," Al Hidell
wrote in "The New Conspiracy Reader," "perhaps somebody would
have realized the serious threat it represented, which may have prevented the
tragedy from occurring."
Rarely, of course, is censorship so dramatic in its outcome
that it becomes a matter of life and death. But there is such a thing as a slow
death. Appalled by the stifling of his film, Bertolucci wrote that it was no
less than a prelude to totalitarianism when classrooms become a place "in
which the voice of established authority denounced criticism or debate, and
used the high school classroom to silence other voices."
Voices that hold that "children are the future. Teach
them well and let them lead the way."
Before letting cocaine lead the way for her instead, Whitney
Huston knew what she was singing about. The minute students are fit to broach
subjects like history, government and political affairs is the minute they
should be challenged to imagine their future roles as informed, voting
citizens. Citizens like Librescu, who wore many hats but probably would have
been happy to be remembered as one more in a long line of educators who
eschewed empty slogans, who knew that leaving no child behind meant arming
students with curiosity, compassion and courage.
Courage, though, shouldn't mean that 3,500 young Americans,
and counting, have to take their final breath in a country that never meant the
United States any harm. Courage should mean educating the nation's youth so
that they can spot a charlatan when they see one, even if he worms his way up
to the presidency itself. Those who will inherit this nation need that kind of
courage from those who've been here a while, so that they too can develop the
courage to die if need be.
But to die in the spirit of someone like Librescu, who took
one bullet after another yet refused to let go, so that others might live and