Radical Teaching and the Haitian Crisis

by Leonard Vogt
haiti_flagIn the presence of the suffering in Haiti right now, and the United States media’s exploitation of it, this retired community college teacher would not mind two or three class periods back in the classroom.

My first guide to the Haiti earthquake was Diane Sawyer, the new anchor on World News Tonight on ABC. Her simpering sincerity about the horror of this “natural” disaster and how the United States would of course be there to help made me nauseous. I foolishly hoped that her sincerity might include some analysis of how the United States has consciously fostered the “financial” disaster of Haiti over the last 200 years which helped set up this current “natural” disaster. Guess what, she didn’t. But I knew who would. The next day’s Democracy Now with Amy Goodman did an entire hour on not only the current tragedy but the ongoing economic exploitation that has made Haiti one of the poorest countries in the world. The same day a number of Portside emails gave additional information going beyond the humanitarian pitch that from then on took over mainstream media.

This was a teachable moment, the kind that I had previously used with momentous events like the 9/11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, when sensibility overcame sense and emotion was wrung out on a daily basis by the media at the expense of historical reality. I remember getting through such difficult teaching times as 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, when I would be boiling with anger and fear over what my country was doing, and having to face a classroom where students desperately wanted help in understanding these events and how the media shaped them. My emotions at these times, as a radical teacher, are best left out of the classroom since I have no right, and it would be pedagogically counter-productive, to act out or “lecture” on the current events.

Since I do not want to bring into the classroom my frustration and anger over how mainstream media denies and misrepresents information over the crisis in Haiti, instead I would just bring to class examples juxtaposing what the Diane Sawyers and Amy Goodmans of the media world are reporting about Haiti and let the students develop their own frustration and anger. And I would channel much of the discussion into reading and writing first, followed a bit later with a verbal discussion of what students have learned about the way media manipulates political perceptions.

Here’s how it might work. Assuming you have a classroom with a computer and a projector and screen, show bits and pieces of mainstream TV media on Haiti from January 13 until now (these should all be available on line from the ABC, NBC, or CBS archives, as well as on YouTube). Then go to Democracy Now and do the same thing, trying to juxtapose short pieces from both mainstream and alternative sources that are digestible within manageable parts of a class period. (You can also do this with print media: Portside is an excellent source of alternative news information culled from many sources. Some articles appearing this past week have included: “Why the US Owes Haiti Billions – The Briefest History”; “How the U.S. Impoverished Haiti”; “Please Don’t Superdome Haiti”; “The Right Testicle of Hell: History of a Haitian Holocaust.”) Then, perhaps before any discussion at all, have students write about what differences they see, with specific references to what is left out in the mainstream and what is added in the alternative.

If I were to go back to the classroom, I could imagine extending this brief explanation to days of writing, discussion, and assignments: comparison/contrast essays and research projects of U.S involvement in Haiti come to mind. Or I can imagine this explanation as simply the ruminations of a retired radical teacher who probably never will return to the classroom.

Leonard Vogt
Professor Emeritus of English
LaGuardia Community College
The City University of New York

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