They Have a Dream

“They Have a Dream”

sermon preached by Rev. David Carl Olson

at First Unitarian Church of Baltimore

on Sunday, September 23, 2012

a sermon in support of the Dream Act in Maryland

Join the UU Legislative Ministry of Maryland in a Benefit Concert by emma’s revolution on the evening of Saturday, September 29 at the UU Church in Annapolis 

A reading from the first or second century of the Common Era, “On the Sublime,” by the literary critic Longinus.

 [Do not be fooled by] the mere outward semblance of greatness. . . . Any piece of writing which is heard repeatedly by a [person] of intelligence and experience and yet fails to stir [the] soul to noble thoughts and does not leave impressed upon [the] mind reflections which reach beyond what was said, and which on further observation is seen to fade and be forgotten—this is not truly great writing, as it is only remembered while it is before us. The truly great can be pondered again and again; it is difficult, indeed impossible to withstand, for the memory of it is strong and hard to efface. . . .

The first characteristic of the sublime is its superiority in the penetrating force of its effect on the activities of intelligence. . . .;

and the second characteristic is passion in it intensity and being-possessed.”

It happened fewer than two weeks ago, members of our church brought an offering to children in the fourth grade of the William Paca Elementary School in East Baltimore. Roberta Van Meter, who had headed up the effort to collect school supplies and a money donation, carried large bins into the cafeteria; Paul Sturm, a leader of our Social Action Clearinghouse, assisted and took pictures (you’ll see them in next month’s newsletter, The Beacon). The fourth grade teachers brought six students down to the cafeteria to receive the donation and to thank us. I delighted as Paul spoke to the children, one after another, “What is it you hope to do with your life? What is it you do each day to accomplish your dreams?”

“I want to go to college,” one girl said, “and every day I rush home to complete my homework before going out to play with friends.”

“I study hard in school, and I try to keep focused on my own work, and not let other people distract me.”

“I want to go to college, and I want to help my mother.” The faces of these children, and their stories, stuck with me. I wondered, “Are they saying what they really think, what they really hope, what they really believe, or are they simply saying the right things to say before strangers?” How silly. I knew when I was in fourth grade that I wanted to go to college. No one in my family had ever gone to college, and my Dad, who had begun a two-year drafting program after high school, had long instructed us: “My kids are going to college. Every one of them.”

These children are learning the importance of education—their own education in the fourth grade; their future education, successfully completing elementary and middle and high school and heading toward college; and the importance inculcated by people like us, symbolized by our gift, which should not be seen as something to make up for the inadequacy of the Baltimore Public Schools, but our sign that we know that these children and their future are tied up with our own; that we believe that there is common cause in creating a common education system, and that we want to encourage these kids to have success in school now and success in their lives as they live them.

Education has always been a central pursuit in our history as Unitarians. Our Calvinist predecessors in New England insisted on an educated clergy, and so in Massachusetts and Connecticut, our predecessors founded colleges in Cambridge and New Haven, and other schools were founded which prepared men (sic!) to enter these colleges. Our ancestors of the Congregational Way saw literacy as a way that each person might grow in their understanding of God in the reading of the Bible, and believed universal literacy would be a way by which a people might govern themselves under the leadership of a specially educated class of pastor-scholars.

By the mid-18th century, the revolutionary notion was being promulgated that we should not be a people subject to a foreign crown but we were instead a new nation with aspirations based in democracy. The dominant sectors within the body politic who wanted to have the freedom to control the product of their agricultural labor and the freedom to sell what could be bought and sold were the farmers and the merchants who dominated political discourse. All sought enough education for everyone that all people would have access to the newspapers that they were publishing and the ideas they were advancing. Education of all people would be a way to bring about their economic liberation.

In the nineteenth century, Unitarian Horace Mann would become one of the most noted proponents of universal education. He led the efforts at educational reform in Massachusetts, and travelled broadly studying how public education was conducted in the United States and in Europe. Horace Mann is remembered as the person who introduced the Prussian education system into the United States, with its commitment to the education of teachers, to just compensation for teachers so that they could concentrate on their students, and to support by the state for the building of schools and the purchase of appropriate equipment.

Horace Mann is called “the father common education,” but there is a little piece of history that not many people talk about. When Horace Mann (of Massachusetts) was a student at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, he encountered the educational experiments of John Howland, who guided the creation of the Providence Public Schools and their peculiar mission. You see, unlike Massachusetts and Connecticut, where there were relatively homogeneous populations of people from the British Isles, Rhode Island was a culturally diverse community. There were five small colonial grants that had become, over time, one state. The Baptists found their way into Rhode Island, as had the Quakers. The first synagogue in the country was founded in Newport. A large settlement of French Huguenots emigrants found their way to Rhode Island. And the Black population of Newport, both slave and free, had many connections with the West Indies.

What John Howland believed education could do was more than just teach literacy, the Bible, and Calvinist doctrines of faith. Common education could create a people, a set of common endeavors and expectations. And Howland was adept enough a politician to make it happen.

You see, the people who consistently voted against funding common education were working people, who usually felt they needed cash in their pockets at the end of the day more than they needed the schoolhouse. Taxes, and the expense of public education, were used to get “the common man” to vote against his own interest and the interest of his family. John Howland was able to work with a group of inventors, engineers and industrial workers to convince their society, the Association of Mechanics, to promote universal education as a way of lifting industry, providing jobs for people who needed them, and giving working people the tools they needed for their own full employment and uplift.

Howland’s skill in managing both his educational aims and the politics of promoting universal, publicly funded education that would create a common experience among diverse people in Rhode Island proved illustrative to Horace Mann decades later as he became the father of common education.

In the twentieth century, it was a friend of Unitarians, John Dewey, who revitalized public education by developing a philosophy of learning that still speaks to us today. Dewey saw that all education needed to be based in experience, the lived experience of the learner and the learned experience of scientific inquiry. Where others drew a distinction between liberal education and technical education, Dewey advocated that each would be richer if the technical included more aesthetic reflection and the liberal had a richer application of the scientific method.

Dewey sought the full range of experience for all learners. Each moment, then, becomes a learning moment; life becomes about learning; each experience a kind of teacher. But the learning could only happen with reflection on experience, whether the reflective drawing of conclusions from scientific inquiry or the meaning-making brought by the learner to any art, any aesthetic occurrence. These scientific conclusions set up the possibilities for the next learnings; this aesthetic reflection created the context in which the next experiences of life might be lived.

We live in a time in the United States that is, I believe, more like the rough and tumble diverse Rhode Island of two centuries ago than the mythic 1950s that E.J. Dionne argues in the Washington Post that many stripes of the political spectrum hunger for nostalgically. The great gift of this moment is that we are a diverse people, and we long to be the “one nation, indivisible” that we so often assert. Being the land of the American Dream, being a people who dream (it’s what we do!), we face an opportunity in six and a half weeks of affirming our belief, our firm belief, in the capacity of public education to change the lives of people. The Dreamers who today seek only the opportunity to attend community colleges and to pay the same tuition that their high school classmates will pay are asking of us something that is in our mutual interest, that points to our mutual commitment.

There are those who critique the Dewey philosophy as insufficiently high-minded to elevate a people. If we locate one’s interest only in direct experience, if we find meaning only in everyday occurrences, is this sufficient to capture how grand being human can be. “Is there nothing sublime,” some ask, “in such a perspective?”

“The truly great can be pondered again and again; it is difficult, indeed impossible to withstand, for the memory of it is strong and hard to efface.” I submit that the commitment among Americans over years, over decades, over centuries, to the full integration of people by access to public education is something that is truly great. Our task, as people of liberal faith, is to understand and assert that all of our lives are part of one destiny; that the benefit which some hard-working students and their families will receive from their equal access to education will be a benefit to me, will be a benefit to the world I will inhabit. I have the possibility of asserting that education—and access to education—may, indeed, be “sublime.” I must raise my voice in support of these children who dream, finding common cause with them and seeing their promise as part of the solution to my—let’s say our—challenges.

Paul Sturm and Roberta Van Meter asked questions of these beautiful children. “What are your hopes? What are you doing to live into your own dreams?” How sad it would be if the dreams of these little ones might be stopped because they were unable to participate fully in the public education system because of the actions of their parents which were done entirely out of their control. How difficult it would be for the child honestly to answer Roberta and Paul’s questions if they knew that they themselves would one day be ineligible for community college. How important for us to see the larger and more persistent ways all our lives are intertwined, and to imagine how much healthier and happier we will be if, by our actions, our love may be manifest in giving all who dream a chance, giving all who dream a chance.

Thank you.

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