Learning to Hate

Hi John,

The elephant in the room….. and NO ONE WILL ADMIT IT…..is that the lower orders, including blacks, hispanics, etc. do not learn at the same rate as their white counterparts. It may be societal, or genetic…..but who cares? Deal with it as a reality. YOU CAN NOT MAKE DOGS CLIMB TREES!!

When I read this email from a high school classmate, my mind flashed back to an incident on a soccer field 62 years ago, when we were awkward or pudgy (or in my case, both) 14-year-olds.   Loud and clear as a bell, this classmate, who was on the other intramural soccer team, yelled “Happy Hanukkah” at someone on my team. I didn’t know what “Happy Hanukkah” meant, but, when the boy yelled it again, one of my teammates confronted him. They faced off and then began pushing, shoving and wrestling before others intervened to break it up.  I had no clue as to what had just happened. I didn’t know my teammate was Jewish; in fact, I knew almost nothing about Judaism.  It wasn’t until much later that I learned why the phrase, spoken by a non-Jew and delivered in a certain way, might be offensive to a Jew.  And I never figured out whether the boy who shouted “Happy Hanukkah” was being anti-Semitic or just trying to upset an opponent.

Now I think I know.  

My classmate, who must be–like me–76 years old, wrote the above email after reading a recent blog post about the schools in Washington, DC.  My central point was that two prominent researchers were jeopardizing their reputations by publishing misleading data. Despite their claims, the achievement gaps in Washington have persisted and even widened.  My point is that the ‘test-and-punish,’ test-centric, data-driven approach simply doesn’t work…and that poor and minority kids deserve to be treated with the same respect shown to children born to privilege.  My classmate, however, found confirmation of some basic belief of his….and his confirmation caused me to relive his earlier behavior.

And then the oddest thing happened: Believe it or not, the second response to my blog came from the boy he yelled at, my former teammate on that intramural soccer team. He’s someone I have stayed in touch with over the years. In high school he was hard-working and earnest.  He’s done well in life and has made a point of giving back in his small midwestern community and elsewhere.  We share a genuine wonkiness about education and a belief in trying to level the playing field.

He wrote:


Amazing that academics from two serious institutions would risk such extreme distortion. Why would they make fools of themselves??

By the way, here in Smallville our K-12wide PBL installation, now in year 5, is very very successful. Parents, kids, teachers and community are convinced it works. Even silly State-mandated test scores are good, despite not teaching to them.

Seeing those two responses back-to-back, and remembering that soccer field incident from 62 years ago, has me wondering.  How do children learn racism, anti-Semitism, and other forms of hatred?  How do we learn tolerance and understanding?  Who teaches us, and can we unlearn hatred? Were my classmates already fully formed at age 14?   Was I? And, if we are, do we then view everything thereafter through that prism unless a dramatic ‘Saul on the road to Damascus’ experience changes our lives?  

The questions strike me as particularly relevant today because our 71-year-old President regularly expresses attitudes that are, at best, questionable and often objectionable.  I’m wondering whether he–or any of us–can change our basic beliefs once we reach maturity.  If so, what does it take?

And if not, what is in store for our country?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.


17 thoughts on “Learning to Hate

  1. I have been predicting that the sort of racist response to academic differences would be promoted pretty soon.


  2. There is nothing offensive about wishing someone a “happy Hanukkah.” When a non-Jew remembers that I’m Jewish and says “happy Hanukkah” rather than “merry Christmas,” I consider it a sign of sensitivity. Admittedly, I’m hard to offend: I’m pleased to be wished happiness and merriment by anyone at any time.

    Perhaps you think the soccer player was singling out the other kid as Jewish to be nasty. I think most Jewish kids are prepared for a lot worse than an insincere “happy Hanukkah.” (Someone about your age told me she was asked at state band camp whether Jews have horns. The questioner came from a small Texas town. She wasn’t hostile. Just curious.)

    Many of us start out in not-very-diverse environments (especially by economic status). Then we move into a larger world, meet a wider variety of people and learn how to get along. Encouraging young people to take offense when none is meant is a mistake, in my opinion. I rarely bother to take offense when it is meant, because it’s a waste of time and energy.


    • I am sure that he meant to be offensive, but he was a rookie anti-Semite, just learning the ropes. The boy he yelled at, an even tempered kid, knew what was going on, which is why the pushing and shoving ensued.


  3. The “lower orders”? Really, he’s calling blacks, Hispanics, etc., the “lower orders”?
    Frankly, I would have some very rude things to say to this person.
    People who feel this way have always been with us. It’s just that in the past, they have felt constrained, at least a lot of them, in most situations, to hide their racist, white supremacist, anti-Semitic (and while we’re at it, homophobic and for many of them, mysoginistic) beliefs.
    After Obama was elected, I noticed more overt racism being expressed. And then, with the election of Trump, the slime have all come crawling out from underneath their rocks and felt more and more free to spew their garbage.
    Trump has released the Kraken of all kinds of prejudice and hatred.


  4. Humans don’t have to “learn to hate.” It is in our genes. See the story about the British reality show in the latest New Yorker. Tribalism is the default condition. But tolerance/acceptance/respect can be taught and learned


  5. You are right on the money, John. As usual, of course.

    Hope that you Joan are doing well.

    Tom Tobey

    Sent from my iPhone



    • You are too kind. We are doing well, enjoying retirement here on Martha’s Vineyard. I hope you will take a look at my new book, Addicted to Reform, and let me know what you think of it. Best to you and your amazing family


  6. Where do I even begin? There is that line in the musical “South Pacific” that specifically says, “Children must be taught to hate, before the age of six or eight.” And, for those who have known that the best education is more than just the knowledge you acquire in school, there is very little satisfaction that more than 20 years later, reformers are beginning to understand how important the other supports are to a fuller, richer experience and education for students of color and poverty (not that they always go together, either). But, it was Claude Steele in his lecture to the American Educational Research Association almost ten years ago that said, to summarize his point and purpose for the appearance: Researchers have known for years that environmental cues influence performance (e.g., girls and math, minorities and higher achievement, etc.), but he was there to discuss how critical was the role of leadership in helping to change the culture and attitudes. Here is a link to the AERA web page with links to past lectures (his was the 2nd in their annual series, launched in observation of Brown v. BOE): http://www.aera.net/Events-Meetings/Annual-Brown-Lecture-in-Education-Research/Past-Brown-Lectures (Contingencies of Identity and Schooling in a Diverse Society: Toward Reducing Inequality of Outcomes). I thought one of his most cogent points was that it is not necessarily the bigots and racists that are our biggest challenge, but rather those who think they do not harbor a bias.

    A leader like Trump was not what Steele or most of us had in mind… and look at where he’s leading us: backwards. I am most buoyed by the push back, especially by the younger generation, but not sure if that will result in lasting change. As a 64-yr. old black woman, I have to admit to serious fears and a bit of weariness that the battle is not won and may never be. I don’t think they can put the genie back in the bottle, but they sure can screw progress up for a few more decades. I once had a board member who said that racism is like a virus that never really goes anywhere—it just mutates. Trump and his followers are a mutant strand, and we must find the new antibiotic to fight it.


  7. An African-American woman with whom I worked in government was from Washington, DC. She went to college in rural Wisconsin. ON her first weekend in this college town, she was followed around in a grocery store by a 7-year-old girl who finally asked her mother, “Where did this n***** come from?’ The mother was horrified and apologized to my friend, saying “I don’t know where she learned that.” My friend responded frostily: “Obviously she learned it in your house.”

    I saw a report from a former FBI agent who had tracked hate groups in the United States. He said, “Fascist sympathizers and KKK groups aren’t trying to recruit other fascists or KKK members. They’re looking for people who begin sentences with, ‘I’m not a racist, but….’ They invite these people to meetings to discuss the principles of the Founding Fathers. But oddly, when the new invitees get to the meetings, there are no academic discussions of the Federalist Papers — it’s all identification of why others are different and should be hated.”


    • This is a huge challenge for schools and teachers, because many people believe that teachers ‘shouldn’t teach values.’ That’s absurd, of course, because those same parents want their kids to learn good behavior, sharing and stuff like that. What those parents don’t want is anyone challenging THEIR values, which may include racism, anti-semitism and so on.
      I met many teachers over the course of my career who were torn apart inside when their students would ask them to weigh in on the hatred they were hearing at home. The kids wanted support for challenging their parents’ narrow and bigoted views, but the teachers were afraid. I felt their pain and wished the school leadership had been proactive…


  8. John,

    I enjoy reading your material on education. To read a fascinating basis of racism take a look at “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst,” Robert M. Sapolsky


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