When I was in high school, one of my teachers passionately advocated on poverty issues. She didn’t invoke a political ideology, choosing to focus on people instead. And she probably understood that politicizing education accomplishes little more than alienating half of one’s audience.
Unfortunately, her wisdom ended there.
One day she decided to explain how the grocery store experience differs for people on food stamps. So she asked us to imagine the horror of going shopping and not being able to afford the fresh pizzas in the prepared foods section. Food stamps only cover the frozen pizzas! Looking back, it makes me wonder why poor people aren’t marching on Washington to demand freedom of choice.
Probably because they can’t afford the frozen pizzas either.
But if they can, could you please send some of those food stamps my way?
Fortunately, my teacher realized that poverty entails more than an absence of fresh Italian food. Unfortunately, she didn’t know how to communicate that. Soon after this, she decided to show a short video about global hunger… produced by Oxfam, I think. I don’t remember any substantial content in the video (although my high school years were long ago) but I can still picture the oft-repeated catchphrase projected on the full screen: “CHRONIC PERSISTENT HUNGER.” After the fifth time the narrator repeated this mantra, everyone’s eyes had gone numb from constant rolling.
One needs considerable skill to turn an audience against an anti-poverty message that contains no political provocation… even if that audience is a room full of teenagers. But the teacher succeeded with that video because it didn’t even attempt to temper its exclusively emotional appeal.
And then the time came to discuss sustainable eating. After pointing out how much grain it takes to raise an animal, my teacher suggested that everyone go on a diet of beans and rice. According to her, it’s sufficiently nutritious and the unused grain could be used to feed impoverished nations.
Let’s forget for a moment that lots of food presently rots in silos and warehouses (etc.) and that our culinary decisions aren’t going to change that. And let’s ignore the fact that my teacher probably wasn’t practicing what she preached. Instead, let’s consider the sanity behind proposing food to teenagers solely on the basis of its nutritive value. Or to adults for that matter.
Now think about Cajun or Indian food. If she had cooked up a good recipe and given out samples, we would have gladly eaten it. (We probably would have thought it tasted like chili.) You catch more flies with garam masala than with pontification.
I think most of us will eat something if it tastes good and isn’t made from rat testicles.
And now I have something harder for you to swallow than rodent gonads.
The students were justified in gagging on the garbage we were being fed, even if opposition to eliminating poverty is morally suspect. Minds that learn to embrace empty propaganda will continue to do so when the propaganda begins serving darker goals.
Sometimes the greatest enemy to positive social change is advocacy for social change.
Pass the bacon.