Thomas Jefferson, School Bullies, and Standing Tall
On August 23, 1785, Thomas Jefferson, then the United States Minister to France, wrote a private letter to the then U.S. Secretary of Foreign Affairs, John Jay. In his message, he succinctly explained why the U.S., a militarily weak, newborn country, should engage in maritime trade. Jefferson acknowledged that this would be a profitable, yet dangerous, undertaking because powerful European nations would militarily exploit U.S. traders through intimidation, extortion, and incarceration. According to Jefferson, this weak naval status “provokes insult and injury.” However, Jefferson’s asserts that to counter these aggressions, force must be used to “reach an enemy”. He further proclaims that, “I think it is our interest to punish the first insult: because, an insult that goes unpunished is the parent of many others.”
In my 8th grade U.S. history course, I used the “insult that goes unpunished” quote to introduce the students to Jeffersonian Era of the U.S. The quote, along with many others, helped them to get a better insight into Jefferson’s mindset in handling British and French naval harassment with the Embargo Act of 1807 and ultimately, his decision to go to war with the Barbary States of North Africa. To a large majority of my 8th graders, Jefferson’s philosophy was clear: “hit back at a bully.” In fact, I did not read too much into the quote but my students usually resonated with the philosophy quite well. It was in my fifth year at my “troubled, inner-city school” that a student publicly expressed what he felt about lessons of Jefferson and the harassment from foreign nations. He stated, “You’re teaching us about how Jefferson fought back against bullies. But you guys tell us not to fight back against bullies. That’s some hypocritical bullshit.” A sea of students nodded their heads and a few gave mmm-hmm’s in agreement with him like he was preaching powerful truth during Sunday service. At the moment, I had to plead the 5th to them and smile nervously. By that time of the year, our class had already learned about and debated many aspects of the Constitution, so they understood the implications of why I pleaded the 5th – I agreed with their disappointment in the official approach to handling bullies. Spouting off my dissatisfaction about the official “passive method” of reproaching bullies and what we should do about them would have been unprofessional; however, I understood and felt his frustration.
From my pedagogy and classroom management courses in college and district professional developments, the consensus was to employ a counter-bullying strategy of teaching students not to fight a bully – but rather ignore him or her, inform an adult, etc. In each level of anti-bullying training, I cemented my mouth to refrain from saying, “Bullshit!” Zero-tolerance policies and strictly teaching passivity in the eyes of a bully can be counter-productive and can make students lose faith in the school system and those who they see represent it. I have close friends who were on the receiving end of bullying and when they tried to physically defend themselves, they were punished to the same extent of the perpetrator due to the school’s “zero tolerance” policy.
I have personally experienced verbal and physical bullying in two distinct instances of my early childhood. The most vivid instance was when I was in 2nd grade when my family moved from an ethnically diverse area of Tampa to a predominantly White neighborhood in Austin. Daily, my tormentors helped me become aware that I was one of the only Black kids in the school. This went on for about the first two weeks at school. The offenses happened at the bus stop, on the bus, in the hallways and on the playground. After informing my parents (both of whom grew up in Memphis in the 60s and 70s) of the situations, they implored that I hit the bullies back. Bullying solved. For both instances, stepping up to the bullies paid off. These experiences, along with knowledge of examples from history, helped me to internalize the philosophy that passivity (or even, dare I say) appeasement is not an effective solution to stop bullying.
Administrators and educators must understand and take into account that there are many students who have anti-bullying strategies that may run counter to popular sanctioned strategies. They may have learned it from their parents, their history textbooks or even their personal experience. I strongly believe that the whole anti-bullying campaign should do some soul searching so that it does not become the same as the failed campaign of D.A.R.E. and other social engineering campaigns of the not to far past. As an educator, I understand that I cannot sanction a policy of knuckling up to bullies. However, as a parent to my son, I will echo the shared philosophy of my parents and Thomas Jefferson – stand tall to a bully or prepare for constant harassment.