Bordered by Appalachia, the Mississippi Delta and the Ozarks, Southern Illinois is surrounded by the country’s poorest rural regions.
Some of my students arrive from white farming communities and are the first in their families to attend college. They grow up on church, military, patriotism and traditional family, and they come from a world different from mine. I grew up in 1970s San Francisco, and my parents were leftists.
As I prepared to teach about abortion and gay rights for the first time in 2003, I approached the classroom with trepidation. I feared that our discussions would mirror the country’s culture wars and lead to tension among students.
One joy of teaching is when students surprise you, and I soon discovered that my fears had been unwarranted.
Students surprise; teacher learns
Classroom discussions of “hot button” issues turned out to be not so hot after all.
Sure, a student might declare that marriage should be between a man and a woman, but her declaration had no fight behind it. Most students simply did not get worked up about gay rights. By the early 2000s, almost all of them had a relative who had come out.
Regardless of what they might have been told in church, they asserted, who were they to stand in the way of the happiness of an uncle or a cousin?
Three decades after gay rights pioneer Harvey Milk had urged his brothers and sisters to come out, this tactic had borne fruit everywhere, including the “heartland” where I teach.
Thus, well before gay marriage became legal, I was telling friends back home that if my students were any indication, the question was not whether, but when.
It turned out that the issue that most angered my students was the Vietnam War. This was odd, I thought at first, because the conflict had ended years before they had been born.
But in one class, an older student who was the daughter of a Vietnam veteran recounted a story that had been passed down in her family since the early 1970s: Upon his return from overseas, her father had been spat on by anti-war activists.
Others chimed in that they had heard similar stories. These stories were mythical, not because such incidents had never occurred, but rather because opponents of the anti-war movement had overstated their frequency and intensity in order to brand wartime opposition as unpatriotic. When I gently suggested this was the case, as one scholar has argued, my students swung back, insisting that the stories were true.
It quickly became clear to me that these stories felt true to my students because they resonated with their own experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Those military interventions were not abstractions to them. Some were veterans themselves, a few suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, virtually all of them knew someone in the service and many came from military families.
The Vietnam stories struck a chord because they presented a portrait that my students found painfully familiar: loyal Americans who had served their country but who felt forgotten by U.S. institutions and the broader political culture.
Developing a theory
This classroom episode surprised me, but it shouldn’t have.
My students confirmed what I had discovered through my own research on the recent history of conservatism, which revealed a deep sense of betrayal among Americans who had sacrificed their bodies on behalf of the U.S. military and felt that they had received little recognition in return.
Scholars argue that in the early 1970s the “culture wars” erupted and divided the country. And there is no question that both conservative and liberal actors mobilized around issues like abortion and gay rights.
But my research pointed to something else that fueled the nation’s rightward march: the rise of an aggrieved nationalism rooted in a sense of bodily injury.
I first detected this nationalism when I studied the families of American POWs and MIAs in Southeast Asia, many of whom believed that their sons, brothers, fathers and husbands had been left behind twice — first by a U.S. government that had failed to bring them home, and then by a libertine culture that had turned against the war.
These were patriotic families who felt let down by their country.
Years later, I encountered something similar when I researched U.S. veterans who had sustained radiation injuries during their World War II-era service and who later became ill with cancer.
By the late 1970s, these “atomic veterans” and their relatives were leveling the same charge. They were forgotten men and women who had served their country, but who had been betrayed by the government, which refused to acknowledge that it had endangered its citizens.
The 1970s gave rise to the culture wars, no question. But it also gave rise to the accusation that the most loyal Americans had suffered through sickness, injury and premature death, and had been forgotten and let down.
This claim fueled a rising hostility toward big government, which championed liberal reform on behalf of racial and sexual minorities ostensibly at the expense of white, hard-working, patriotic Americans.
Empathy in the classroom
When my students became so angry toward Vietnam era anti-war activists, I was taken aback. I had to go beneath the surface of our debate and ask why this issue had stirred them.
Yes, the debate was about history, and I appealed to historical accuracy in order to challenge their assumptions about the past. That is, after all, my job.
But swimming just beneath the surface were their own experiences as young people who come from economically struggling rural communities whose members shoulder the burdens of U.S. militarism.
Simply telling them that they had gotten the history “wrong” would not have sufficed.
Instead, I had to pair my commitment to historical truth with a no-less-powerful commitment to empathy — an attempt to make sense of their anger historically and hopefully provide them with the tools to do the same.
My friends and relatives back home sometimes thank me for being out here in the heartland, “winning hearts and minds.”
But is that even my role?
Certainly, my students have changed my worldview, but how much have I changed theirs? That question is hard to answer, because my interactions with students are brief. They spend just over 37 hours with me over the course of one semester. That is not a lot of time.
But during those hours, we break away from the gerrymandered world of social media and encounter one another face to face.
Those encounters can be difficult and frustrating. Yet they have also yielded moments when the divisions and suspicions that dominate our political landscape fall away.
I am not here to win the hearts and minds of my students, but I like to imagine that I have opened some of them. What I know for sure is that they have opened mine.