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What a Week: Looking back on my education

Jeremy Walsh, editorial director.

One of the challenges for me with this recurring column is learning the craft of opinion writing and subjective storytelling as someone whose journalistic rearing preached a clear dividing line between professional and personal.

I don't use this platform to convince somebody to think my way nor to push an agenda nor to even influence anyone to change their minds -- but unfortunately that's an effect "opinion articles" have on many readers, regardless of intent.

My main motivation (other than to fulfill the biweekly job obligation, wink) is to present my perspective to explain my train of thought as an editor or to offer options for consideration, with no strings attached or ulterior reasons at play.

That is the spirit, after all, of a primary goal journalistically in our objective news reporting -- to share a range of facts, perspectives and visuals to help readers better understand issues at hand and inform their reactions -- so why shouldn't that serve as inspiration for my column?

It's also the way I approached my education, especially in high school and college: information, data, interpretations and skills to help me cultivate my ever-evolving personal perspective and vocational expertise as a young adult and beyond.

Oh, and to strive to be an open-minded, empathetic and positive presence in American society too.

One area where my educational experience, in the classroom, was so vital to my own evolution as a person was direct exposure to a variety of informed points of view.

Diversity of subjects and sources was particularly important for me, especially in history, literature and the arts, recognizing that as a white straight male student I sat at the desk with a limited perspective on the reality of America's shared cultural existence. (And one who admittedly was never the best at initiating new friendships.)

How much could I really understand about my place among other people and our systems when my closest tie to the minority experience would be my Great-Grandmother Walsh being one-fourth Native American? Or at least that was a necessary rhetorical question I had to become comfortable asking myself.

I always point to two seminal educational opportunities in my life: I took African American history (from Reconstruction through Civil Rights) taught by one of the few Black professors at American University, and I took a U.S. history course (from the pre-Revolution until Pearl Harbor) at the University of Melbourne.

The former provided me with a fresh, unabashed frame of reference to realities of the Black experience in America over generations that I would not have learned otherwise. Eye-opening.

The latter offered a critical, outside look at national history I thought I understood inside and out. I mean, we spent an entire lecture week analyzing Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings; the Australians in my class just couldn't reconcile the hypocrisy of this revered freedom founder fathering children with an enslaved woman he owned, something all but glossed over in the American classroom as little more than a footnote. Eye-opening.

I keep these two classes, and others I took, in mind when I look at the buzzword-driven national stories about educational curriculum that are now cropping up closer to home more and more these days.

I, of course, recognize my examples were from college, but my public education in Benicia Unified School District was just as formative for my personal and journalistic development.

I think back to the read-aloud sessions with "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" and who opted to say the egregious slur associated with Jim, and who like me skipped it, in our predominantly white class. Confronting that discomfort was an important lesson. Or discussing the gender- or sexuality-based themes of "Lord of the Flies", "The Catcher in the Rye" or "Moby Dick".

Heck, it wasn't until college that it really hit me that all of the thick history textbooks from middle and high school were written by people, who no doubt had their own perspectives -- and sold to schools ... it's big business.

As a father whose son just turned 14 months old, I'm reflecting on educational foundations more than ever before. Along with my wife, we're introducing books that encourage inclusivity such as "Antiracist Baby" and the "Little Feminists" series, or songs about self-awareness and self-acceptance like "That's a Boundary".

In my role as editorial director, I strive to encourage diversity of story topics to better inform and engage the Tri-Valley about what's really happening in their communities, and I aim to create an inclusive journalistic environment among my staff -- but I'm also of the mind that I'm not the one to measure whether I'm meeting those expectations; only my editorial team and you, the reader, can truly judge.

My educational journey has laid the groundwork for those journalistic priorities. And that includes years of field reporting. For me, no lesson could be more direct about seeking different points of view than covering murder trials, day in and day out, and interviewing victims' families and defendants' families (and defendants themselves) after conviction or acquittal. Vital real-world training.

What we choose not to teach or expose ourselves to can be as influential, as impactful, as what we do.

That said, I'll still always balk at a buzzword like "indoctrination" in the context of more modern books or lessons, because to accuse new curriculum or teachers of indoctrinating is to admit the public education system (and its private partners) has always had the capacity to indoctrinate.

A motive that systemic is not suddenly conjured anew; either it's always been there or it isn't. I'll accept that some curriculum decisions now, or when I was growing up, or for generations before, were certainly intentional, but alleging the extreme of indoctrination ... I don't buy that as anything more than a distraction or mudslinging on its face.

I'm willing to have that conversation, though, if you really want; I'm not afraid of uncomfortable discussions. Just as long as we agree to peel the whole onion, not just start agitated or teary-eyed in the center without acknowledging the original layers before.

As I was formulating this column, the San Ramon Valley Unified School District Board of Education had significant public comments Tuesday night about particular library books including "Gender Queer: A Memoir" by Maia Kobabe. I haven't had a chance to watch the long meeting video (nor have I read any of the underlying books).

When I do review the recording, I'll look forward to gauging the speakers, administrators and board members based on the same overriding theme: What are they really saying, and why do they feel that way? That is at the heart of a key question we as journalists should often analyze about sources passionate on controversial subjects, to ensure the story provides proper perspective -- what is their motivation?

Editor's note: Jeremy Walsh is the editorial director for the Embarcadero Media East Bay Division. His "What a Week" column publishes on the second and fourth Fridays of the month.


About the Author: Jeremy Walsh

Jeremy, a Benicia native and American University alum, joined Embarcadero Media in November 2013. After serving as associate editor for the Pleasanton Weekly and, he was promoted to editor of the East Bay Division in February 2017.
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