Students explore serious misdeeds in history, learn about the art of making an apology and its relation to character development and good citizenship, and then write or critique an apology.
Mistakes, apologies, good character, character development, good citizenship
First, introduce the lesson to students. History is littered with human errors and misdeeds, yet a complete and sincere apology remains a rare thing. While a simple “I’m sorry” may suffice in the case of a small error, serious misdeeds require significantly more effort. A look at some of history’s shameful incidents—and the often long and difficult process of subsequently making amends—shows us that as a global society, we must get better at apologizing.
Second, explore five themes associated with good citizenship and good character. These include honesty, compassion, respect, responsibility and courage. Ask students to explain how they think these five themes relate to making a good apology, and how good apologies contribute to better relationships, communities and societies. How might each theme be expressed (what would it sound like?) as part of a verbal or written apology?
Honesty is the basic theme of good citizenship. A person must be honest with others, and with him or herself. Although it’s sometimes difficult to admit that one has done something wrong, this is an important component of a good apology.
Compassion involves caring for people and other living creatures. Compassion gives a person an emotional bond with his or her world and allows him/her to understand the perspectives of others. In terms of apologies, expressing compassion shows that the person understands how s/he has hurt others.
Respect is similar to compassion but can be directed toward nature, property or ideas, as well as toward people. For example, people should have respect for laws, but they also should respect people, including those who are different from them or with whom they disagree. As part of an apology, respect might mean showing those who have been hurt that they did not deserve what happened to them.
Responsibility is about action, and it includes much of what people think of as good citizenship. (One of the main responsibilities of students is to learn so that they can live up to their full potential.) Another part of responsibility is being accountable for one’s actions, especially when a mistake is made. In terms of apologies, responsibility might involve pledging to “make it right” and do better in the future.
Courage is important to good citizenship. Courage enables people to do the right thing even when it’s unpopular, difficult or scary. Courage is an important part of good apologies, since it often is not easy to say what needs to be said.
Third, ask students what elements they think an apology should include. Does the severity of the mistake or misdeed matter? Have they ever received an apology they felt was not sincere? If so, what was missing from the apology, and how could it have been improved?
If students are mature enough, discuss a few examples of celebrity apologies. In 2011, basketball star Kobe Bryant issued a public apology for using a homophobic slur during a game. Many felt his apology was inadequate; ask students whether they agree. What if anything, would they change about his apology?
In 2010, golfer Tiger Woods apologized publicly for his marital infidelities. If you feel it is appropriate, you might show the video of his apology to the class (the first 8 minutes or so of the clip should suffice). Ask students whether Woods’ apology contains all the recommended elements, and whether he seems sincere. What if anything, would they change about his apology?
Once you’ve explored apologies for mistakes and poor judgment at the level of the individual, consider more serious misdeeds at the government or national level using the following three descriptions. Start students thinking about what they do and don’t like about how and when the apologies were made in these cases. If Internet access is available and you’d like students to research the actual content of the apologies, have them use the links included in each description.
America Sends Japanese Americans to Internment Camps – Two months after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1942 signed Executive Order 9066, which forced more than 100,000 Japanese Americans into internment camps known as "Assembly Centers." These were legal, tax-paying, law-abiding American citizens whose only “crime” was being of Japanese descent.
The U.S. claimed that there was a danger of these individuals spying for the Japanese, yet half of them were children, and none had ever shown disloyalty to America. In fact, during World War II only 10 people were convicted of spying for Japan, and they were all Caucasian.
Detainees were taken from their homes and sent to shoddily built camps on fairgrounds and racetracks. They were left there for the duration of World War II. During that time, hundreds died due to inadequate medical care.
In 1948 Congress promised that every citizen who was detained could claim compensation for what he had lost during the war. Yet the IRS had already destroyed most of the detainees’ tax returns from the prior decade, making it impossible to prove one's losses.
Over the next 57 years, the victims of these camps watched President Gerald Ford say in 1976 that the internment camps were “wrong,” Congress create a committee in 1980 to determine if Ford’s words were too strong, and the U.S. Government declare in 1983 that the camps were “unjust.”
Finally, in 1988, the U.S. government formally apologized with the passage of H.R. 442, “An Act to Implement Recommendations of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians.” The act created an education fund to preserve the history and lessons learned from the situation and authorized issuance of $20,000 in reparation to each of the victims, along with an apology letter. Many agreed that the sum paled in comparison to the indignity of losing all of one’s possessions and being locked up for no real reason.
Australia Abducts Aboriginal Children – Going back to the late 1800s, the British and Australian governments enforced a policy of abducting native aboriginal children from their homes. This was done under the guise of removing them from households that were deemed to be unsafe. The reality was that the governments were stealing mixed-race children and bringing them to live in white society so as to have their ethnicity eventually be “bred out of them.”
The governments didn’t stop at going into the children’s homes. In some cases the children were taken from the hospital shortly after their birth. As a result of this forced assimilation, aboriginal people became economically marginalized and were exposed to new diseases. The consequence was massive depopulation and extinction for some aboriginal tribes.This policy was in effect for over 100 years before it was finally ended in the 1970s.
It would be another 20 years before the Australian government would publicly address the issue again, and that was only to tell the world that they would not be issuing a formal government apology. In 1997, the country’s Prime Minister John Howard said, "Australians of this generation should not be required to accept guilt and blame for past actions and policies."
Despite his detachment from the crimes of his predecessors, Howard oversaw the creation of a national day of atonement, dubbed “National Sorry Day,” and ordered millions in various forms of restitution to aboriginal citizens.
Finally, in 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued a long-awaited formal government apology [note that readers must continue to click “next” in order to read the entire statement]. The issue of restitution remains controversial, with many Australians feeling that many government promises of atonement have gone unfulfilled.
America Lies to Tuskegee Study Participants – The Tuskegee Medical Study of 1932 is generally considered to be one of the most terrible acts ever committed by a government against its citizens.
Nearly 400 poor black men from Alabama who had contracted syphilis were enrolled in the study. They were never told they had syphilis, nor did they ever receive treatment for it. Instead, the men were simply told they would be treated for "bad blood," a term used to describe several illnesses, including syphilis, anemia and fatigue.
At that time, there was no proven treatment for syphilis. But even after penicillin became a standard treatment in 1947, the medicine was withheld from the men, leaving them to infect their wives and children. The Tuskegee scientists wanted to continue to study what the disease does to the human body.
It was only after the NAACP filed a class action lawsuit in 1973 on behalf of the victims that the government offered settlement money and free healthcare for life to the victims. The restitution was questionable, given that the entire reason these families were suffering was free government healthcare.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton finally delivered an apology that included several forms of redress.
Discuss these three situations with students, talking about what kind of apology the government made, could have made, or should have made. How long did it take for the apology to be issued in each case? Talk about what was similar about these situations (e.g., racism, abuse of government power) and how the five good citizenship themes were clearly absent. Ask students whether they think these situations could happen in modern times. If not, what current cultural attitudes and values would prevent such things from occurring?
Next, have students choose one of the three government misdeeds and then complete one of the following activities (teacher should specify the desired length and format of the written assignment):
If you like, have half the class write apologies and the other half critique the actual government apologies. Students can read their assignments aloud to the class, or the teacher can distribute the assignments (either with or without the writers’ names) to classmates for feedback and discussion. Conclude by asking students what they learned from the exercise.
Evaluate the following:
Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld Associate Editor
Copyright © 2012 Education World