Spencer Crew kicks off Academic Day

CEO of Underground Railroad Freedom Center says including diverse perspectives a necessity for education | October 21, 2003

Spencer Crew, the executive director and chief executive officer of the Underground Railroad Freedom Center, had a colleague at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., who began his American social history course each semester by singing what Crew calls an American classic: “It’s Not Easy Being Green” by Kermit the Frog. While politely declining to follow his colleague’s direction and actually singing the song, Crew began the University’s third annual Academic Day on Tuesday, Oct. 20, by pointing out the wisdom of the famed Muppet’s song and its application to the issue of diversity, which was the theme of this year’s Academic Day.

While others around him stand out in their environment, Crew said, Kermit is simply green and blends into his surroundings. He gets lost in everyone’s vision despite his importance. The world is full of people like that, Crew said, and always has been—people overlooked or overshadowed by those in the spotlight.

“We can’t deny the movers and shakers of the past, for they certainly are important and significant figures,” Crew said. “But we also need to look at those who labored quietly to make a difference in society—people like John Parker and John Rankin.”

What museums such as the Underground Railroad Freedom Center and academic institutions such as Xavier need to do, he said, is diversify their perspectives when teaching their visitors or students. In fact, he said, it's their responsibility. Society's understanding of the past constantly changes as facts are uncovered through research, and updating what is taught to include this new information and new perspective is a necessity.

“If we applied these types of changes to the field of science, they would be viewed as good scientific research that can improve mankind,” he said. “We need to make sure we have the same sense with history.”

It can be accomplished, he said, but not easily. A counter-pressure exists from people who do not wish to have any change, who want to maintain the old traditions, norms and standards they’ve come to know.

“Sometimes research brings about unpleasant facts or you don’t always end up with a happy ending,” he said. “Sometimes history includes some events we don’t want to remember, and that can cause discomfort or anger with some.”

The solution is in how it’s presented, he said. It needs to be placed out there as part of the educational process and as a means of engaging thought, so it’s not reacted to negatively or rejected out-of-hand.

That’s one of the biggest challenges faced by the Freedom Center, which opens next year. To help overcome the challenge, the center and the University established a partnership in which they share an employee, Cathy McDaniels Wilson. Wilson teaches part-time in the psychology department and will facilitate the Freedom Center’s dialogue center, where visitors talk about their experiences and feelings after exploring the museum.

“It’s experiential, but if we can do it well, this will be something we can share with many others,” he said. “We want to make the Freedom Center a place where ideas interact, where conversations can take place and where people can wrestle with new ideas safely. Universities can be the same way. On our own, we can’t change the world. But if we can’t make people better citizens, perhaps we can make them better thinkers, and in the end that’s not a bad thing.”