I first heard the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” in an anti-discrimination Public Service Announcement, maybe in the early 1970s. I didn’t know at the time that it came from a musical—South Pacific, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II and music by Richard Rodgers. It’s a pretty straightforward denunciation of prejudice, couched in the then-unremarkable white privilege of the writers.
The song denounces those who are afraid of “people whose skin is a different shade” or—this is the one that kills me—”oddly made” eyes. Well it was 1949, after all, and the world was made and run by and for white people, even if the musical was set in Polynesia.
I couldn’t find the PSA—what’s that about, YouTube?—but I found something better. Mandy Patinkin singing it at a September 11th tribute concert, in an arrangement with Stephen Sondheim’s “Children Will Listen.”
The Rodgers & Hammerstein song pounds us over the head with its message, so much so that it could easily get histrionic if the singer invests too much emotion in it. Patinkin sings it with restraint:
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six, or seven, or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate.
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
But Patinkin saves the full range of his emotion for the more nuanced and broader warnings from Sondheim’s Into the Woods.
How do you say to your child in the night?
Nothing’s all black, but then nothing’s all white
How do you say it will all be all right
When you know that it might not be true?
What do you do?
Careful the things you say
Children will listen
Careful the things you do
Children will see and learn
Children may not obey, but children will listen
Children will look to you for which way to turn
To learn what to be
Careful before you say “Listen to me”
Children will listen…
Carefully taught: The Post-Trump Generation
This week we’ll be inaugurating a president who has spoken openly of registering Muslims and deporting immigrants. To judge from his actions and those of his appointees and most ardent supporters, they will be only the first of many groups targeted.
Patinkin sang this arrangement at a September 11th Memorial Concert a few years ago. But it’s a message we need to hear even more today. Our children are listening. And this generation, too, has to be “carefully taught.”
Can we please just teach them love and respect, once and for all?