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March 19, 2008

guest blogger: Doyle Stevick

Doyle Stevick is an education professor at the University of South Carolina. Here is his contribution to the CANDE newsletter. (My contribution was yesterday's post.) The assignment, again, is to describe an ideal civics class, without worrying about what might be politically palatable or practical.

Between 2001 and 2004, I spent hundreds of hours in civic education classrooms all over Estonia. I observed teachers in different cities, sometimes on the same day, and the drives gave me a great deal of time to reflect on things I’d like to see change in civic education generally. Here, I’ll keep myself to just three.

In my exposure to civic education materials, I have seen very little representation of children as social actors. And yet children do and have done extraordinary things. It is one thing to see the work of Craig Kielburger, who traveled around Asia at age 12, founded an international children’s organization, and the like. His is an inspiring tale, well represented in his own words in his book “Free the Children” and the Bullfrog Films documentary “It takes a Child.” Yet, as with college students who read about Paul Farmer in Tracy Kidder’s Mountains Beyond Mountains, the sheer scale of his accomplishments can overwhelm rather than inspire and inspire a sense of civic self-efficacy in children.

One of my undergraduates at Indiana University brought me the magazine Marie Claire, in which girls from around the world were profiled taking action in their own communities around local problems. Although they dropped the pictures from the website, the eight profiles can be found here. In Estonia, an official working in the Ministry of Education told me about children who organized when their school was going to be closed down, gathered information, held rallies, and got the government to rescind its order. I believe that school materials should be full of these kinds of real-life, local, relevant examples. Too often, citizenship is seen as something in children’s futures, not in the present. Just as they should appear in the media.

I recently drove past the Penn Center on Hunting Island, South Carolina. An institution with an incredible history, it sits on a road named after Martin Luther King. There are countless reasons to honor King, but aren’t there enough local heroes to honor in South Carolina’s efforts for civil rights? Shouldn’t an institution with a history like this one have a name with more local ties? Joseph Armstrong DeLaine, Harry Briggs, Septima Clarke?

This leads me to my second point: let us call attention to the local in our schooling. I have a wonderfully diverse set of students in Educational Administration at the University of South Carolina, but black or white, the stories of Septima Clarke and Judge Waties Waring come as revelations to them. Even in Charleston itself. Not only does history come alive—or can it—when we study what happened RIGHT HERE—but it is also empowering: this is what people right here have been able to do. This isn’t some distant event in Washington DC. These are people in our neighborhoods.

Part of my worry about the national and distant focus on much civic education (and history) is that it is so disempowering. In a context of 300,000,000 people, few of us can hope to influence the president (whose election gets the lion’s share of attention.) Yes, we an often get form letters back from our representatives. But we are often able to get things done in our local communities. This is one great feature of Project Citizen. But we can match that with a sense of local history.

My concern is that our exclusive focus on King (and his corollary, Rosa Parks) can be disempowering if he is perceived to be a great man, whom none of us could ever hope to match. Rosa Parks, in too many of our stories, is just a tired old lady on a bus, and not a committed activist who worked with hundreds of others to accomplish what she did. We need to pull more of these people into view to understand what it takes to make a difference. And these people are often in our very communities, waiting to be sought out in community-based inquiry projects.

When the latest research came out telling us how ignorant our 17-year-olds are, it came out that 97% could identify Martin Luther King. Could a number that high in some way be indicative of a problem in our accounts and presentation of the civil rights movement? When I toured the National Civil Rights museum in Memphis, Tennessee, in the former Lorraine Motel where King was assassinated, the displays run chronologically up to his assassination. The final room is 306, where he stayed before his death. But it is also the end of the museum, as if the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement were over the moment he was killed. The conflation of his life with the movement was too great for me. Is the degree to which we focus on King a product of the Great Man theory of history? We can never underestimate his influence and importance, but if we aren’t careful to indicate that others were involved, too, we may be disempowering those we hope to engage.

And can we stop pretending that gay people don’t exist? Is it fair to talk about King and nonviolence without talking about Bayard Rustin? When the author of the country’s best selling middle-school US history textbook told me about writing the conclusion to the book just before 2000, he said that he talked of challenges and issues the country would have to grapple with in the future—the environment, the gay rights movements, etc., the publisher refused to publish it. They would not even permit gay people to be mentioned, whether good or bad. It was not acceptable to acknowledge that they exist. I would love for teachers to understand this much about the content they are provided to teach. And I would love for them to help students learn about Rustin.

Ordinary people, playing a role in important changes. A stronger connection to local issues and history, to local governance. And, in Kara Brown’s phrase, attention to the school-scape. Can we not feature local cultures, local people, local history, on the walls of our classrooms? Many do, of course. But there is power in seeing someone’s picture in school, and having people around who know her.

Finally, can we reconsider this idea of neutrality? I struggled with this for years before learning of Diana Hess’s research. In the former Soviet Union, teachers who were not enthusiastic about Marxist/Leninist content still taught it, but often with sufficient detachment and disinterest that students got the hidden curriculum, even if the teacher retained deniability. In the post-Soviet period, however, teachers often felt powerless in society and lacked democratic experiences, which undermined their ability to promote civic self-efficacy, but they also strongly resisted the notion that they should ‘push’ ideas onto anyone.

This is what the Soviet state did—teachers feared that if they expressed a view, they were propagandizing, and that was wrong. The problem was that the detached teaching style, learned and practiced over decades, was often passed down as traditional pedagogy, the way one taught. But it undermined engagement in times when people were feeling relatively powerless in the face of the collapsing economy and other difficult changes in society. For students to feel respected, and trusted, we should not conceal our views from them. This is not pushing our views, or using class as a soapbox, but responding candidly to student inquiries while respecting differences. This is modeling respectful dialogue across differences. We need not proffer views. But let us know constrain democratic dialogue and deliberation behind troublesome notions of neutrality and objectivity, notions which are ripe for reexamination.

We can never underestimate his influence and importance, but if we aren’t careful to indicate that others were involved, too, we may be disempowering those we hope to engage. If there is any prominent figure in American history that we would want virtually every American to know about, it should be Dr. King. But for school students, for civic purposes, wouldn’t it be ideal to have them know Barbara Johns and what she accomplished at Moton High School? According to Wikipedia, “In the Pulitzer Prize-winning Parting the Waters: America in the King Years, 1954-63, author Taylor Branch remarks upon Davis v. Prince Edward:

[T]he case remained muffled in white consciousness, and the schoolchild origins of the lawsuit were lost as well on nearly all Negroes outside Prince Edward County. ... The idea that non-adults of any race might play a leading role in political events had simply failed to register on anyone — except perhaps the Klansmen who burned a cross in the Johns' yard one night, and even then people thought their target might not have been Barbara but her notorious firebrand uncle.

March 19, 2008 8:23 AM | category: none


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