On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Eighth grade social studies courses don’t inspire much more than a yawn from most kids. For students in the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, government and civics often inspire outright cynicism. Many believe the system isn’t just broken -they think it’s rigged, and not in their favor. One professor says this “empowerment gap” is just as profound —and important to address— as the “achievement gap.” We explore ideas for teaching young people how to be engaged citizens.
- Meira Levinson Associate Professor, Harvard Graduate School of Education; author, "No Citizen Left Behind" (Harvard University Press, 2012)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. The eighth grade social studies teacher's going about the three branches of government and checks and balances. Students are trying to stay awake, and all they're wondering is, will this be on the test? Many kids feel the gap between what they learn in civics class and the reality outside of school.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIBut that disconnect is likely even more profound for kids in the poorest school districts, many of whom believe that the system isn't just broken -- it's rigged. So why get involved? A decline in civics education in schools in general is something many have noted and tried to address, and various approaches have gained traction. But they haven't done much to dent the cynicism among the most disadvantaged kids.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIOne professor thinks there are ways civics education can empower all students, even though that might mean shaking things up. The aforementioned professor joins us in studio. She is Meira Levinson, author of "No Citizen Left Behind." She's a professor of Harvard's Graduate School of Education. Meira Levinson, thank you so much for joining us.
PROF. MEIRA LEVINSONThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDIA number of high-profile people are talking about civic education, including retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Richard Dreyfuss who have both launched programs to improve civic education. Why do you think the issue is gaining traction now?
LEVINSONThat's a great question. I think because, no matter where you are on the political spectrum and no matter where your attention is drawn to -- whether it's economic issues, environmental issues, politics itself, global, local, et cetera -- it's really clear that our politics are broken, right? I mean, nobody thinks that American democracy is working either, I think, at home or abroad. And so, I think, that may be one reason in -- for which people are starting to say, you know, we have to do something different.
NNAMDIWell, let me cut to the chase in terms of your view. People have been thinking about the decline in civics knowledge among students for a long time, trying to find ways to address it starting in the classroom. But you say a radical new approach is needed. Why?
LEVINSONIn part, because, I think, people have been thinking about civic education in the wrong way. So there's been a lot of concern about absolute low levels of civic engagement and civic knowledge across the United States, which, I think, is true and is a real concern. But I think, as much as the absolute levels, we need to be concerned about relative levels because in the end democracy is about a sort of relative use of power and about who has a voice, who is heard, who has access to power, and who makes those decisions.
LEVINSONAnd what I think that we need to really be paying attention to is what I call the civic empowerment gap. So the fact that we know we can predict, based on skin color, income level, years of education, immigration status, whether or not you speak accented English, how likely you are to have voted, to have accessed the (word?) of power to be solicited for your opinion, have a political party ask you to join them, even go to a rally or a protest. And that makes us a really fundamentally anti-democratic country.
NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, call us at 800-433-8850. We're talking with Meira Levinson. She is the author of "No Citizen Left Behind." She's a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. Did your social studies and government classes inspire you? Call us, 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or simply go to our website, kojoshow.org, and join the conversation there. Meira, what would a new approach to teaching civics here look like?
LEVINSONA bunch of things. One of the most fundamental things it would look like was that it would actually give students the chance to be citizens, to practice citizenship, to do citizenship. We have them do that in their other classes. We have them read. We have them write. We have them do math. We even have them, say, you know, practice baseball and play baseball in the baseball fields every single year.
LEVINSONWe almost never give kids the opportunity to practice being citizens, to have real discussions in classes, to be parts of student government that are making real decisions not just about the school dances, to be in student newspapers, to be out advocating for positions they care about, and that, I think, is the most fundamental things that we could do to change civic education.
NNAMDIOne approach that's gained a lot of traction is service learning, which a lot of schools and students embrace, including the public schools in Maryland.
NNAMDIWhat's the idea behind service learning?
LEVINSONSo service learning is an attempt to combine what used to be called community service with learning in the classroom where students go out and do service, but then they have an opportunity to reflect upon it, to reflect on what they learned, often to connect to the curriculum. I think that's fine. It's -- I think it's better than nothing, but it also tends to be very apolitical, be...
LEVINSONDeliberately apolitical, and that's how it's gained traction, is that it's deliberately apolitical. But, you know, we are actually living in a political world. We want to engage kids in a political world and also to be thinking beyond the individual, thinking beyond, what can I do individually to ameliorate this problem today, regardless of what happens tomorrow, and instead of thinking how can we work together collectively as a community to change things in the long term, to change things over time so that tomorrow I don't have to be back here, doing the same work I did today.
NNAMDIVolunteering in the soup kitchen.
LEVINSONRight, exactly. And so that's a way in which I think that the service learning model provides a really wonderful model of how schools have started getting kids out into the community and reflecting on their experience. But now, we need to turn it in a more politically engaged direction.
NNAMDIWe hear a lot about closing the achievement gap between disadvantaged students and those from more privileged backgrounds. And you mentioned this phrase earlier, and now I'm going to call on you to explain it. What is the empowerment gap?
LEVINSONSo the civic empowerment gap is this very predictable gap that we have based on demographics, income, education level, communities that young people are growing up in and also living in where we know, really, who has access to power, whose voice is being paid attention to, even who's voting or who's attending a rally based on these demographic characteristics, just like the -- that is also true of the academic achievement gap. But with the academic achievement gap over the last 15 or 20 years, we've stopped trying to explain it away as natural.
LEVINSONWe've stopped trying to excuse it in sort of mainstream, especially white, you know, policy and education -- or communities of saying, well, you know, they're working two jobs, or they don't speak English, or they don't have books at home, or they're too busy, or they don't care. All they care about is rap or basketball. Like, those arguments used to be given publicly without shame. And now, it's considered shameful.
LEVINSONYou would not see an educator or a policymaker standing up and saying, well, of course, you know, the average African-American senior can't read any better than the average white eighth grader. What do you expect? That's just considered wrong, and we say, no, it's shameful, it's anti-democratic, and we can do something about it. Similarly, I think that we need to take on the civic empowerment gap and stop explaining it away or assuming that it's natural because it's no more natural than the academic achievement gap.
NNAMDII quoted Sandra Day O'Connor earlier as saying that democracy is not inherited at birth but rather learned in school. Why, therefore, are middle and high school, basically the adolescent years, so important in terms of civic education?
LEVINSONThat is when students are exploring their identity, when they are gaining practice with a whole range of things, right? They're learning how to play chess and how to write stories and how to rap and how to play baseball. And they are developing an identity for who they are going to be in the future. They're also passionate about issues. They care about improving their community and the world. And they usually think that they know better than we do as adults, right? And they are sometimes right.
LEVINSONAnd so that's a pivotal time for us to say, OK, let's help you start developing your identity as citizens, as people who care, and we can give you some tools so that you actually can make a difference. And, in fact, the best way to develop that identity as an empowered engaged citizen is through actually being engaged, through taking action. You don't have to be interested ahead of time. We can give you this experience, and you will be so jazzed by actually making a difference, then you'll do it again. And you will start to develop a long-term identity as an engaged civic actor.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. If you are involved in politics in your community, what got you involved in the first place? 800-433-8850. Let's go to the phones, to Joseph in Arlington, Va. Joseph, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JOSEPHYeah. My comment today has to do with my own sort of understanding of the civics in our country. And, you know, I had never really found my knowledge to be tested until there was this issue that came up recently about whether or not President Obama is a natural-born citizen, and that the more specific question is whether or not, as a child of a U.S. citizen and a child of a Kenyan citizen, whether or not he would be eligible to be president.
JOSEPHSo this was a particular instance where my civics knowledge was really challenged. And I came away very disappointed in the way that the mainstream media had sort of avoided that issue and the way they characterized the issue. And I'm very disappointed that this instance that's written into our Constitution is very -- it's swept under the rug. So if we're going to improve the education of our children in the area of civics, then issues such as this should be more discussed. It should be more widely known. And people should address it and not hide it.
NNAMDIWhat were you...
JOSEPHAnd that's my comment.
NNAMDIWhat were you disappointed about, Joseph?
JOSEPHI was disappointed that all of the discussion about President Obama's eligibility was cast in terms of whether or not he was born in Hawaii and whether or not he had a birth certificate that would prove he was born in Hawaii...
NNAMDIAs opposed to who...
JOSEPH...when, in fact, as opposed to the issue of whether or not a person whose parents are one is a citizen and one is a noncitizen can be considered a natural-born citizen by the Constitution.
JOSEPHSo I was disappointed that that second issue, which is a Constitutional one, has never really been addressed by the mainstream media.
JOSEPHAnd I'm very disappointed.
JOSEPHHow can we improve civics, you know, if we're going to just pick simple issues like that and sweep them under the rug?
LEVINSONSo I think that's a really important point that, you know, regardless of where he was born, the fact that his mother was an American citizen automatically made him, you know, a native-born American citizen. And I think that sort of -- more generally, what that kind of conflict showed up and what so many of these conflicts show up is that we don't know how in this country to have serious, non-ridiculously ideological, posturing, soundbite-driven conversations about things that matter, including about who should we consider as a citizen, who do we want leading our country.
LEVINSONYou know, before Schwarzenegger's total debacle with his housekeeper, et cetera, you know, people were talking quite seriously on the right about how they wished he could have run for president. But he was a naturalized citizen and so couldn't. That also wasn't the conversation that we had about who do we consider American, how do we consider them, what kinds of structures are set up in order to welcome, you know, new Americans into our fold.
NNAMDIJoseph, thank you very much for your call. We move on to Jay in Northwest Washington. Jay, your turn.
JAYHi. Good afternoon. I want to bring up the issue that, first, the United States has never been a democracy. It was created by a small group of white landed gentry men. Women were excluded, all nonwhite men -- in fact, most men who didn't have property were not included into the process. And inherently, citizenship is an issue of power. Who has the power to decide? W.E.B. DuBois said back in the early 1900s that the question of the country was the color line.
JAYAnd that question has never been addressed and has never been ameliorated to the benefit of all the people. And until that issue is put on the table, not from the issue of color, but from issue of power, who has the authority? Who has the ability to determine what this country will be like? And I'm sure...
NNAMDIGlad you brought up -- glad you brought up that issue, Jay, because Meira Levinson notes that public schools seem to be resegregating after decades of bussing and other efforts, and many people are describing desegregation as yesterday's struggle. What's the thinking for those who subscribe to that? And what does race, as Jay has pointed out, have to do with all of this?
LEVINSONSo, yeah, great question. In total agreement with what Jay was saying, so I -- one of the things you would ask me now, how can we change the civic empowerment gap, and I had talked about sort of action civics. But there are other really important things that, I think, we need to do. One of them is actually seriously and openly confront race in public school classrooms in this country.
LEVINSONIt's majority white women who are teaching in public schools and including in schools serving majority low-income kids of color. And they're very afraid to address it. They're afraid of being seen as racist. They don't know how to confront it.
NNAMDIYou were a white teacher in schools with all black students.
LEVINSONYes, exactly. And it was my students who taught me how to talk about race and also my colleagues 'cause when I was teaching in Atlanta, it was a mostly black school, mostly black colleagues. And there, the conversation was just open, out there, in front, right? It was not something that somebody was -- a conversation people were embarrassed to have. And that's where I learned to talk sort of openly and unapologetically about the role that race plays in American society.
LEVINSONAnd I think it would be much empowering if kids heard us talking about that, acknowledging it's an issue, and then helping them develop tools to be more empowered. So it's -- just to pick up on the power question -- helping teach kids how to code-switch and say it's not that you have to change who you are. It's not as if there's one right way of being and a wrong way of being.
LEVINSONBut let's teach you how to access power when you want it, including access power among the white middle class and, also, at the same, teaching whites that they need to adopt more of what DuBois calls a double consciousness, of realizing that the world -- that their view of the world and their experience of the world isn't the only normal one out there, and that they need to see the world through other people's perspectives and not just their own.
NNAMDIJay, thank you very much for your call. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Meira Levinson. She is the author of "No Citizen Left Behind." She's a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. We're still taking your calls, though, at 800-433-8850. Can you teach kids how to be engaged citizens? 800-433-8850, send us a tweet, @kojoshow, or email to firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Meira Levinson, author of "No Citizen Left Behind." She's a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, and we're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. When you talk about code-switching, some people would take issue with the idea that somebody's speech manners or dress are different from those in power, and, therefore, they should have to essentially change their identities to access political power. Is that what you're saying?
LEVINSONSo that's exactly why, I think, we need to teach it as code-switching, as a very self-conscious mechanism to access power in ways that are necessary when we choose to, but not to abandon the very core of our identities, that I think, right now, in too many classrooms, we teach kids that they need to learn how to speak right, act right, dress right. And that is telling them, you know, we disrespect your identity, and we think you need to change. And that's wrong.
LEVINSONIt was interesting, when I was teaching in Atlanta and my students were researching why they were now being required to wear uniforms, and they couldn't find any discussion of it in the school board minutes. We went and read two years' worth of school board minutes and interviewed some school board members and so forth -- nothing. And their interpretation of that was exactly that they were being told that they -- that being ghetto was bad, right, and that they were trying to be removed from the community, that the community was undesirable, that they needed to go somewhere else.
LEVINSONAnd that is being told you have to abandon your identity and those you love, whereas something like code-switching is to say, I'm going to be strategic. I know that I have to look different, dress different, talk different in certain places than in others. And I'm going to strategically use that knowledge to advance the things I care about.
NNAMDIDoes the election of Barack Obama change any of that? Many students in low-income feels -- feel -- in low-income schools feel they will never have access to the levers of power and society 'cause or race, because of poverty, because the lack of educational opportunities. Seeing an African-American president, who apparently can code-switch pretty well, does that affect it at all?
LEVINSONI think it affects it somewhat. I mean, I think that many African-American students and students of color and, you know, young people generally are inspired still by Barack Obama. But at the same time, you know, it's inspired a lot of conversation about living in a post-racial world, which simply does not conform with the experiences of many people in the United States, including, I think, most people of color in the United States.
LEVINSONIt also -- you know, Barack Obama was invested with such high expectations by so many, and, you know, he has not fulfilled those expectations for a variety of reasons. And so that's led, I think, to disenchantment. And, finally, you know, really, we live our lives in local places. And, you know, Barack Obama is not going to be able to do anything about the collapsing housing projects that people live in. And so, you know, that's really what they're thinking about and living on a day-to-day basis.
NNAMDIContrasted with this email we got from Mike in Fairfax, Va., "I was fortunate to be able to attend a private middle and high school that put a heavy emphasis on civics education. My history classes, in fact, included a solid current events component. We also had a great program called the senior project. Each student had to shadow a public servant or business person in the local community. I did my project with my state legislator in the North Carolina General Assembly."
NNAMDI"And that, combined with engaging in-class discussions and history classes, made me passionate about politics and public service. These programs should not be limited to people like me who are blessed with a private school education. It should be a core part of the American public education system."
LEVINSONAbsolutely right. I'm in total agreement with that.
NNAMDIShadow your local elected official and get involved in the process. Here's Olivier, (sp?) who would like to share how Olivier got involved in engagement. Olivier, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
OLIVIERHow you doing, Kojo?
OLIVIERFirst time caller, long time listener.
OLIVIERYeah, I just wanted to share my experience in that I was -- I'd grown up in the D.C. area and -- sorry.
NNAMDIAre you in a shower?
OLIVIERNo. I actually just came in from outside where buses drive by.
NNAMDIOK. Go right ahead.
OLIVIERAnd D.C.'s always been a very political environment, and, I think, it's always been in my blood. But my first opportunity to get involved was at a federal level. And, after a couple years of that, I realized that most of the decisions that affect the quality of people's lives are happening at the local level. And when you consider things like health -- access to education and public safety, those are issues that are determined, for the most part, by ANCs and city council members.
OLIVIERAnd that's essentially what prompted me to get involved and try to get back at a level that I thought was a little bit more immediate and, hopefully, more meaningful.
NNAMDIFor the benefit of Meira Levinson, an ANC here in Washington D.C. is an Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner, or it is the primary level of elected office in a city, which, because it does not have voting representation in Congress, has only one non-voting delegate in the House.
NNAMDISo in an effort to create a higher level of local political involvement, the city, many years ago, created this advisory neighborhood commissioner position where an ANC is a radius of a few blocks, one ANC, and therefore, you represent the individuals in your community. And that's how Olivier is saying he essentially got involved.
LEVINSONAnd that's -- I think that's such an important point about the importance of the local. And it's really sad 'cause if we think about what we teach kids about in school, we basically teach only about the federal level, right? We emphasize the U.S. Constitution. We emphasize the federal branches of government. We'll teach about federalism and teach that there's, you know, local, state and national government.
LEVINSONBut basically -- I don't know. And I'm making this number up -- 92 percent of what we teach, right? And when we teach anything about government, about civics and even often about history, it's about what's going on at the national level. And that's not actually going to empower any of us to think -- to learn how to get involved and make change.
NNAMDIYou are a highly educated white woman. Is there a little irony to a book on empowering the disenfranchised by someone who comes from outside of that world?
LEVINSONYeah. I mean, so it took me 10 years, actually, to write this book. And a large reason for that, besides having two kids and other things along the way, and that is very hard to find time to write when you're an eight grade, you know, public school teacher, is my discomfort with being a white middle-class woman opining about how to empower non-white, non-middle class young people.
LEVINSONUltimately, the reason I decided to publish "No Citizen Left Behind" is, in part, because I felt as if I really had taken the time to learn from my students and to learn from my colleagues and to learn from the communities in which my students were located so that I felt as if I wasn't merely representing my own perspective. And I also, in the book, do try to give voice to my students as often as possible.
LEVINSONYou know, there are lot of stories from my classroom in there and a lot -- and I did a lot of interviews. I share some poetry that one of the students wrote, et cetera. And so, hopefully, in a way, I am enabling my students to have a voice in this process and not just me.
NNAMDII want to get back to the telephones, but we got an email from Jason, who says, "As a public school teacher in Montgomery County, I am concerned that, even with the most creative and innovative curriculum and delivery of instruction, there remains a gap between what is learned at school in civics and ultimate -- and ultimately participation outside of the classroom. Even 2012, equity gaps are still quite apparent."
LEVINSONThat's right. However, we can do a lot better than we are, right, so that if schools consistently were giving young people a chance to debate, to have mock trials, to engage in simulations, to have discussions, to intern with local officials and a right to do citizenship projects, that would -- it's not going to solve the equity gap, but it would make a big difference.
LEVINSONThe other thing, I think, that is worth thinking about, and this goes back to the call that we had about race and DuBois is that one or the other gaps is between what we talk about in school and what young people experience in real life. And the less that schools are willing to engage with student's experiences in real life, the less students are going to be willing to take what they learned in school and apply it in the outside world.
NNAMDIYou pose a question. Should kids in disadvantaged districts be taught skills to transform their own communities or to escape to more functional ones?
LEVINSONSo I -- right. And I think that we should not be making those decisions for kids, but, right now, we are usually teaching them, you have to leave, right, that...
LEVINSON...the marker of being successful is that you leave your family behind, your neighbors behind, your community behind, and you escape to a different world. And I think that's tragic. I think it's tragic for kids because we're telling them you have to leave behind those you love. And it's tragic for those communities 'cause we're saying you shouldn't come back and try to make a difference here.
LEVINSONBut the only way to create a more just society is to have people coming together collectively and saying, we are going to transform the world in which we live, not, we are going to escape to some other world where we don't need to deal with these problems in the first place.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here now is Martin in Lorton, Va. Martin, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARTINGood morning. I can fully relate to what the discussion is today. I grew up in Puerto Rico in a low-income family. And my teachers in high school were very influential, not because the content of the classes but because of the fact that they emphasized in teaching critical thinking, especially my humanity, chemistry and geometry teachers.
MARTINAnd even though I went to college to get an engineering degree, after working in D.C. as engineer for six years, I quit my job and went back to Puerto Rico and ran for office during the last election because, through my education, I learned that my well being is dependent on making sure that the people around me had a good quality of life. So I went back. I even had the opportunity to meet then-candidate Obama.
MARTINAnd although I was not elected, it was a good experience, and I'm still connected with the political leaders in my country. And I still participate actively in the political processes of Puerto Rico.
NNAMDICare to comment on Martin's comment?
LEVINSONYeah. I think there are two things that are really fabulous that come out of that. One is that the civic education should not be and doesn't need to be confined solely to history and social studies teachers, right? So Martin mentioned his chemistry teacher, his geometry teacher. That brings all teachers, whether or not they intend to, whether or not they know it, they are teaching civically.
LEVINSONThey are teaching about what it means to be respected, what it means to be a member of the community, what it means to be disrespected, what it means to be marginalized, right? And so Martin is really demonstrating that it is the experience every day with adults who may have power, who may also be role models of saying, you know, no, you should get involved. You have power. You should be listened to. The other thing that I want to pick up on is the empowering nature of school culture, right?
LEVINSONHe said, so my teachers emphasized teaching critical thinking. That -- it sounds as if his school in Puerto Rico, there was a real emphasis on having kids be heard, on having a real dialogue and challenging, and that's what schools could be doing, regardless of what they're teaching in a civics class to, say, giving kids the opportunities to actually be heard in the hallways, in the classrooms, in student government, in after school clubs, et cetera.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Martin. We move on now to Francisco in Arlington, Va. Francisco, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FRANCISCOThank you for this chance to speak. I think the American people is doing just fine. What we have here is a matter of pleasing methods but no pleasing results. When Obama was elected, all kinds of people went to the polls, and very little has happened since. He had the House and the Senate to do all kinds of things, but very little happened. My point is that leadership of this nation knows exactly what needs to be done.
FRANCISCOWhat we have is a permanent government in place that does not allow change, or at least much change, regardless who gets elected. The people are doing just fine. This has nothing to do with schools or listen to children or going anywhere. People are doing just fine. What we have is a problem in Washington, and they really should know exactly what's going on (unintelligible).
NNAMDIWhen you say permanent government, Francisco, who makes up this permanent government, the two major political parties?
FRANCISCOThis is a -- no, no, well, there is no political party. This is just an arrangement among friends, and the whole world knows about this. Teenagers know about this. Everybody knows about this.
NNAMDII'm glad you mentioned that 'cause I want you to stop right there and talk a little bit because what we're hearing from Francisco is a level of skepticism that, I guess, can accurately be described as cynicism. And you heard a great deal of that after the 9/11 attacks when you were teaching.
LEVINSONYes. In -- on 9/11, I was with my eighth graders, and we watched the towers fall together on TV. And when we were talking that afternoon, they talked to their science teacher, maybe the lunch room lady. That was it. Otherwise, they had been with me. They said, oh, Dr. Levinson, we know who did this. It was President Bush. He planned and executed these attacks because he wants to avenge Saddam Hussein's attempted assassination of his father and have an excuse to go to war with Iraq in order to, you know, kill Saddam Hussein.
LEVINSONAnd this was on 9/11, you know, four hours after the towers fell. And when I, you know, pushed back on this, thinking that this was crazy, many of the arguments that they gave to support their stance were -- what I viewed as intensely cynical disaffected arguments about -- I mean, some of which I thought the facts were right that, say, Bush had stolen the election in Florida and so forth. But their interpretation of what this meant for American life and American democracy was very different from mine. I think that one of the ways...
NNAMDIWell, let us assume that many of them share Francisco's thinking, that what we have here is a group of friends who have made an arrangement that we'll pretend to be two different political parties, and, you know, that's the way things will work out. Everybody will believe that some kind of democracy is happening here...
NNAMDI...when it isn't.
LEVINSONSo I -- there are a few ways that I think we can respond to that. One is by showing, you know, when you do get involved, especially at the local level, you can make a difference, that we -- I think that we feel very disempowered when we look at Washington, for those of us who live outside of Washington, right? It is not our local area. And it is very hard to get involved, and it's very hard to figure out, how do you get past the money? How do you get past the institutionalization, et cetera?
LEVINSONBut at the local level, even young people -- 13-year-olds, 14-year-olds -- really can make a difference, and that can filter up. That's one thing. The other thing, I think, that we can do is help realize how much power ordinary Americans really do have in the 2008 election, which supposedly, you know, energized all these young voters, energized all these African-Americans and so forth.
LEVINSONBarely 50 percent of citizens ages 18 through 29 voted. Only 58 percent of African-American citizens ages 18 to 29 voted. Think about what could happen in this country if we mobilized the other half of young citizens. We're not even talking, you know...
NNAMDIAnd that begins in civics education?
LEVINSONI think that it begins in civic education. It begins in organizing. It begins in, you know, outreach to so far undermobilized voters rather than assuming that we should just stick to those who have demonstrated the capacity to be mobilized in the past. And it comes out of collective action.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation with Meira Levinson. She is author of the book "No Citizen Left Behind." She's a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. We're still taking your calls at 800-433-8850. How do you think government and civics could be taught differently? 800-433-8850. You can go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIn case you're just joining us, we're talking with Meira Levinson, author of "No Citizen Left Behind." She's a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. And we're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Or you can send email to email@example.com. Join us at our website, kojoshow.org, or you can send us a tweet @kojoshow. Realistically, how can you envision getting support for a curriculum that encourages students to get political and even change power structures?
LEVINSONThere are a variety of ways. One is to emphasize that this is political and not partisan, that we have -- young people are going to be -- have the power, right? As citizens, as 18-year-olds, they are going to have the power to vote. They are going to have the ability to make decisions. They are going to have the ability to stand up and, you know, testify and all sorts of things.
LEVINSONSo we might as well actually give them some guided practice, some help, make them more sophisticated, make them better. That's part of it to say it's not as if we, you know, don't do it, that nothing -- you know, that we can stay safe and nothing will happen. The other part...
NNAMDIBut it makes a lot of people nervous, especially people who are either, A, already powerful or, B, hold elected office, who are often sometimes the same people, when you start talking about changing the system because, after all, this is the system that they feel empowered them.
LEVINSONThat's true. And at the same time, they will live in a stronger country, a better country if we are more democratically inclusive. And, frankly, if we're going to start having, say, internships of the kind that the caller mentioned earlier, if we're going to, you know, have speakers come in and talk to kids, if we're going to have kids become involved in issues, so let those in power help to be those who educate the young people.
LEVINSONIf they have a view about what we should be doing, have them welcome kids into their offices. Come and say why they think that, in fact, the EPA should be shut down or, you know, whatever it is, that they can, in fact, start attracting young adherents of their own.
NNAMDIWell, when you talk about disadvantaged and poor people, there is a significant section of the population that feels that these are people who simply won't pull themselves up by their own bootstraps, that we live in the greatest country in the world, that it offers opportunity for everyone. And if you're telling these people that rather than go out and just try to work hard in school and get a job, that they should somehow go up and go out and begin to try to change the system, then, in fact, you are encouraging them in what the people who make this argument see as anti-social behavior.
LEVINSONIt's hard to imagine describing proactive, positive, democratic engagement, right? This is not about bottle throwing. This is not about rioting. This is not about, you know, threatening others with weapons, right? This is about speaking out, making one's voice heard, rallying, protesting, writing letters, testifying, voting. It's hard to imagine that as being anti-social, right?
NNAMDIWell, let's talk about it in more practical terms because there are a lot of challenges when you're talking about innovating in the public school system. Tell us about trying to develop the course Civics in Action for the Boston Public School System.
LEVINSONSo this is fascinating. I -- this was really a wonderful thing the Boston decided to do under the leadership of Sid Smith, who said, you know, we have room in the eighth grade curriculum now. Testing was going away in history and social studies in Massachusetts, so hence we now have freedom. And we worked together to plan the Civics in Action curriculum, which does include a civic action project, where kids are supposed to choose a problem they care about, research it and find out who their allies are, and then figure out -- look at different potential solutions.
LEVINSONAnd then they present their project to, say, a group of judges, et cetera. And, you know, one thing I can say is this did not lead to massive overthrow of Boston government. Now, when I did it in my classroom, we did have Mayor Menino come. He invited himself, I want to say. And he saw my students' presentations. And he ended up livid with anger, truly, I mean, truly livid, purple with anger. He accused me and my students of lying to him about writing them letters, et cetera. But, you know, ultimately, we got through that, too. It was a great way...
NNAMDIWhy was he so upset?
LEVINSONBecause my students kept making presentations in which they were pointing out things that weren't working in their city. And they also kept saying they had written him letters and that he hadn't responded. And he really prides himself on constituent responsiveness. And so then they went, and they checked. They realized, yes, they had gotten the letters, but then they accused us of sort of bombing them with letters 'cause we had sent 20 of them.
LEVINSONIt was a really good opportunity for my own students to learn about why you don't necessarily want to contact the most prominent person, but the person who actually might have something to -- you know, who could change something that they care about.
NNAMDII've heard of alleged ambush interviews, but never before an alleged ambush classroom.
LEVINSONYeah. No, that was exactly what we were doing. We were totally ambushing him. He was just -- I mean, we were terrorizing city hall from our classroom in Dorchester.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number to call. How did the course Civics in Action ultimately work out?
LEVINSONIt's great. It's been going now for, I guess, eight years now. And a group of high school students actually through the Hyde Square Task Force, a community organizing group in Boston, said, you know, we learned about it in eighth grade. We now want to learn about it in high school. We've been learning about power analysis and stuff through community organizing. We think all kids should be learning this.
LEVINSONSo they actually wrote a curriculum with the help of some Boston public school teachers, and it's now being piloted in the Boston public schools. It's been in a few schools. I think it's now going to be eight to 10. And Boston is creating a district-wide civics curriculum. And so I think everybody has realized that young people have ideas to contribute and energy to contribute.
NNAMDIYou also presented some of the ideas in this book at the American Enterprise Institute here in Washington. How were you received there?
LEVINSONReally, you know, heartwarmingly well. As I said -- so Rick Hess is the director of education there, and I love him dearly. He and I, politically, are in fairly contrasting ends of the spectrum. But in terms of both caring deeply about the importance of civic education and civic engagement, we're on the same page. And as we discuss the American Enterprise Institute, these -- political engagement is something, you know, that all parties have been engaged in, right, you know, from all positions.
LEVINSONI think the Tea Party Movement is, frankly, the most impressive example of collective action that we've seen in the last five years. And the concerns there were about, you know, how much are liberal teachers educated at liberal ed schools going to be indoctrinating students. And my answer is essentially, OK, so get involved and do more.
LEVINSONAnd don't think that because we don't have teachers talking to kids about this that somehow students are going to be exposed to a wide array of ideas, right? They're not. The schools are there to expose kids more. But if schools don't get involved, then kids will simply be saying even more what they hear at home, what they hear in the neighborhood.
NNAMDIA lot of people on the phone would like to address this topic. Allow me to go to Vera in Odenton, Md. Vera, your turn. Hi, Vera.
VERAHi, Kojo. Hi, professor. So I have a quick comment. My daughter is getting ready to go to college, and she applied to all these Ivies and ended up getting into -- decided on going to Dartmouth, made the trip down to Dartmouth, and I just -- looking at the population, you know, I realized, wow, we have a lot more white people than black people here. So I'm saying, you know, I asked her yesterday. I said, why didn't you apply to a historically black college?
VERAShe says, mom, what's the purpose that we've defeated what our forefathers did in terms of, you know, desegregation because the whole point was for us to be able to attend these white institutions, learn from them so that they can also learn from us and bring that knowledge back to our people so that they can also make a difference in our communities. So I'm asking, this mosaic generation, they are thinking we should all be one.
VERASo moving forward, they're going to be educating our grandchildren. What do you think is going to happen in the future with this mosaic generation and our grandchildren coming up?
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Vera. Here is Meira.
LEVINSONI really admire your daughter because she is -- I mean, she is going to be doing a lot of work over the next four years educating her classmates. And, you know, it is uncomfortable, I think, often, to be a minority in, you know, in a community that's very different. I think it's crucial. But, in fact, as Kojo was mentioning earlier, we have all too few schools, at the K-12 or college level, that are truly the mosaic that you're talking about.
LEVINSONSo if we have more people like your daughter, that's phenomenal. And then they may educate our children and grandchildren differently. But, unfortunately, many of our kids are going to schools that are really still very segregated.
NNAMDIAnd that resegregation you pointed out in the book, on the flipside, can mean that people who are going to predominantly African-American schools and being exposed to the writings of the DuBoises and the James Baldwins of the world may not get similar exposure to the Shakespeares and the kinds of people that Martin Luther King, you talked about, mentioned in his speech.
LEVINSONYes, that's exactly right. When I was teaching in Atlanta, that's actually when I first read a lot of DuBois and Baldwin and so forth because our students were reading them in American History. The paper that they wrote was about Booker T. Washington versus W.E.B. DuBois and different visions of what it meant to be black in America. And that was incredible. But it also meant that they were not learning things that were sort of considered common knowledge in...
NNAMDIIn the mainstream education environment.
LEVINSONYeah, exactly. Clearly, we need both sides exposed to learning about, you know, both views or multiple -- you know, being exposed, really, to the rich history and literature of our country and of the world. But that doesn't happen as much as it needs to.
NNAMDIOn to Peter. Vera, thank you for your call. Here's Peter in Annapolis, Md. Peter, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
PETERWell, Ms. Levinson, I'd like to say that I think the message is good that you're pronouncing, but I have to question the messenger. Where do we get a sense of equality in our society when there are pressures to resegregate and when we have a professor from Harvard stating that George Bush stole the election? I mean, you should have said, in my opinion, he stole the election. But that kind of a comment on public radio, to me, is just destructive.
NNAMDIWell, it's very -- I'm glad you brought that up, Peter, because when Meira said it, I thought about it at the same time. She is not here as a journalist. She is here as, as you pointed out, a professor at Harvard. And one of the reasons we invite people on this broadcast is, in fact, to express their opinions. So we would like you to make the distinction between the reporting that you hear from journalists say when we do our weekly news analysis and the opinions expressed by our guests. So here now is Meira.
LEVINSONOne thing I do want to acknowledge is that there's, I think, a real worry about, say, elites trying to impose their perspective and their interpretation of world events, local events, et cetera, on unsuspecting children. And to get back to sort of Kojo's questions about, you know, aren't those in power going to be concerned about this -- I mean, aren't others going to be concerned about this? I think that's where we have to make sure that we don't -- I mean, I would not say to my students, I (word?), you know, will declare that Bush stole the election.
LEVINSONAnd, in fact, I -- when I taught, I almost never did tell my students what my own political beliefs were or views about the world because I thought it was really important that they not experience any pressure guidance from me. What that meant is that, because I was a white middle-class woman not agreeing with them, they assumed automatically that I was a Republican, which I think made for a richer and more robust conversation in our classroom.
NNAMDISo you're both elitist and a Republican. Here is...
NNAMDIAnd, Peter, thank you for your call. Here is Zon (sp?) in Annapolis, Md. Zon, we're running out of time. Please make your question or comment brief.
ZONI just had a comment. I'm a retired social studies teacher from South Louisiana, and it is the policy of our school district that, in seventh and eighth grade, students do not have to pass both social science and social studies. They have to pass one or the other. And it's the same with the high-stakes testing. They do not have to pass the social studies part of it. And I just think it's unfortunate that we've deemphasized it to that point.
LEVINSONI agree. I'm not actually a huge fan of high-stakes testing in social studies 'cause I think it leads us to engage in the wrong kind of education. But I absolutely agree that it's really criminal that we say that it doesn't matter that kids -- whether or not kids learn how to be citizens, learn how to be knowledgeable, knowledgeable about his history, knowledgeable about social life. It's crazy.
NNAMDIYou are not a big fan of standardized tests, period.
LEVINSONI'm actually mixed on standardized tests, I would say.
LEVINSONI'm worried about what standard -- about the ways in which standardized tests limit the kind of learning that's important, but I also really acknowledge that they've been an incredible tool for equality.
NNAMDIZon, thank you very much for you call. Meira Levinson is the author of "No Citizen Left Behind." She's a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. Thank you so much for joining us.
LEVINSONThank you for having me. This was great.
NNAMDITomorrow evening at 6:30, Meira Levinson will be speaking about her new book, "No Citizen Left Behind." That's at Busboys & Poets, the 14th Street Version -- 14th Street here in the District. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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