Interview: Citizen Teachers

October 01, 1999 4 min read

Add citizenship to the list of things that children should be learning at home but aren’t. Instead, says longtime social activist Paul Rogat Loeb, they learn indifference and apathy. “We’ve all but forgotten that public participation is the very soul of democratic citizenship,” he writes in his recent book, Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time (St. Martin’s Griffin). According to Loeb, schools are one of the last places capable of reminding us. Assistant managing editor Rachel Hartigan spoke with Loeb about teaching citizenship.

Q.Why don’t people get involved in their communities?

A. I think for a reason familiar to teachers: perfect standards. People think they have to know everything about the issues before they participate. They need to know every fact, every detail; they need to know enough to debate Henry Kissinger on Nightline. They think that only someone with an impossibly saintly character-a standard no one can meet-gets involved. The fleeting images of social activism, which are of impossibly perfect or crazy people-people we could never equal or who we want nothing to do with-leaves no room for flawed, uncertain, overloaded human beings.

Another huge barrier is society’s pervasive cynicism, the sense that we can’t do anything, it’s out of our hands, our voice is not going to matter, no one is going to listen. I see so many people who recognize profound crises-whether in environmental issues, economic divides, violence-as legitimate problems that they’d like to see someone solve, but they feel helpless to do anything.

Q.Where do people pick up this cynicism?

A. People get it from a number of institutions, from schools, from peers. Most of the time, the institutions join in fostering resignation. The attitude is that we can’t do anything, so why bother? For example, it’s accepted that we have a campaign system where politicians are bought and sold by the wealthy. Kids understand this; that’s part of the reason they have a low opinion of the political process. When I was coming of age in the ‘50s and ‘60s, there wasn’t mass cynicism like now. It was easier to do something-if there was a problem, we’d dig in and fix it. Now we get a sense that things are a mess, but with lots of money, you can just avoid it. That’s not a healthy attitude.

Educators can potentially counter that-not by scolding or hectoring but by offering examples of a richer way to live. I know so many dedicated teachers who have to clean up the mess that society makes. They’re dealing with populations and families stressed to the max. Being a teacher is inherently difficult, and here I am saying that in addition to everything else they do, they need to teach civic involvement. But if they don’t, I’m not sure who will.

Q. How can teachers approach civic involvement?

A. There are lots of opportunities in school to teach active citizenship. As it stands now, kids learn conclusions: Lincoln freed the slaves, unions were formed, women got the vote. Students don’t learn how these things happened. There’s an absence of stories about how our society has changed. We certainly don’t get these kind of stories from the media. Kids are naturally idealistic, but they don’t get any examples of civic involvement. When students read about someone who did something genuinely courageous-and not someone on a pedestal-they get excited. When they learn about George Washington, it doesn’t translate directly into activism because he seems too much a creature of his times.

We need to teach about ordinary citizens acting and making change. I always give the example of Rosa Parks. Her story is told as if one day she just decided not to move to the back of the bus. What that strips away is that she had already worked for the NAACP for 12 years. The group had been trying different things to fight segregation. Her decision not to give up her seat did light the fire under the civil rights movement, but without the years of work by the NAACP, there wouldn’t have been a community of people ready to respond. People of good will, much less high school kids, don’t know that. But when people do learn the full story, it’s more powerful than the version where the person acts spontaneously and is instantly effective. Kids can’t really see themselves doing anything com parable. I remember a kid who saw a picture of a civil rights march and said, “I have no idea how all those people got there.”

Q. What would you say to teachers without the time or the inclination to teach citizenship?

A. Part of the challenge is to get society to recognize that teachers are stretched to the limit. I live in Seattle, where housing prices have skyrocketed, so teachers can’t afford houses. They have to live an hour from school.

The challenge is to fight for support for teachers so they can do what they want to do. Teachers need to say, “If you are going to ask us to clean up for society, we are not going to do the job to our full potential without more help.” Just be very honest. Teaching at its best is a form of service to the community. Because teachers are overworked and overloaded, they sometimes forget that.

Q. Shouldn’t civic involvement be something that parents teach?

A. Parents think that kids learn to be citizens in school; teachers think they learn it at home. Everybody passes the buck to somebody else. All of us have a responsibility to try and teach what matters, to teach what gives students a sense of possibility. If kids see us involved in the community, that’s an example. We need to recognize that kids are not going to get models of involvement from the wash of culture. They get the opposite: models of condescension and disdain. It’s up to us to give them positive models.