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Is Teaching About Martin Luther King, Jr., Bad for Kids?

By Meira Levinson — January 18, 2011 4 min read
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Note: Meira Levinson, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is guest-posting this week.

I am grateful to Rick for letting me couch-surf on his blog while he vacations in truly surf-worthy climes. As a professor, I am a techno-enthusiast: I’m constantly asking my students to do in-class activities using GoogleDocs or wikis, and I’ve moved all my lectures on-line on the grounds that it’s criminal in 2011 to force a bunch of people to show up in the same room just to hear one person monodirectionally deliver information. As a writer and opiner, however, I’m definitely pre-lapsarian. This is my first blogging opportunity, and I’m excited to be forced into 21st century forms of expression. I look forward to seeing how the conversation develops!

In anticipation of yesterday’s holiday, I’ve been thinking about how we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in schools. As I wrote in a book chapter a few years ago, I taught about 1000 middle school students in Atlanta and Boston over a span of a decade. Almost all of my students expressed fervent admiration for Martin Luther King, as do virtually all Americans. But almost none of my students ever thought to try to put his techniques into action. My students would speak generally of King’s perseverance, his standing up for what he believed in, his willingness to sacrifice himself to the cause, and other such platitudes. But they rarely if ever referenced his broader civic leadership or his empowerment of others to advance the causes for which he and they stood.

On a broader scale, the techniques used by King and his colleagues in the civil rights movement are arguably moribund, despite the fact that our country faces a multitude of ills that threaten justice, equality, and liberty as much now as fifty years ago. Civil disobedience, collective action among thousands of citizens for a sustained period of time, nonviolent protest--these are evident neither in school curricula, which tend to treat King as a towering figure who single-handedly led Americans into “the promised land,” nor in American civic or political practice in the early 21st century. Maybe the Tea Party will challenge my judgment if it lasts another few political seasons, and especially if it focuses on issues of economic justice. King’s model of civic action is as relevant to the right as to the left. But for the most part, young people and adults alike seem to fail to recognize even that they could carry forward King’s work in any but the most anodyne ways.

I find this discouraging, because our democracy would be stronger, and we as citizens would be better, if we did emulate King in addition to venerating him. Developing citizens should learn about the power of collective action. For example, they should learn and practice techniques for identifying and working with allies on behalf of a common cause. They would also do well to recognize that the goals that King fought so tirelessly to achieve are not yet fully realized, and to feel an obligation to promote those goals ourselves. It is no diminution of his heroic stature to admit that the struggle needs to continue if his and others’ hard-fought gains are to be sustained.

To accomplish either of these goals, however, we need fundamentally to change how schools teach civic heroism and civic action. MLK is important not because he was “one man with a dream.” Rather, he was a civic leader who inspired and mobilized hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans--including over 3,000 kids in Birmingham who chose to be jailed on behalf of the movement--to take actions that sustained the civil rights movement and actually ensured its victories. These lessons are more historically accurate and far more civically empowering than what students learn today.

In line with this, I think that students should actually spend less time learning about extraordinary heroes like MLK--an admittedly daunting figure, especially insofar as he was assassinated for his actions; who wants to get involved in politics if it gets you killed??--and more time learning about ordinary role models. Young people should have the opportunity in school truly to get to know a variety of local civic activists who look and sound like them, and whom they could imagine actually emulating. They should learn how the ordinary, everyday acts taken by these people make significant differences to their communities. Then they should spend time in school identifying and practicing the key skills deployed by these ordinary role models as a means of becoming efficacious, engaged civic and political actors themselves. Of course, this takes time and effort to do well. We can’t just add ordinary role models to the curriculum without sacrificing something else. But I would be happy to give up time even that kids spend studying Martin Luther King, Jr., himself if it meant that they were inspired and enabled to engage in truly meaningful civic action.

Tomorrow, I’m planning on extending these thoughts to last week’s tragic shooting at Congresswoman Gabby Giffords’ constituent meet-and-greet in Arizona. There doesn’t seem to be any direct evidence that violent political rhetoric in Arizona or across the nation specifically drove Loughner to target Gifford and her constituents. But the substitution of violent imagery and rhetoric for mutually respectful political dialogue is a real phenomenon, and I’m interested in thinking more about the opportunities and challenges educators face in teaching students to engage in civil discourse about highly contentious topics.

--Meira Levinson

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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