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Education Opinion

Why Education is Not “The Civil Rights Issue of Our Time”

By Meira Levinson — January 20, 2011 3 min read
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Note: Meira Levinson, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is guest-posting this week.

Yesterday, I wrote about what schools could do to promote “civil dialogue"--our nation’s current favorite catch-phrase, until it gets buried by the next 24-hour news cycle. I’ve also been thinking about another catch-phrase for a while now: namely, the claim that education is the “civil rights issue of our time.” I gave a talk about this at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Convocation ceremony last May. With Rick’s unwitting indulgence (when the cat’s away...), I’m going to share a condensed version of those thoughts here, as I’m curious how the larger world of RHSU followers reacts.

I’ve been struck by the astounding bipartisan resonance of this phrase, that education is the “civil rights issue of our time.” President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have both invoked the phrase from the left, as have President George W. Bush, Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom, and Rod Paige on the right.

Issues are important, sure--but they can be dealt with relatively passively, through discussion, negotiation, and policy tweaks. “Issues” don’t scream injustice or demand great sacrifice. I contend that education is instead the “civil rights struggle of our day” because of the massive injustice that lies at its core. Many young people in this country suffer the daily injustices of

• attending schools that teach them how to fail--and teach them they will fail--rather than how to succeed.
• being told that their knowledge, passions, and talents are irrelevant in the face of others’ standards and expectations.
• attending schools that treat them more as inmates than as valued community members and developing learners.
• attending schools with no libraries, no playgrounds, and not even doors on the bathrooms or toilet paper in the stalls.
risking their lives daily as they walk to and from school, while politicians dismiss school bus service as being too expensive to take to scale.

We should have the confidence to name these injustices, loudly. We should also have the confidence to demand that all Americans share the burden and sacrifices of this fight. Civil rights struggles can’t and shouldn’t be fought solely by educators, or solely in the urban core. These challenges have to be assumed by us all.

Moving from “issue” to “struggle” also raises the stakes. Let’s say that in the course of waging this struggle, kids from all walks of life--wealthy, poor, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, gay, straight, immigrant, native born, Native American, with and without special needs, bilingual, monolingual, rural, suburban, urban--got equally high test scores. Would that satisfy us that we could stop waging this civil rights struggle? I don’t think so. Equal test scores are not in fact our goal. It is far too easy to be bought off by symbolic and partial progress. In this respect, I am reminded of the belief of many of my former eighth grade students that “not having to sit at the back of the bus” is the accomplishment worth celebrating.

I don’t even think that “college and career” are enough. Success in college and careers brings students to the front of the bus. But--to push this metaphor possibly beyond the point of no return--they don’t ensure the quality of the ride, nor do they enable riders to reroute the bus’ ultimate destination.

To do this, we need to think about schools as places that teach students themselves to take on the civil rights struggle. In this respect, to return to my theme of the past two days, schools need to teach students civic skills and motivate them to take civic action. Most current and former civil rights movements are and were fought by the oppressed themselves--by people fighting for their own rights. They have (and had) allies, but the movements were necessarily and appropriately led by those seeking more rights for themselves. We treat education differently, seeing adults as the appropriate actors on behalf of youth. This shouldn’t be the case. If we believe in this fight, then we should be activists with youth, which also means that we need to help empower youth. This is an ambitious conception of what schools should be doing. But we need to be ambitious. There are some schools and programs in our midst that are already doing this kind of work. Let’s help all schools empower young people with tools to fight the civil rights struggle of our and their time alongside us.

--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.