School & District Management Opinion

Empowering Students: When the Last Become First

By Harry C. Boyte — March 28, 2017 4 min read
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Dear Deb and Colleagues

We are, as you say, “both alarmed about...schools where teachers are replaced by machines who know all the right answers and where equations and algorithms are viewed as an improvement over human judgment big and small.” Your description is like a manifesto for democracy schools.

If we’re going to build a “freedom movement against the rise of the smart machines,” as one of the authors from the recent Scientific American article, “Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?”, puts it, we need ways to enlarge educators’ views of children’s potential.

Here I’d add to your argument about children learning to be “governors of their government.” A government focus tends to reinforce what I’ve called the “Manichean mindset,” the idea that civic action involves a zero-sum and good versus evil struggle for power. We need students to learn a nonviolent relational approach going beyond demonizing opponents, and also to learn “civic repair” and “public creation.” In my experience such learning also unlocks hidden talent and energy while changing educators’ views.

In our exchange with David Randall, he stressed government-centered civics. NAS leans conservative but for all its differences with what they see as leftist tendencies in education, they share with progressives the focus on government.

The French philosopher Pierre Rosanvallon, in his recent book, The Society of Equals, observes that “democracy” now emphasizes government and deemphasizes society. “Democracy is manifesting its vitality as a regime even as it withers as a social form,” on both sides of the Atlantic. “Political citizenship has progressed,” he argues “while social citizenship has regressed.

In contrast, reflecting on his travels across America in the 1830s, the French observer Alexis de Tocqueville compared nations in which the citizenry relied on government with the self-organizing efforts of citizens in society. “In democratic peoples, associations must take the place of the powerful particular persons,” he wrote in Democracy in America. “In democratic countries the science of association is the mother science; the progress of all the others depends on the progress of that one.” Tocqueville located the “science of association” in grassroots citizen politics different than partisan, government centered politics.

I’m in favor of young people learning about government. But this knowledge best grows in projects like the playground I described, which children at St. Bernard’s elementary school involved in the youth civic education initiative Public Achievement built over several years.

They negotiated zoning changes. They interacted with local officials. They learned about government. But their motivation came from their own work in making change. They created a public thing of importance.

I have been transcribing interviews from educators in Public Achievement. Again and again, they are surprised, even astonished, at young people’s talents. As Elizabeth Bott, a Public Achievement team coach at Maxfield, a low income, largely African American school in St. Paul, put it, “Public Achievement made me see kids as so much more than I thought. It gives kids a chance to blow up low expectations, by showing what they can do.”

Jamie Minor, an African American teacher at Anderson School in Minneapolis, described the way her views of children changed. When she first heard about Public Achievement, she was skeptical. “It took me about a year to realize how narrow my thought process had gotten by being in education,” she said. “I had learned to automatically go to the negative.”

As children began to work on projects like getting a bathroom fixed she saw “spark in kids that couldn’t care less about being in school most days. Public Achievement was the one part of the day when they had control. They were so excited to be in charge of their environment. They had hope.” She also saw a new sense of consequentiality and confidence. “They realized their work matters and adults care. The confidence these kids developed is irreplaceable.”

In Colorado, Elaina Verveer, a coordinator of Public Achievement, observed that the general response from many who hear young people’s ideas is, “I don’t think this is possible. We’re talking about people who aren’t even voting age, who lack life experience.” Young people’s public work changed perceptions. “Unlike people have had a lot of life experience, young people are tenacious. They don’t give up easily.”

At St Bernard’s, Jeff Mauer saw that children who didn’t fit the norms sometimes shattered expectations. These were “kids who were seen as troublemakers in the classrooms. They found leadership in Public Achievement.”

Public Achievement taught relational public skills. “They had never before had a chance to speak out about something they felt strongly about or to have people listen to them. Public Achievement gave them a chance for pride and recognition.”

These experiences remind me of the biblical passage, “the last shall be first.” Alain Locke, philosopher of the Harlem Renaissance and a founder of the American Association for Adult Education put it differently. “It is not always the dominant stock or upper classes who are carriers of culture. Societies have just as frequently received infiltrations of culture from the bottom.”

In Public Achievement, “those from the bottom” often have the keenest insights into the problems in schools -- the hyper-individualist norms, the regimented learning, the loss of relational interactions. They also have the strongest incentives to change these norms.

They need “citizen teachers” to help unlock their civic potential.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.