Teaching Opinion

Gun Violence, Schools, and Citizen Politics

By Harry C. Boyte — October 06, 2015 5 min read
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Dear Deb and Colleagues,

Last weekend I was in Atlanta at a 50th anniversary of the SCOPE project of SCLC, Martin Luther King’s organization. I’ve been thinking about how the freedom movement developed civic agency, or collective empowerment, the wellspring of democracy as a way of life. From my experiences in the movement, community organizing, and partnerships through the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, here are some things I know about civic agency.

Agency depends on belief in one’s capacity to direct one’s life. In democratic change this involves collective agency, not only individual agency - “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” as Dorothy Cotton, a great SCLC leader, sings. Civic agency involves skills and habits: understanding others’ passions and interests - and that people are not evil because they look at the world differently; disciplining anger that often first moves people to public action; learning how to work with conflicts constructively; learning how to be mutually accountable; learning how to understand different kinds of power - the power of money and institutional position, but also the power of relationships; the power of ideas and imagination; the power of stories and traditions; the power of creative work together.

Developing civic agency also requires places to learn such skills and habits. Schools and colleges are important sites for this when they look outward, breathing the spirit of the age, engaging its challenges. This is what John Dewey hoped for in “schools as social centers.”

Building democracy schools means schools looking outward, becoming civic sites embedded in the life of communities. A case in point: how can schools and colleges equip students, staff, and communities to address the terrible tide of violent killings, appearing again in the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon?

President Obama’s emotional speech on the shooting called for “politicizing” gun violence, polarizing politics. Such politics plays a role, but I participated in a White House meeting about gun violence on January 8, 2013, after the Sandy Hook shootings, and I know Obama understands that gun laws and professional mental health services are not by themselves going to solve the complex, interconnected problems at the root of such violence. To develop sufficient public will and creative energy we need a movement of citizens working across many differences.

The White House meeting, organized by Vice President Biden’s staff, brought together about ten people to discuss what lay citizens can do. There were many ideas - community deliberations; peer-based anti-bullying efforts; a “citizen first responder” program on mental health coming from New Zealand, and others. The staff were enthusiastic about the ideas - and said they couldn’t promote them. In the poisonous culture of Washington, anything they proposed would be taken as a partisan ploy.

So, we will only get such solutions from a citizen politics of agency, beyond political parties or ideologies, teaching skills of working across differences. Can schools become sites to teach, learn and, enact such citizen politics?

Dear Harry and friends,

You suggest schools be a site for enacting civic agency politics. I like the idea, but with the age-group I was most often involved with actually “play” was at the heart of enacting human agency. And maybe growing up doesn’t mean putting play side. In fact.....maybe politics is - in the best sense - a form of play!!!

Play is often defended in education circles as indispensable to human agency. It’s rather a different form of play than organized baseball et al (although there’s a connection). But children’s play is above all self-initiated for purposes that do not need defending. Play can be a social or a private activity. It can be physical or carried out within one’s own mind. In the latter form no one can take it from you.

I personally had a rich childhood of both kinds of play. My brother was my playmate for many early years (until he abandoned me for boys his own age). We invented our own worlds--together and yet also separately. Everything could be turned into play--into imagining the world otherwise. Sometimes with a concern for realism and sometimes without.

How do these forms of “agency"--your civic agency and the agency of play-- relate to each other? Yes, one learns skills and habits and challenges. Play presumes one has the power invent the rules that govern one’s “private” world. In play the child creates a world where she can rule and that’s what rulers do: they have the power to change the rules.

Perhaps it’s this private belief in one’s capacity to initiate and invent that civic agency depends on for civic purposes? There’s a film about a Central Park East’s 2nd/3rd grade classroom which shows two boys creating a city. As I carelessly stepped into an empty spot in the block area both boys spontaneously cried out, “watch out you’ll wet!” I reacted by stepping back before stepping into their imaginary lake. As we took it in, all three of us laughed with pleasure. We had all, for a moment, made that lake a reality.

I had lunch today with a remarkable woman named Mariola Strahlbeg. She told me about an “educator” named Janusz Korczak, who created an orphanage in Poland for Jewish children and died with them in 1942. But his ideas live on--in people’s memories and in his books. How to Love a Child and Respect for the Child. It’s those two words--respect and love--that resonate with me when I think of democracy.

Can schools become social centers of respect that incidentally teach “agency” and prepare both young and old for playing with and acting upon the world?


I agree that self-organizing play is a preparation for real politics - and would say politics is like jazz as well. But what happens when play largely disappears in a society dominated by professionalized activities? Harry

Correction: in the last blog there was a typo in Stephanie Carlson’s name (“o” instead of “ie”). Carlson is Professor and Director of Research at the Institute of Child Development, UMN.

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