citizenship

What Julian Bond Had to Say about Non Voters and Wings on Frogs

Colleagues throughout the years have argued with me about non voters. I’ve heard it from teachers who answer the call to civic duty every day, grad students frustrated with apathetic communities and activists who spend their days knocking on doors asking for one simple act when the day comes. They all tell me that those who don’t vote have no right to complain.

First I contemplate this right to complain. I know my colleagues are as true to the freedom of expression as they are to the responsibility of voting. This idea that anyone in the United States has surrendered their right to complain will always hit me as absurd.

A system error. If allowed to stand as true it would bring the whole program crashing down. We wouldn’t be who we say we are.

I will argue for an individual’s right to complain as well as an individual’s right to skip the vote. If the rest of us are so damn smart, why haven’t we convinced the non voters that voting actually matters? That voting isn’t just a civic obligation that we talk about like Mass on Sunday but that it actually makes a difference to their interests.

However, at an event this week I heard Julian Bond compare those who don’t vote to wings on frogs. And I applauded with the rest of the packed auditorium. I had been laughing with them. Shaking my head with them. 10955797_10155093619450167_2864420614346220083_o

Watching Bond speak was an interactive experience. You had to get caught up in it. And who thinks they can argue with Julian Bond?

Throughout his remarks Bond expertly paired all the celebrated triumphs of the Civil Rights movement with the stories of activists who lost their lives right alongside those celebrated headlines. From his own perspective he said that the second Brown decision ruling against segregated schools didn’t mean anything to him. What occupied his mind was the story of Emmet Till who was only a few months older than him. That, Bond said, was what he needed to know and it terrified him.

I had to consider what a privilege it is for so many of us to think that a court case decided the right way could change the world. I don’t think a magical moment of full turnout can change the world either. What matters is how we think of each other. How we then treat one another.

Bond turned that story from his childhood around with his memories of the Little Rock Nine. That was the kind of story he wanted for himself. He shared one mother’s story of wringing spit out of her young daughter’s clothes. The all white high school she would attend was nearby but her path was lined with crowds who yelled and spit. So many young people covered unimaginable distances. Bond referred to these stories as the stories of “the people who made the movement mighty.”

He concluded his remarks with a call for an activist movement. Activists don’t stop at threats, at the obstacles in the path or even at apathetic neighbors. I’m still not going to hassle you too much if you don’t vote. But I sure as hell hope you’ll find something you’re passionate about and get involved with it. Deeply involved in it as though it could be your chance to save the world.

As though we can teach those frogs to fly.

My Wish for You: A Letter to My Students Past, Present and Future

Katie Reen graciously shared a copy of her oral exam paper incorporating her insighhts from the National Academy at Occidental College last summer. Katie’s students are 11 and 12 years old and she explains, “The concept of my paper is a letter to my students, past, present and future about what I wish for them as people and as citizens.”

Below is the section related to citizenship…

Now you know that no love letter written to you from me would be complete without my wishes for you as citizens of our community, our country and our world.  And you may think that it is slightly strange that I would transition to the topic of politics in a letter about religion and spirituality as most see them as completely unconnected, or even the antithesis of one another.  But I actually see them as very connected.  You see when I think of our membership in a democratic society, I consider it to be a covenantal relationship.  Each one of us enters this sacred compact and agrees to jointly protect and defend one another’s freedom and liberty.  The preservation of this covenant ought to be the principle business of our work as citizens.

While I don’t want to put an undue amount of pressure on you, I do think you all should know that I fundamentally believe that the survival of our democracy rests on your shoulders.  Our Founding Fathers designed our unique form of democracy as a “Grand Experiment.”  They naively believed that the people, yes the people, could be trusted to guard their liberties and build a society based on justice and the common good.  And though they borrowed their ideas from the great thinkers of antiquity including Aristotle, Cicero, Locke and Hobbs, their ideas were revolutionary and a clear departure from the past.

Although the system they created is less than perfect, I would venture to say that you enjoy more security, more safety, more opportunity, and more freedom in the United States than people in any other part of the world.  If you want this experiment to succeed – your energy, enthusiasm and service is required.  George Marshall, an American general, once said that, “Democracy is the most demanding of all forms of government in terms of the energy, imagination, and public spirit required of the individual.”  You, the individual, the citizen, are the most crucial component of our nation’s survival. Just as it has been suggested that your teachers are not teaching you enough about religion and spirituality, it has also been suggested that they are not teaching you enough about the foundations of government and your role in its upkeep.  There is some irony in this phenomenon, as the original purpose of public education was to educate the citizen for it was feared that without an educated and virtuous citizenry, no republic could survive.  Until last summer, I would have considered myself to be a teacher that Thomas Jefferson would be proud of, as I always taught my students about their government.  However, after attending a three week long academy sponsored by the Center for Civic Education, I learned that I had been going about this study in my classroom all wrong.

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A school based on Constitutional Citizenship

Those of you at the second week of James Madison and Constitutional Citizenship at Montpelier may have heard about my school and our work with Professor Harris. Our charter high school was created by a group of parents in 1998 with a mission to teach citizenship. From the beginning we tried to fulfill this mission by incorportaing lots of civic education and community service into our curriculum as well as trying to think about the skills and dispositions of a good citizen that we wanted to foster in our students. However, our efforts felt disparate and we felt as if we lacked the philisophical grounding for what we were doing as a school.

Then, I attended a weekend seminar at Montpelier and was introduced to Res Publica: An International Framework for Education in a Democracy. Found online at http://www.civiced.org/index.php?page=res_publica

My faculty studied portions of this document. Then we met at a retreat at Montpelier, heard from Professor Harris, and finally with all of that in mind, we got to work. We sat small groups of folks in different departments and tried to discover the commonalities in our approaches to teaching, to working with students, and to our disciplines. What we found was that there were clear principles guiding what we did as a school. Some of the principles we felt we lived up to, others we aspired to, but these principles (which we formed into a kind of Constitution) guided our school and were the philisophical basis for Constitutional citizenship mission.

So, here is our Constitution

Citizenship Preamble and Principles

We, of RCHS, intend to cultivate the understanding and practices that sustain individual self-determination and community self-government.  We have adopted the following principles in order to ensure that all who pass through our halls can imagine, create, and govern a more perfect world.

 

We believe:

 

That a foundation of knowledge and ethics must precede all intellectual inquiry;

 

That if we

encourage self-awareness

build and maintain local communities

develop an awareness of our membership in ever larger communities

engage in common enterprises with people who are different

accommodate and address conflict and change

facilitate problem solving

foster balance and moderation in life

and take ownership and responsibility for learning

 

We will become good citizens.

We continue to work to use this document as a guide for our school and our programs. Lately, that has meant thinking about how to communicate these ideas to new faculty, to our students, and to our parents. In addition we struggled with developing a principle that communicated the ideas of educating makers and not just users. We ultimately felt as if that idea was just below the surface in many of these principles, but still aren’t sure how to make that idea come alive in just a phrase (especially for an audience unfamilier with Professor Harris’ ideas about constitutional citizenship).

I would love to hear your thoughts about our work and its applicability to your schools.

-Shayne