Not surprisingly, teaching citizenship has been a popular topic among educators over the past year. This is why it was such a pleasure and incredibly important for Brimmer students to hear from Leon (Kip) Borderlon IV from The Picardy Group last week. During his presentation Kip used the lens of citizenship in his discussion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Black History Month. Yet, before we can look at why Borderlon’s was so important, we need a little more background first.
For a long time people would look to election voting totals, or percent turnout of voting age population(VAP), as an indicator of civic engagement. It was assumed that if people were showing up to the polls they had an understanding of its meaning. So when there was 57.1% turnout of VAP, the highest in forty years, there was a sense that more Americans were engaged civically. While the 2016 election was not among the highest turnout votes, it also was not among the worst. But, does voter turnout equal civic engagement?
It turns out that they do not necessarily equate. A February 2, 2017 article in the Economist, Democracy 101: How to teach citizenship in schools, provides evidence based arguments that governments and schools around the world have become too focused on preparing students for work and not enough on being a part of a democratic society.
I have to admit that I was a bit unsure about this claim upon my first read of the article. My mind immediately jumped to companies that have taken it upon themselves to improve the world through social causes, setting aside a percentage of sales to address issues of hunger, homelessness, healthcare, and water scarcity. In many ways millennials have helped social entrepreneurship become the more of the norm with start-ups. How can these people making such a difference in the world not be civically engaged? However, just as voter turnout is not the same as civic engagement, neither is social entrepreneurship.
While young people are more comfortable with issues of equality and justice, and generally just expect it as the norm, this does not mean they are engaged citizens. Former Supreme Court Justice David Souter explains the lack of citizenship teaching and how civic understanding provides the framework for people to understand who is accountable for failures and success and how to go about making change. Furthermore, he explains that civic apathy is incredibly dangerous.
Why is this relevant? It isn’t bad that we have seen more and more participation by people working to help less privileged members of our communities and world. That is not what Justice Souter was explaining in this interview. On the contrary it represents a deep sense of caring and hope for our humanity. At the same time, civic engagement is a necessary part of this work. Without it, we could lose the freedoms we take for granted.
During his presentation to Brimmer students, Kip Borderlon shared that Rosa Parks was not just tired, Plessy vs. Ferguson did not come about haphazardly, and Brown v Board of Education should not have been the primary case on the Supreme Court docket. These were not just accidents or coincidences. Rosa Parks had a reputation of not giving up her seat and the timing of her popularized arrest was predetermined. Homer Plessy’s arrest was orchestrated to challenge Jim Crow with the support of local businesses. And Brown v Board was chosen to be the lead case in the challenge of Separate but Equal because it would be easier to desegregate a school in Kansas.
Without a deep understanding of citizenship, these historical cases would not have changed our world. That is why I am glad that we have classes such as Journalism and Government are important parts of our Upper School curriculum. In order to achieve our school’s mission we need to continue to empower students to build our future but must continue to provide them with the framework of citizenship they will need to be citizens and leaders in our diverse world.