Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Are the Lessons We teach About Martin Luther King, Jr. the Wrong Lessons?

Meira Levinson, guest-blogging for Rick Hess calls into question the lessons we teach about Martin Luther King, Jr. This is not to say that the lessons we teach about King are, per se, bad, but Levinson simply wonders if we spend too much time about King the man and hero and not nearly enough time about King as a leader, about his methodologies and successes (and failures) as a leader.
[W]e need fundamentally to change how schools teach civic heroism and civic action. MLK is important not because he was "one man with a dream." Rather, he was a civic leader who inspired and mobilized hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans--including over 3,000 kids in Birmingham who chose to be jailed on behalf of the movement--to take actions that sustained the civil rights movement and actually ensured its victories. These lessons are more historically accurate and far more civically empowering than what students learn today.

In line with this, I think that students should actually spend less time learning about extraordinary heroes like MLK--an admittedly daunting figure, especially insofar as he was assassinated for his actions; who wants to get involved in politics if it gets you killed??--and more time learning about ordinary role models. Young people should have the opportunity in school truly to get to know a variety of local civic activists who look and sound like them, and whom they could imagine actually emulating. They should learn how the ordinary, everyday acts taken by these people make significant differences to their communities. Then they should spend time in school identifying and practicing the key skills deployed by these ordinary role models as a means of becoming efficacious, engaged civic and political actors themselves. Of course, this takes time and effort to do well. We can't just add ordinary role models to the curriculum without sacrificing something else. But I would be happy to give up time even that kids spend studying Martin Luther King, Jr., himself if it meant that they were inspired and enabled to engage in truly meaningful civic action.

My daughters watch a lot of Disney Channel television. The channel does not have a lot of "commercials" but is very heavy on the PSA like messages on everything from eating healthy (with First Lady Michelle Obama) to "Friends for Change" series about being environmentally conscious. Most of the messages are pretty practical, but the ones I really like to see are the messages that focus on a local effort by some tween student who took the message to heart. Recently Disney was showcasing an effort by a young lady who organized a clean up of a shoreline, an episode of a young man (about 13 now I think) who has lead multiple catastrophe relief efforts and a "Friends for Change" chapter who was replanting a fire ravaged area in California.

Now all of this goes to Levinson' point is that these are "civic actions" and "collective action" that should be highlighted locally by students and teachers alike. In my state, students graduating high school are required to engage in 150 hours of "volunteer" work in the community. (I know, the words "requirement" and "volunteer" don't go together, but still). While students are required to write about their experience, how much of that experience is shared with other students. That is, who else besides the teacher knows about the effort?

Why are local student civic leaders featured in the classroom? Why shouldn't students from one side of a county connect with students on the other side, or younger students to talk about their efforts? I believe we lose a multitude of chances to develop a community spirit with our students and to develop leadership skills of high school students who could work with middle and elementary school students on a civic or collective action. We should be encouraging communications like this.

While there are many problems that Dr. King sought to alleviate through his efforts, I don't think that simply thinking on a grander scale of "civic action" is necessary as Levinson seems to imply. Rather, great civic movement can be done by simply connecting smaller, student led projects together. Massive movements, the Tea Party and the Civil Rights Movement, don't just spring up, they are built over time, by making connections within a community. We can achieve much over the long term by building a base in the early years and expanding it over time.

Levinson's discussion of making more of King's methods and campaigns and less of King the man as the focal point of lessons in schools will go a long way to making King's dream a reality. We have already wasted 25 years teaching the wrong thing, but maybe we can make a difference in the next 25 years.

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