Book Review: 'No Citizen Left Behind' by Meira Levinson

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Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2012. Pp. 400. Hb. $29.95, Pb. $19.95.

Reviewed by Jeremy Lent, Department of Philosophy, University of Michigan--Ann Arbor.

In this ‘methodologically eclectic’ book, Meira Levinson writes as education scholar cum political philosopher cum experienced schoolteacher to offer a new vision for civics education. The standard ‘how a bill becomes a law’ lessons will not suffice, Levinson writes, to rectify what she calls a ‘civic empowerment gap’ between whites and minorities, and between the affluent and the poor, in the United States. (Although her focus is on the U.S., her arguments and suggestions are transferrable to any country with group-level inequalities in political influence.)

While Levinson does not directly define ‘empowerment’, she cites disparities in political knowledge, skill, efficacy, and participation as evidence of a gap in civic empowerment: white, middle-class students perform better on standardized civics assessments than lower-class minorities; wealthier whites are more likely to report a sense of political efficacy (a belief that individual citizens can influence government) than minorities and the poor; middle-class and affluent whites generally participate more in politics (e.g., by voting, contributing to campaigns, joining protests, and contacting elected officials) than their poorer, minority counterparts.

This suggests that, for Levinson, ‘empowerment’ entails not just perceived efficacy and capacities (a belief that one can change things, along with the opportunities and skills to do so) but also actual political influence. Empowerment requires not just the possession of power, but the exercise of it. Indeed, when Levinson argues that all citizens should worry about the gap, she emphasizes the effects of unequal rates of political participation: the legitimacy and stability of a democracy hinges on ‘the robust participation of a representative and large cross-section of citizens’; ‘democratic deliberations and decisions are likely to be of lower quality if people representing only a fairly narrow range of experiences, interests, and backgrounds are involved.’

Levinson does not dwell on diagnosis or hand-wringing, but instead pragmatically moves on to suggest solutions, which form the bulk of the book. She believes that public schools are an ‘important battleground’—albeit not the only one—for narrowing the civic empowerment gap. One way in which schools can help is to provide truly high-quality general education to all students, not just to those in affluent districts. But Levinson thinks school can—and should—empower students directly, with a reinvigorated civic education curriculum. She offers several concrete, thoughtful proposals for that curriculum.  In her vision, schools should help students recognize institutional racial biases and consider how to fight them. Students from minority cultures should be taught to ‘codeswitch’, or adopt the cultural norms and speaking habits of the majority in certain public settings. They should also be introduced to techniques for solidaristic collective action, including media exposure and civil disobedience. Students should be guided to construct ‘civic counternarratives’: stories of American history that emphasize the struggles of the disempowered, the opportunities for which they fought, and the putative obligations of subsequent generations to use and expand upon those opportunities. Perhaps most importantly, students should be led to engage in meaningful civic action projects: for instance, petitioning for the construction of a youth center, or appealing to school officials to improve bathroom sanitation, or serving on the jury of a mock trial.

Those last two projects were undertaken by Levinson’s own students at McCormack Middle School, a low-income, majority-minority school in Boston where Levinson had the chance to implement many of the curricular suggestions she offers in the book. To make the case that her proposals will actually help to empower students, Levinson draws on an arsenal of social science research, as well as salient anecdotes from her years teaching middle school in Atlanta and Boston. Of course, Levinson cannot offer controlled, randomized experiments to prove that each of her proposals will significantly increase the political efficacy and influence of currently disempowered populations. Still, she makes a cogent case for each proposal, while conceding that many of them will be pedagogically and/or politically difficult to implement, at least on a large scale.

To be sure, the book is not a classroom-ready curriculum guide, although teachers and policy-makers can certainly draw inspiration from it. By the same token, educational theorists and philosophers may find the book somewhat short on normative analysis. (At least in Levinson’s case, methodological eclecticism seems to mean giving up on fully satisfying any one audience.) Levinson does offer some suggestive—but often too brief—normative analyses of potential educational efforts to narrow the civic empowerment gap. First, she situates her project within ‘non-ideal’ political theory: given current unjust disparities in civic empowerment, how should we move forward? To her credit, Levinson recognizes that the answer cannot simply be, ‘Identify the disparities and get rid of them.’ This is because no single generation—let alone any single person—can remove the disparities all at once, without inducing any new injustices. Rather, we have to balance conflicting values as we strive towards equal civic empowerment, perhaps trading off current liberties and democratic values for the sake of a more just future. Levinson self-consciously questions whether some of her proposals are worth the value trade-offs that they might require. Should students in marginalized communities receive a different civics education (e.g., one that includes codeswitching) than their better-off peers, at the expense of educational uniformity? Should students be equipped with models and skills for civil disobedience and resistance, perhaps at the expense of spurring future confrontation? Should we empower disadvantaged students to ‘escape into more efficacious communities’ at the expense of motivating them to improve their current ones? And who should get to answer these questions?

It is only this last question that gets a thorough philosophical treatment. Levinson argues that adult citizens’ democratic control over schools via standards and accountability mechanisms must be loosened to allow students and teachers to engage in meaningful, relevant, and context-appropriate civics education. At least from the perspective of many who spend their working lives in classrooms, this suggestion is very welcome. However, one tradeoff that Levinson oddly never considers is that between encouraging civic engagement among students (both now and as they grow older) to narrow the empowerment gap, and doing harm to the lives of individual students for whom active political involvement may be burdensome or disappointing. I worry about children who might come to feel duty-bound to involve themselves in petitions, protests, and community organizing despite their preferences for a more private life, or for politics with less of an emphasis on social justice. I also worry about children who might absorb unrealistically high expectations for political action, and organize their values and plans around civic goals that they later regret pursuing. The latter worry can be addressed by supplementing Levinson’s curriculum with an honest history of the many failures of civic initiatives in the U.S.

However, the first worry—about schools imparting an overly broad sense of duty—calls for a more critical look at Levinson’s vision. I fully agree that schools should equip children with a healthy sense of political efficacy and the basic knowledge and skills needed to effectively exercise their political rights. But insofar as political activity beyond paying taxes and serving jury duty is supererogatory (at least in the U.S.), we ought to hesitate to present the life of civic engagement as normatively superior. Although closing the civic empowerment gap (as Levinson defines it) will require active civic engagement by children from all sectors of society, we surely ought not to use individual children as ‘tools’ to achieve a vision of social justice with which they might not identify as deeply as Levinson does. (For similar reasons, I think we should worry about the valorization of traditional academics and higher education that occurs both implicitly and explicitly in many schools across the U.S.)

I therefore stop short of endorsing Levinson’s call to ‘transform schools into places that teach students themselves to take on the civil rights struggle’, if by ‘teach’ she also means ‘encourage’. If students are exposed to civic narratives that feature the ‘obligation’ of future citizens to continue the struggle of previous generations, they should also be reminded of quieter ways of giving back: making charitable donations, working with non-advocacy community organizations, and providing both formal and informal mentoring. Civic action projects should emphasize skills that all students will need to effectively access public services, if not the avenues of collective action: clear speaking and writing, assertiveness, knowledge of the benefits one is entitled to, practice navigating bureaucracies. Students who are not drawn to activism should not be made to feel selfish or inferior. This is not to say that individual teachers must be barred from expressing enthusiasm for civic engagement; I only urge that neither grades nor other forms of exclusive praise be made dependent on students sharing that enthusiasm, at least not in courses required for everyone.

I also don’t mean to suggest that governments cannot incentivize efforts at voluntary civic empowerment—say, by supporting non-profit organizations that engage young people in civic activism. In fact, there may be good reasons for children who do catch the ‘civic bug’ to get the bulk of their hands-on civic experiences outside of school: they might be more likely to experience political involvement as intrinsically worthwhile, not just as work for a grade.

Levinson might insist that all citizens have an obligation to join campaigns, protest, and contact elected officials: action civics is well within the call of duty. However, this view of political obligation—and, perhaps, of the good life—must win democratic endorsement before it makes its way into public school curricula. Those who wish to fully implement Levinson’s vision of school-based civic empowerment therefore must engage in civic activism themselves. Fortunately for them, Levinson’s book is an inspiring manifesto for their cause. Fortunately for all of us, Levinson’s book can inspire reflection on how to fulfill our duties to children, once we recognize that they are not just future wage-earners, but are also growing citizens.

Correspondence: Jeremy Lent, Department of Philosophy, University of Michigan--Ann Arbor, 435 S. State St., Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1003, USA.

Email: jerlent@umich.edu

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