It’s the epitome of a teachable moment.
From Greensboro lunch counters to Tiananmen Square, youth have led significant campaigns for social and political change throughout history. But it’s rare for student protests to tie as directly to schooling and take place across such a broad stage as those in the current movement against gun violence in the United States.
Protests this month and next are playing out in a unique way, revealing considerable promise in our rising generation of citizens. These student protesters show a proclivity toward speaking out and invoking change. But if this civic action is to be sustained and to extend to topics beyond gun violence and school safety, schools need to do more to nurture these students’ dispositions toward political participation so they can continue to engage in informed and effective ways.
Social studies is typically considered the most suitable subject area for developing citizenship skills and knowledge. Yet, social studies has been on the chopping block at schools across the country for nearly two decades now, especially in schools serving largely poor and minority students. Because social studies as a subject area is rarely tested in local or state standardized tests, schools have shifted their time and attention to the central tested subjects of reading and math.
What is left of social studies and civics classes have themselves trended toward a more test-like approach, where, in the limited time provided, students strive to get the “correct” answer. Students are left with an impression of civic life as one of memorizing and adopting mainstream practices presented in history books. This is not the sort of nuanced lived and active citizenship that youth are witnessing on their streets or, recently, in their school yards.
Instead, social studies classes should be providing students opportunities to make connections between their lives and the knowledge they learn in class. This requires skills of political critique, skepticism, critical thinking, consideration of alternatives, weighing of evidence and recognition of complexity. And students should engage with real-life examples of citizens actively employing such skills in political and civic life.
Recent national student protests present an important moment in our schools for students to learn more about and engage in political change. To capitalize on this educational opportunity for citizenship development, teachers and parents should talk with students about the walkouts — for instance, by helping students articulate reasons for why they are, or are not, participating.
Assist students in developing their skills of persuasion and argumentation so they are prepared to talk with media at protests and to have their perspectives heard in other venues. Guide students in understanding traditional avenues for reforming laws and speaking with legislators. Arm them with examples of good dissent. Give students the know-how so they can respond to, or engage in, the protests effectively.
These historic national protests should be seen as a call to improved social studies education and a culture that supports student voice and political participation.
This should not be a one-off happening. Rather, it should be a gateway to continued conversation and changes related to the primary issues raised — gun laws and violence in schools — but it should also be the start of a commitment to improving citizenship education.
Our democracy will be strengthened if our graduates are active, informed and engaged citizens who know how to participate in political dissent well.
Sarah Stitzlein is a professor of education and affiliate faculty in philosophy at the University of Cincinnati. She is also the author of two books on citizenship education, Teaching for Dissent: Citizenship Education and Political Activism (Routledge, 2014) and American Public Education and the Responsibility of its Citizens: Supporting Democracy in the Age of Accontability (Oxford University Press, 2017).