In No Citizen Left Behind, Meira Levinson argues that a strong democracy depends on educating students for citizenship. But we don’t do enough of it, and that failure is especially detrimental to minority and urban communities, effectively disenfranchising them by not preparing them for political life.

Levinson champions “action civics,” an approach to civic education that departs from the tradition of passively assimilating facts about government. Under this practical method, students “do civics and behave as citizens” by starting petitions, communicating with elected representatives, and mobilizing communities around causes. Editorial Assistant Kip Hustace talks with Levinson about her students’ superior knowledge of Boston, teaching Du Bois’s double consciousness, and how civics should be more like Little League.


Kip Hustace: Your book acknowledges that the academic-achievement gap between white students and students of color is important, but you stress that the civic-empowerment gap is just as shameful and antidemocratic. What is at stake in civic empowerment?

Meira Levinson: Academic achievement is of course the single strongest predictor of civic and political power and engagement. For example, voting rates tightly track educational attainment.

That said, what is disturbing about the civic-empowerment gap is that it’s directly about the power to govern our lives and to influence our communities. The state holds immense power: the power to incarcerate us—in fact to kill us—and much more mundanely to ensure that we have job opportunities, to determine our wages, and to control basic facets of our family life and of our health. If we have groups of people in the United States who are systematically disenfranchised from participating in and influencing the use of state power, then that is an extreme deprivation of those groups’ capacity to govern themselves in their communities.


KH: How can civic empowerment impact democracy as a whole?

ML: Different communities have diverse needs and insights, and they will come up with different kinds of solutions to problems. It’s therefore not necessarily the case that, because you are more educated than I, you have better insights into what I need or what my community needs or even into what would be good for the city or for the nation as a whole.

For example, when I was teaching in Boston in the early 2000s, my students complained to me that, now that they and their families had cleaned up their neighborhoods, Section 8 housing vouchers were becoming less welcomed in the city. They were essentially being chased to the suburbs by white, middle-class people coming in and taking over. I thought that this was absurd. I had read a lot about urban development from the ’80s and ’90s that talked about “donut cities,” with poverty in the center and economic stability in the inner-ring suburbs, and I thought that my students had no clue what they were talking about. But a few years later at a conference at the Kennedy School of Government I listened to very respected economists, sociologists, and political scientists talk about this exact phenomenon. They described stability and a drop in crime in city centers that then allowed “gentrifiers” to feel good coming in, accompanied by a prominent rise in poverty in inner-ring suburbs.

I hadn’t accept these insights from my students, whose families were living it, but they were absolutely right. The fact that I had a PhD did not equip me to understand, as they did, what was happening in their neighborhoods. So we want all people exercising civic and political power. Elite control by small groups of people actually weakens democracy, compared to a more representative swath of people exercising civic and political power.


KH: I was struck by your story of a former student, Jacquari, writing an essay on gang violence in parks and how you realized that you and he lived in two different Bostons. Where in a park you saw “room for a Frisbee game, maybe a picnic,” he saw “room for turf wars between rival gangs.” Why is this story meaningful to you?

ML: It underscores the importance of being open to hearing what Jacquari was trying to tell me, not rejecting it and thinking, “Well, what does he know?” When I look at a park and see it as a place to play and Jacquari looks at a park and sees it as a source of danger, we know that something’s wrong. He obviously would love to be able to live parks the way that I live parks, and though I was the only one who ever read his essay, it’s important that he actually has a voice and that the world can hear his understanding of parks at the very least.


KH: Why does your vision for civic education focus more on practice than on theory?

ML: There’s been a lot of research on cognition and on habits, the results of which are also somewhat intuitive. We have students practice math, English, and saying “please” and “thank you” every school day of their lives for at least thirteen years, kindergarten through twelfth grade, because we think that’s how they learn. It’s how they develop habits as good readers and writers, how they master mathematical concepts and algorithms. So there’s no reason to think that civic empowerment should be any different, that teaching students abstractly how a bill becomes law or why it’s good to volunteer somehow improves their skills and habits of engagement.

Politics is different from partisanship, and student activism is not the same as teacher indoctrination.

We don’t even think this way for baseball. Kids play T-ball, then baseball; they play games and have practice every week and, if they’re serious about it, pre-season and post-season too. We never think, “Let’s have kids play baseball for eight weeks in seventh grade,” and then expect that in five years they can join the majors or even be on a college team. But for some reason we do this with civics. We say, “We’re going to have you do a penny harvest in fifth grade and a service learning project in tenth grade, and then we’ll teach you abstractly about government for a semester in twelfth grade.” Then our students enter the major leagues of citizenship, and we give them the vote and expect them to keep our country going. And that’s just crazy!

On top of this, it’s by doing civics that you get motivated to do more, that you develop an identity as a civic actor: “I am the kind of person who does this.” And the way that you develop that identity is by doing it, not simply by being taught, “This is what good people do.” You also have the opportunity to make mistakes, to pick yourself up, and to try again. Even if you fail now and then, you won’t identify as a failure; you have enough encounters with civics that you can shrug failures off and keep on going.


KH: At the same time you maintain that service learning, which is definitely hands-on, is no substitute for such experiential civic education as action civics. Where does it fall short?

ML: Although service learning can be very powerful and important, as currently instantiated it is often apolitical or even anti-political. Service learning steers kids away from contentious issues and towards issues that, while not necessarily anodyne, nobody can disagree about. It also focuses often on the power of the individual to do some immediate good rather than on policy, structure, and politics. Though good citizens do service, there’s so much more to civic life than charity. Civic life is also about our collective organization—taxation, health policy, job creation, arts programming, neighborhood development, zoning regulations—and it’s hard to imagine how service learning gives young people exposure to these issues. There’s a lot, furthermore, that we just cannot do as individuals. Individual acts of service are great for some things, but by themselves they can’t make our communities substantially better in the long term.

KH: Among other pedagogical tools, you advocate using Du Bois’s notion of “double consciousness” to teach multiple perspective–taking, particularly among non-minority students. How can this technique empower students?

ML: When Du Bois talks about “double consciousness,” he refers specifically to how African Americans see themselves not only from the inside but also from the white, majority perspective. In a way this has actually come up, at least implicitly, in light of Trayvon Martin, with how young black teenagers, especially boys, are being taught to think about how they are perceived by those who don’t know them and what that means for their behavior, their dress, and their comportment.

When I say that it would be salutary for white teenagers to develop “double consciousness,” that’s really to promote a way not to normalize around themselves, to recognize that their ways of speaking and interacting, their beliefs, and their experiences are no more normal than anyone else’s. If they view themselves from the eye of the other, they can see where they diverge from what others perceive as the norm, just as they perceive others diverging from their own norms.


KH: Civic empowerment’s connection to politics often triggers scrutiny of teachers’ personal views, however unrelated to their actual teaching. Are there legal protections that could buffer civics teachers from reprisal?

ML: Recently some students in Michigan planned a fundraiser for Trayvon’s family in which they would pay a dollar to have the privilege for one day to wear a hoodie to their uniformed charter school. Their teacher sought permission for the fundraiser, and though the principal said yes, the superintendent said no and suspended her for insubordination when she asked whether she could bring her students to discuss their plan in person. When she stopped by school to drop off prizes that she’d bought for a literacy fair that she’d organized but couldn’t attend because she was suspended, that was deemed inappropriate engagement with her students, “violation of suspension,” and she ended up getting fired.

The exact facts of the case are admittedly unclear, but part of why Smith’s been fired is the notion that she’s not supposed to teach her students to be activists, that she’s being an activist as opposed to being a teacher. I’m not a lawyer, so I can’t really say what legal protections for teachers would look like. But do I think that teachers should be helping kids figure out how to act on things they care about? Yes, I do. And if protections are possible, then they would be good.


KH: How can we create more civically empowered classrooms?

ML: We can reduce the amount of time that the standardized curricula are expected to take in our classes. In England, for example, they have a very rigid standardized curriculum, but it takes up only 50–60 percent of the time, because they suppose that there’s going to be other material that teachers will want to cover. If we did this, then we could be confident that educators both are teaching consistently what we want them to teach and have the freedom with their students to explore other issues of local or current significance.

Also important are teacher support and training, professional development, and an atmosphere in which teachers feel that there is not going to be punitive action taken against them because their students are speaking out, are exercising their voice. Politics is different from partisanship, and student activism is not the same as teacher indoctrination. We should have vocal students who feel empowered; the best classroom is not one in which students sit silently as passive receptacles.