GUEST POST: In Defense of Civic Engagement in Schools

Brian Charest, PhD
Assistant Professor
University of Redlands
School of Education
Department of Teaching and Learning

Last week, we saw firsthand the incredible democratic potential and power of civic engagement. Hundreds of thousands of students across the country, in places like Los Angeles and Chicago, from New York to Parkland, and many small towns and cities in between, peacefully walked out of their schools and universities to protest gun violence in the US.

We heard the impassioned voices of students speaking out and urging legislators not only to look carefully at the research that supports gun safety regulations, but also to act on this research by passing sensible public safety legislation that protects our young people. These students (who some are calling activists), with their earnest, inspired, and eloquent speeches, are not only an amazing antidote to the cynicism infecting so much of our national politics (they even convinced our president to reverse his positions on gun safety—if only temporarily), they are also an example to us all of what civic engagement can look like when we make it a priority in schools.

Yet, there are still some who have openly criticized and tried to intimidate these students. Make no mistake, the people making these threats to these students are attempting to undermine our democracy. We should all be vigilant when we see these types of smear campaigns aimed at silencing or intimidating our fellow citizens. When people are silenced, debate ends and democracy ceases to function. We have an ethical obligation, as educators, to engage in debate with our students and to ask questions with them about how to change the world for the better.

Let’s remember this: it was a group of high school students in Parkland who stood up and spoke out against some of the most powerful and well-funded special interests in our country and started a national movement. We might begin by asking why would such powerful groups need to threaten and intimidate a group of young adults exercising their rights to participate? The answer, of course, is that these students are engaging in the public sphere and making powerful arguments to change our society for the better. What’s more, because of who they are and where they come from, they’re being heard. Why these students have the power and privilege to be heard is also worth examining. The point here, of course, is that all of these questions are worth asking and asking them now is part of what it means to be civically engaged. And, the lesson here is that people can often out organize the big money and special interests. Who wouldn’t want students to learn this lesson?

If we believe that our democracy requires citizen participation, then all of us no matter what side of the debate we find ourselves, should be supporting school walkouts, rather than discouraging them. Why? Because civic engagement is necessary for our democracy to function. This is also an opportunity to for educators to redefine what civic engagement means in schools.

So, while I understand the urge to call these students activists, doing so undermines the core responsibilities that fall to all ordinary citizens. In other words, citizenship includes both rights and responsibilities. Each of us is both responsible for participating and also exercising our rights in our democracy. When we call citizen participation activism, though, we turn it into something that’s viewed as outside the norm, when, in fact, citizen participation is a requirement for a healthy democracy.

Too often, civic participation in our schools and communities is reduced to following the laws, voting, contributing to a political campaign, or volunteering. All of these forms of civic participation are important, no doubt, but citizenship doesn’t end there. Our country has a long history of civic participation and civil disobedience. This is something that we should teach our students about civic engagement. A healthy democracy requires that all of us get involved in public debates, participate in marches, speak out, protest, go on strike, or invent some new way to engage in the public sphere when necessary and appropriate.

One of the stated purposes of the current walkouts is to galvanize public support as a way to pressure lawmakers to enact effective gun safety legislation so that students will never again have to hide in fear or run for their lives from school. These students have had enough, and they are sending a clear message: listen to us, or we will vote you out of office.

What these students have discovered is that a majority of Americans support them and their stated goal of more and better gun safety legislation. But, that’s not all that these students have learned. They’ve also realized that money and special interests have undermined our democracy and that it’s up to ordinary citizens to fight back. Our elected officials are no longer supporting or enacting legislation that’s supported by a majority of Americans. What better reason than this could there be for a national call for civic participation?

Two more nationwide protests are scheduled to take place on March 24 and on April 20, the anniversary of the Columbine shooting. As educators (including teachers, university faculty, researchers, and administrators), we should be publicly supporting, participating in, and helping to organize with our students, teachers, and principals in our schools and universities, who wish to participate in the upcoming protest against gun violence.

Our schools, for better or for worse, reflect our priorities as a society and should be spaces where students and teachers discuss what those priorities should be. In other words, even if we disagree about what to do about our culture of violence in the US, we should still support the rights of all citizens to participate in peaceful protests. There are many ways to respectfully include those who choose not to march or walkout. We can begin by engaging with them in dialogue about civic participation as well as debates about the root causes of gun violence and what to do about it.

In fact, those of us who work in schools and universities need to carve out time in our classes to research and discuss the root causes that have created a culture of violence in the US. Doing so would allow students to participate in an informed discussion about how to address the root causes of gun violence in our society. Such a conversation would examine the larger issues of public safety, the culture of violence in the US that equates masculinity with guns, bullying in schools and on campuses, violence against women in our society, the increase in militarism in schools that serve our most vulnerable youth (e.g, ROTC programs, military-run schools, junior police academies, etc.), state sanctioned violence through policing, and, perhaps, most importantly, the systemic racism that blinds us to the effects of gun violence in poor communities of color.

These national protests are the first step toward a public conversation about these root causes—a step that can help lead to the enactment of a public safety plan to reduce gun violence in the US. Such a plan would emerge from what we currently know about gun safety and gun violence prevention. Such a plan would also align with the views of a majority of Americans who believe in things like background checks for all gun buyers (93%), a ban on the sale of guns to anyone convicted of a violent crime (88%), and for waiting periods for all gun purchases (72%).

I urge all educators and advocates to take this moment to not only voice your support for civic engagement (no matter which side of the debate you’re on), but also take concrete steps to engage in the public gun safety debate. There are many ways to get involved, and we shouldn’t let this moment pass in silence.

This is an important moment for our nation, and students and teachers have an opportunity to not only debate the issue of public safety, but also get involved in a process of democratic policy making. Doing so would not only encourage teachers to teach about the power of civic engagement, but also provide an opportunity for students to see firsthand the importance of civic action in a democracy.

We need look no further than our own national history to know the power and promise of civic engagement. It has always been through a combination of careful study and vigorous debate combined with direct civic action that citizens have worked to shape their world for the better. If we don’t teach our students how to be citizens now, when will they learn to do it?