Meira Levinson is an educator who walks the walk and talks the talk. A Harvard professor, she is trained in philosophy (Yale and Oxford) and has taught middle school in Atlanta in Boston. She is prolific – five books thus far – and influential, sitting on several boards and organizations. Her primary focus is civic education. Levinson’s most influential work is No Citizen Left Behind, a superb study of civic engagement and empowerment in the world of No Child Left Behind. It is thought-provoking and relevant to educators who work with all ages of students, from kindergarten through graduate school.
The book moves comfortably through multiple disciplines and genres. Levinson writes as a teacher, a philosopher, a professor of education, a policy advocate, and an historian. She writes about abstract theory and day-to-day practice in the classroom, highlighting points of intersection and of conflict. Driving her inquiry is a well-founded concern with the civic empowerment gap. National tests, like the NEAP, give strong evidence that students’ knowledge of the machinery, processes, and rules of our democracy is weak. While that in and of itself is not surprising, the extent to which race and socio-economic status corresponds to civic knowledge is. Students of color in Levinson’s classrooms are confident in beliefs that would be rejected out of hand by most educated white Americans. The differences in belief systems and structures are stark. Stated simply, empowered and educated students live in a different world from those who lack resources and a place at the political table.
Levinson warns that without significant changes, large percentages of our population will lack the knowledge, interest or belief in participation in our American civic life. The lines of demarcation match those of race and wealth, making communication and problem solving all the more difficult. It is a disturbing trend that should concern anyone who has belief in the value of democracy.
Levinson describes how she and others attempt to address these issues in the classroom. Race and racism loom as massive impediments broader student participation. Teachers have to navigate tricky waters, Levinson writes, particularly when the most effective long-term goal is giving students the ability to analyze powers. She believes in the efficacy of working through multiple perspectives and teaching students how to code-switch. It is a challenge. Further, Levinson underscores the ways that pedagogical efforts align and disrupt more traditional triumphalist civic goals.
What, then, should educators who want to see greater civic engagement across race and class do? Levinson pushes for a rethink about our collective reliance on heroes. Instead, she argues that role models can serve as better tools for teachers. She is enthusiastic about initiatives that make citizenship visible to students. Action civics – experiential civic education – holds great promise, Levinson claims. She offers several examples of how getting informed students engaged in work that has a real world impact can change attitudes and behavior. She is explicit, too, that action civics is different from service learning. Action civics is comprehensive, collective, and aimed making changes in policy. Her list of best practices could be applied to action civics in higher education just as easily as in K-12.
No Citizen Left Behind is a welcome challenge to educators and the broader field to think carefully about our priorities and values. Students need to learn English and math for degree completion and careers; they also need these and other skills to be effective citizens in our larger community project. Our impact as educators is larger than that of any individual student. We graduate classes that become generations. Helping students across all spectrums become engaged citizens our civic responsibility.