Linking Personal and Social Change
Teaching current events offers rich opportunities to link personal and social change. Especially for members of socially and economically disadvantaged groups, focusing on personal change without also focusing on social change is both unrealistic and ineffective.
Especially for members of socially and economically disadvantaged groups, focusing on personal change without also focusing on social change is both unrealistic and ineffective. It denies the realities of these young people's lives. It fails to acknowledge the real conditions that need to be changed: the poverty and violence of “third world” economic ghettos in the inner cities of affluent countries such as the United States and the lack of access to adequate nutrition, healthcare, and even literacy by the majority of the world's people, particularly women, who with their children, are not only the mass of the world's poor, but the poorest of the poor.
Ignoring social and cultural change is also unrealistic and ineffective when it comes to issues that affect everyone's life. For example, if we are to be healthy, we need a healthy environment: we need to breathe clean air, drink unpolluted water, eat food that has not been contaminated by harmful pesticides — all matters that involve social and cultural, not just personal, change.
This is particularly true of young people growing up in the poverty of inner cities in the “developed” world, or in “developing” nations where, under the rubric of global competitiveness, the poor are being plunged into even deeper poverty. Not having learned the possibility of working for social change, many young people drop out and escape, sometimes in destructive, even violent, ways. Many simply feel helpless and become alienated and passive.
But to merely fault young people for not being more involved, or even for making self-destructive choices, as in television spots telling kids “just say no” to drugs, is not enough. This is not to minimize the importance of sound personal choices and actions. These are essential components of learning and maturation. But one of the most important lessons young people need to learn in current events (and other) classes is that our lives are directly impacted by cultural beliefs, social structures, and political and economic policies. The second, and related, lesson they need to learn is that it is up to us to ensure that these beliefs, structures, and policies are sound.
The problem is that neither our mass media nor our schools adequately address these issues. Even when it is touched upon, action for social change is generally presented in terms of violent struggles between men competing for power — for example, armed rebellions in many world regions, terrorism, and political assassinations, which get the headlines. When dealing with U.S. politics, the mass media also tend to emphasize who wins or loses, that is, adversarial strategies and tactics rather than substantive issues — promoting cynicism about politicians and a sense of futility about achieving any real cultural and social change.
Nor only that, as presently programmed, watching television is essentially a passive activity, another spectator sport. Even the Internet, which is more participatory, still tends to focus primarily on gathering information, on talking rather than acting. This reinforces the false impression, also given by endless studies commissioned by governments and corporations, that merely studying and restudying a problem somehow solves it.
Nonetheless, the Internet offers the technological opportunity for linking us not only through information but through positive organized action. There is already movement towards this, through “'zines” or online newsletters, some produced by young people who are environmentally and socially conscious; for example, the New Moon website. Especially now that schools are being equipped with Internet access, educators have a responsibility to nurture and support cyber-activism.
There are also many local and national organizations that offer opportunities for young people to become actively engaged in solving social and environmental problems while at the same time satisfying their needs for belonging through positive ways rather than joining gangs or buying the latest teen fad in clothes. But these organizations are, at best, only occasionally featured in the mass media. Schools have a responsibility to help young people become more informed about these organizations.
Teaching Civics and Current Events
Civics and current events classes are also an opportunity for young people to become aware that they can themselves form new organizations. For example, Youth for Environmental Sanity was founded by Ocean Robbins, Sol Solomon, and a group of other concerned high school students in 1990, and has since held over 100 Action Camps in which young people from many countries have participated.
Current events classes can also help young people learn that there are hundreds of thousands of grassroots groups all over the world working for equity, for respect for human rights, for the environment, for peace – for a better life — groups in which both men and women (for example, Rosa Parks, Betty Friedan, Helen Caldicott, Marian Wright Edelman, Rigoberta Menchu, and Aung San Suu Kyi) have provided important leadership. These groups include many organizations working to protect our environment — an area where a woman, Rachel Carson, provided essential early leadership.
They also include organizations worldwide challenging traditions of domination in intimate relations — for example, the various women's groups that for the 1985 United Nations Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya, organized powerful events dramatizing the needs and aspirations of women, and at the 1993 United Nations Human Rights conference in Vienna organized a tribunal on women's rights and ensured that violence against women was a key theme at the 1995 U.N. Conference of Women in Beijing.
The common thread in all these movements is the challenge to entrenched patterns of domination. Teaching current events in the context of this larger perspective of a strong movement toward partnership helps young people see that social activism can bring — and historically has brought — positive change. It also makes it possible for young people to see something else of critical importance: that the cumulating challenges to domination and violence as normal and even moral are today sparking a strong backlash. And part of this backlash is the pressure on schools to stay away from anything that may be considered controversial — which of course includes the issues that will most profoundly affect young people's future lives.
Indeed, one of the difficulties teachers of current events face in a time of backlash is how to teach without being accused of being “too liberal.” “Is this fair?” they are asked. Isn't fairness the American way, and doesn't this mean that they must counterbalance the “case” for all “liberal” views with the “case” for all “conservative” views.
Going Beyond Conventional Political Debates
What the partnership educator needs to keep in mind is that, in issue after issue, what is at stake is not liberal or conservative perspectives, but the human perspective and the fundamental American perspective of democracy. Freedom, peace, and equality simply no longer have a place in ideological debate — they must be the “givens” from which debate is launched on how they may better be achieved.
We need to keep in mind — and teach our students — the need to broaden our understanding of current events by going beyond conventional political debates about right versus left, religious versus secular, or conservative versus liberal. Once students understand the dynamics of the tension between the partnership and dominator models as two basic human possibilities, they can go beyond surfaces. They can see the patterns that underlie seemingly unrelated currents and crosscurrents in our world — and thus be better equipped to effectively intervene in shaping their future.
For example, in the United States at the same time that the injunction “spare the rod and spoil the child” is increasingly rejected, some people have been advocating a return to more corporeal punishment in both homes and schools as a requirement for sound childrearing. This has nothing to do with being liberal or conservative, religious or secular. It is part of the dominator resistance to the movement toward a less violent and more equitable society.
Current events classes also offer the opportunity to help young people become global citizens. When George and a group of his 12th grade classmates did a survey of public awareness about events in Africa, they found that most people they interviewed barely had an idea of what was going on even on matters that were featured in headlines; for example, food crises in Africa. They then formed groups to research reasons for these food crises. They found that the problem was not only population pressures, soil degradation, and warfare, but economic and social policies, such as the fact that development programs have subsidized large enterprises that grow and sell crops for export rather than those who in Africa do the bulk of the subsistence farming: women. Not only did they learn that just watching the news is not being informed, they also learned a basic lesson in systems thinking: that there are many factors that need to be considered in trying to solve a problem, some of them factors that are hidden by the prevailing paradigm.
Current events classes can also help students who feel alone and isolated in their concerns about the future share their feelings — and discover that there are others like them. They can be encouraged to link with kindred spirits by actively engaging in activities that can help others in their communities and bring about partnership changes in the world at large. They can be encouraged to do peer teaching, not only in their own classrooms but in lower grades, as well as in their communities.
Students could also be encouraged to identify public services in their and other communities. They can, for instance, learn how Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has one of the best systems of public parks and public swimming pools of any city in the United States because the citizens of Milwaukee were working-class people who could not afford large private spaces for recreation, so they organized to pool public resources for public use. (An interesting sideline is that the Green Bay Packers football franchise is also owned by the citizens of Green Bay, the only major league team owned by the public). These are examples of how partnership benefits all concerned.
Current events classes are places where teachers can stimulate students' interest in larger issues by showing their relevance to matters of importance to students' lives right here and now. Most important, these classes can be places where students prepare themselves to assume responsibility and leadership for effecting positive changes not only in their own lives but in their communities and the world.
- Two good resources to help students learn and practice democratic skills as well as how to organize politically positive changes are Barbara A. Lewis' The Kids' Guide to Social Action and Nancy Schniedewind's and Ellen Davidson's Open Minds to Equality.
- A website with materials such as a handbook by Wendy Schaetzel Lesko for student civic activism is the World Education Center Resources site.
- A source of films and videos to inspire students is The Video Project which has an impressive list of award winning documentaries on issues ranging from the environment and economics to issues of racial and gender equity.
- A moving and inspiring film is Margarethe von Trotta' s Rosa Luxemberg, the life story of the German fighter for peace and economic justice.
- The National Women's History Project is a rich resource for curriculum and books.
- The National Women's Studies Association is the major professional organization for women's studies students and educators.
Adapted from Tommorow's Children: A Blueprint for Partnership Education in the 21st Century (2000)