When white supremacists and hate groups descended on Charlottesville this summer, students from the University of Virginia and local high schools risked their personal safety to protest their presence.
A conference at UVa last week examined current civic and political engagement by youth, and how schools and after-school programs can better foster this engagement.
“Youth-Act,” held at UVa’s Alumni Hall on Oct. 26-27, was the sixth conference hosted by Youth-Nex, a UVa center promoting effective youth development.
Youth-Nex director Nancy Deutsch said the theme of the conference already had been decided before the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville.
“One narrative that hasn’t emerged [from those events] as much as I would wish… is the incredible power of the youth in our community who stood up, and stood for something,” Deutsch said.
The Youth-Act conference was attended by university faculty and representatives of youth-serving organizations from across the country, as well as some high school and college students.
Zyahna Bryant, a junior at Charlottesville High School, shared her perspective as a local student activist in a “call-to-action” at the end of last Thursday’s session. Bryant is president of the Black Student Union at CHS and a member of the City of Charlottesville Youth Council.
In an interview, Bryant said students and teachers have shown a greater willingness to discuss and organize around social justice issues since Aug. 12.
“Before the ‘Summer of Hate’ in Charlottesville this year, a lot of people weren’t sure about what to say or what to do,” she said. “Now there is a real interest in addressing these issues.”
Robert C. Pianta, dean of the Curry School of Education at UVa, said in his opening remarks that young people were capable of tackling significant problems in the classroom, and beyond.
“When educators give youth interesting and challenging problems to solve, time and time again they rise to the occasion,” he said.
A panel discussion last Thursday morning examined the role of civics education in enabling more robust public discourse, and cultivating political engagement.
“We have to encourage young people to reinvent civil discourse,” said Meg Heubeck, Director of Instruction at the UVa Center for Politics. “It has to start with young people.”
Heubeck oversees the development of educational materials for the Center for Politics’ Youth Leadership Initiative and Global Perspectives on Democracy program. She said she often hears about teachers prohibiting the discussion of contemporary politics in their classrooms.
Heubeck added that schools across the country are cutting back on civics education to give more time to STEM classes. “That is scaring me to death,” she said. “America’s public schools… were created to help build citizens. We need to have civics all year, every year.”
Diana Hess, dean of the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education, agreed that the primary mission of public schools was to prepare students for participation in democracy.
“The likelihood of America continuing to have a democracy is less of a sure thing than I would have thought five or 10 years ago,” Hess said. “I think the best and most authentic way to assess the performance of schools would be to ask: what role is that school or district playing in improving the quality of our democracy?”
Hess said rising political polarization and economic inequality have made American schools more homogeneous. Even in diverse schools, “honors” and “standard” tracks for civics education often segregate students by race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, she said.
“We are robbing schools of the opportunity to keep students together, working on the kind of problems that we care about,” she said. “The political climate is changing in ways that make it harder for schools to do this work.”
In their 2016 book, “The Political Classroom,” Hess and co-author Paula McAvoy argue that teachers should not shy away from political controversy. Instead, they recommend that teachers help their students to develop the skills and dispositions for listening, articulating their beliefs, and considering how their views affect others.
“I do think we have to treat people with civility,” Hess said. “It doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be righteous anger. It doesn’t mean there needs to be agreement. But if we don’t treat people with civility, we are not going to get problems solved.”
John Hunter, executive director of the World Peace Game Foundation, said young people’s affinity for mass media and personal technology threatens to squelch their creativity— a critical asset for problem-solving.
“We have created a world where our students can’t survive without being plugged in to this informational-industrial complex,” said Hunter, who previously taught in Charlottesville and Albemarle County schools.
In Hunter’s World Peace Game, four teams of students represent imaginary countries and navigate a series of geopolitical crises. Students read Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” and other classic texts while attempting to make each country end the game wealthier than it was at the start.
Hunter said teachers should try to engage their students by recognizing and honoring their passions. “Learn who your students are, what they care about, and what they love,” he said. “Their love will drive the learning.”