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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Youth Civic Engagement

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life


American public schools are charged with educat­ing children so that all are capable of full partici­pation in the economic, political and civic life of our nation. Broadly construed, this is the civic mis­sion of schools, and it encompasses (and requires) the traditional ends of education for literacy and numeracy. Unfortunately, civic education is frequently shunted aside in schools today even as schools continue to put more emphasis on high-stakes testing and evaluation.

The result, argues Harvard education professor Meira Levinson in an im­portant new book, No Citizen Left Behind, is a profound “civic empowerment” gap that is every bit as pro­found, shameful, and anti-democratic as the academic achievement gap targeted by the federal No Child Left Behind program.

Levinson spoke at the Boisi Center on February 27 about the root causes of the civic empowerment gap and how a civic education rooted in what she calls “ac­tion civics” can turn the situation around. Action civics de-emphasizes (but does not entirely reject) old-school requirements to memorize lists of presidents or facts about Congress, and focuses instead on teaching young people to “do civics and behave as citizens” in their lo­cal communities. Drawing upon her years as a middle school teacher in Atlanta and Boston public schools, Levinson described specific civic projects her students undertook and the sense of empowerment they earned from relatively small victories such as gathering sig­natures on a petition that convinced the city council to repair streetlights or clean up a local park.

Action civics also supports a new way of teaching American history that students in disadvantaged com­munities can relate to, one that speaks of struggle and oppression as well as uplift and liberty. Levinson argued that American history demonstrates the power of collective action, a profound point that marginalized young people (i.e. individuals) today can take as a call to find common ground, promote the common good, and slowly close the civic empowerment gap that plagues our country.