Having had the opportunity to teach at and otherwise be a part of different universities over the years, we observe a persistent and ongoing gap between students as passive viewers in society’s goings-on and the ideal of active, informed and empowered citizens who help to make democracy thrive. The purpose of this article is to encourage expanded university support for and thoughtful inclusion of black lives and Black Lives Matter educational content in course design and university curricula.
Youth Engagement and Traditional Civic Education
For many years, scholars noted that Americans, particularly the cohorts classified as “Gen X” and “Gen Y”, increasingly feel and act apathetic, disengaged, and dis-empowered by the political system (Patrick 2000: 1). Numerous studies attest to the declining civic inclinations amongst younger generations. They are less likely to vote or see voting as a civic duty, less likely to read a newspaper or watch the news on television, and less likely as adults or adolescents to join civic organizations than older cohorts (Stoker 2011). To be fair, the political and social landscape has changed, bringing forth novel ways of political and civic participation. For example, while they may vote less, younger Americans often participate in online petitions or other protest campaigns, facilitated by new forms of social media. Despite these rays of hope, however, the fact that they are less likely to express interest in politics and, most troubling, less knowledgeable about public affairs are changes that are hard to dismiss. No matter how innovative our forms of political and civic participation become, a disinterested and uninformed citizenry poses a serious threat to a democracy.
A commonly offered solution to these problems, civic education, has faced increased scrutiny and skepticism. The results of the 1998 NAEP cast doubt on the ability of schools to educate students about the US political system. Roughly a third of post-secondary students do not possess a basic level of political knowledge despite a civics education curriculum (Lutkus et al 1999 as cited in Patrick 2000, 9).
To further complicate matters, some scholars suggest that merely educating students about the general political system is not enough to affect increased political participation. We believe that the classroom is still a zone that can effectively transmit positive political values and encourage political participation. But we must teach our students about historical and enduring violations of equal protection that create fissures in our society, how to gain access to information resources that are relevant to their own lives and interests, how to think critically about issues of significant controversy given rival frames and how to engage in productive and peaceful democratic action. Black lives and Black Lives Matter comprise defining concerns for our time.
Research on Teaching Black Lives Matter
In recent years, we witness a significant and growing segment of educators who want to know what they can do to help address the horrific and repeated killing of Black Americans. “The reinvigorated [Black Lives Matter] movement sparked a significant wave of interest from teachers nationwide who want to know what they can do to help implement change. Case in point, the free, online ‘Abolitionist Teaching Book Club 2020’ grew from a 30-teacher webinar book club chat into a 10,000-attendee five-day teacher conference in a matter of weeks” (De La Rosa 2020).
If our students are going to be the moral and political leaders, then we must do a better job of preparing them for their roles, yet university faculty may not be trained sufficiently in how to effectively teach civic education. On top of this, scholarship on teaching Black Lives Matter shows that University professors may not have clear ideas about how to incorporate lessons about racial injustice into their coursework.
The support of American universities with resources and dedicated deliberation among interested faculty members so as to encourage and develop instruction about Black Lives Matter — while maintaining academic freedom — would be meaningful. Many of us love teaching and want to do what we can to fulfill the core purpose of American higher education, e.g., to prepare students not only for careers but as rigorous critical thinkers who can and will tackle the toughest problems. If implemented well by faculty, teaching about Black Lives Matter will also encourage empathy for all human life, teach against discrimination, and facilitate critical evaluation of enduring failures in democratic inclusion from multiple angles and methodologies.
What are some ways to teach Black Lives Matter? Guadalupe-Diaz, Rincon, and Rutter (2017) on topics submitted by participating fauclty in preparation for their teach-in:
1 – communication professor “discussed Life Magazine’s coverage of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s with her Photojournalism students.”
2 – psychology professor “looked at research related to implicit bias.”
3 – biochemistry professor “focused on Flint, Michigan, lead poisoned water and black lives.”
4 – physics professor “examined the status of Black physicists in their field.”
5 – economics professor “looked at ‘The Color of Money’ and red lining.”
6 – computer scientist “examined the role of phonevideoing and social media in revealing details of #BlackLivesMatter events.”
At the university level, these teaching lessons are impressive and invaluable but we need to go further. Faculty members in wide-spanning departments typically do not have the deep knowledge and training that scholars of ethnic studies live, eat and breathe. Furthermore, faculty members should not uniformly be expected to serve as experts on social movements and Black Lives Matter. Guadalupe-Diaz et al. (2017), reporting on a teach-in with 88 faculty in Spring of 2016 sponsored by Framingham State University, demonstrate that even among interested faculty, expertise on Black Lives Matter is low. Before their teach-in, 20% of faculty reported that they were “very knowledgeable” in response to the survey measure, “How knowledgeable were you about the #BlackLivesMatter movement before the teach-in?” After the teach-in, the number reporting that they were “very knowledgeable” had risen to 29%. Their increases in reported knowledge are impressive over such a short period — but still underscore that less than a third of faculty members are prepared to teach about Black Lives Matter. Hence, these survey findings bolster the importance of a broad-based education that includes dedicated coursework in ethnic studies.
Dedicated university resources and deliberation among the college faculty, so as to encourage and develop instruction about Black Lives Matter, are pivotal. Changes in educational curricula at this moment in time should be meaningful rather than merely provide students with superficial exposure to racial injustice and black lives. There is a lot of work to be done but more than ever, we need teachers to make room in otherwise established curricula (in safe classroom environments) for discussions of historical and ongoing violations of the rights of Black Americans.
Beyond that, we also need widespread support for and resources dedicated to having students take courses in ethnic studies departments, which are home to teaching about racial injustice and social justice. Note that Governor Gavin Newsom of CA in August of 2020 signed a bill into law, AB 1460, which requires that students take ethnic studies before graduating from the 23-campus California State University system. Campuses will be required to offer ethnic studies courses during the 2021-2022 academic year, and the requirement for a 3-unit ethnic studies course before graduation will begin for students intending to finish their undergraduate degrees during the 2024-academic year (Zinshteyn 2020). Ethnic studies departments in CA are still deliberating on how to implement the new law. If CA can implement these new requirements successfully, as we know it will, then we should hope and expect that other states will consider implementing similar laws.
If our students leave college without sufficient knowledge or a meaningful command of one of the most impactful, divisive topics of our time, then can we say that we have done our jobs in educating them?
Teachers have such important roles in imprinting knowledge, rigorous analytical ability and ethical frameworks for our students. Let’s take this moment to each do our parts in creating the free and just world we want for all our generations to come.
De La Rosa, Shawna (Aug 26, 2020). “Districts, teachers seize Black Lives Matter momemnt for curriculum inclusivity.” Retrieved from https://www.educationdive.com/news/districts-teachers-seize-black-lives-matter-moment-for-curriculum-inclusiv/583440/
Guadalupe-Diaz, Xavier L., Rincón, Lina and Rutter, Virginia (2017). “Innovating the Teach-In to Transform the Faculty: Findings From a #BlackLivesMatter Teach-In.” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, Vol. 1, Iss. 39: 128-142.
Zinshteyn, Mikhail (August 18, 2020). “California State University Now Requires Ethnic Studies.” Cal Matters. Retrieved from Newsom signs AB 1460, CSU system requires ethnic studies | CalMatters