Conference Speakers in 2016 Highlight Educational and Civic Challenges
The main speakers at the 96th NCSS Annual Conference addressed head-on the theme “Civic Learning and Cultural Inquiry in a Changing World.”
For more than three decades, Bryan Stevenson has worked as a public interest lawyer for low-income communities, the incarcerated, and fighting bias in the criminal justice system. He is the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which represents the wrongfully convicted and challenges the death penalty.
At NCSS’s annual conference, Stevenson talked about the problem of mass incarceration in the United States, which has the highest rate in the world. In 1972, he noted there were 300,000 people incarcerated in the United States, today there are 2.3 million. One in three black male babies born in this country, and one in six Latino males will spend time in jail, he said. Thirteen states have no minimum age for prosecuting children as adults, and every 13- or 14-year-old child sentenced to life without parole for a nonhomicide has been a child of color. Stevenson, who also teaches at the New York University School of Law and has argued several cases in the U.S. Supreme Court, recently won a major ruling that declared mandatory life-without-parole sentences for children 17 or younger unconstitutional.
Because people in prison or with felony convictions are not allowed to vote, 30 percent of black male citizens in Alabama, where Stevenson lives, are permanently disenfranchised.
“I don’t think slavery ended in 1865,” Stevenson said. “I think it just evolved.” He pointed to the decades of racial terror and lynching that followed emancipation. Stevenson, who authored the bestselling memoir of his work, Just Mercy (Spiegel & Grau), has launched major projects in Alabama to educate communities about slavery, lynching, and racial segregation. One project is a national memorial for victims of lynching, with the names of over 4,000 victims engraved on concrete columns, as well as a museum dedicated to African American history from enslavement to mass incarceration.
“We have to change the narrative of race in America. We created a narrative of racial difference to justify centuries of slavery,” Stevenson said.
He said policies have failed because politicians are far removed from the problem. He urged audience members to “get proximate to the issue,” to get involved with communities on the fringe.
“We have to look at how we treat the poor, the incarcerated, and the condemned,” he said. “The opposite of poverty is not wealth, it’s justice.” (Reported by Jennie Bauduy)
Jeffrey Rosen, of the non-partisan National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, spoke on the first day of the annual conference about effective ways of teaching about the Constitution. The Center promotes teaching the Constitution in a “controversial but not a partisan way.” Rosen highlighted the Center’s new online tool, the Interactive Constitution, which helps teach controversial constitutional issues by focusing on the document and not the politics. The Interactive Constitution brings top liberal and conservative scholars together to talk about the Constitution.
“We know how hard it is in the classroom to talk about politics in a way that doesn’t degenerate into yelling,” said Rosen, author Louis D. Brandeis: American Prophet (Yale University Press, 2016). The Interactive tool allows users to click on any clause of the Constitution and see leading scholars across the political spectrum discuss aspects they agree and disagree about. A related tool, the Rights Interactive, allows users to click on provisions in the Bill of Rights and explore historical documents that influenced the Founders and see how these rights are expressed around the world. An article coauthored by Rosen and David Rubenstein, “Constituting Liberty: From the Declaration to the Bill of Rights,” is the focus of a lesson plan on the United States’ founding documents available at http://constitutioncenter.org/media/files/Declaration_etc_Lesson_Plan.pdf. (Reported by Jennie Bauduy)
News Literacy Project’s Peter Adams, Facing History and Ourselves’ Steven Becton, and Washington Post reporter Krissah Thompson held an engaging panel discussion at NCSS’s annual conference on the role that credible information plays in a democracy.
Thompson has been chronicling issues of race and policing or race and law enforcement since the arrest of Harvard University Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in 2009, on the front porch of his own home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, by a white police officer. Thompson arrived in Fergusson, Missouri, 10 days after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black teen, by white police officer Darren Wilson. Part of the second wave of Post reporters on the ground, she helped establish the Post Fergusson bureau. Connecting with Thompson’s experience reporting from Fergusson, Becton and Adams discussed a unit created in partnership by Facing History and the News Literacy Project called Facing Fergusson: News Literacy in a Digital Age. They discussed what many see as a growing lack of trust for the media, and the dangers of Fake News. They also explored questions such as How does one’s identity impact how we see an event? What role does bias play? What does justice look like? Who is justice for? Who gives justice? How do we help our students be critical and active consumers of social media? Panelists also highlighted the importance of creating a safe space for students to have these conversations, emphasized that visiting classroom speakers should be vetted, and that students need to hear multiple perspectives—that people are saying different things from what they’ve been hearing. (Reported by Jennie Bauduy)
In her talk “Ben Franklin Broke My Heart and Opened My Eyes: The Research and Writing of Chains, Forge, and Ashes,” New York Times bestselling author Laurie Halse Anderson discussed the value of teaching with historical novels for developing of historical empathy. Anderson talked about the contradictions and complexity of founding fathers that both helped craft our democracy and yet held families in slavery.
Her “Seeds of America” trilogy explores the American Revolution from the perspective of a young girl, Isabel, who has escaped from slavery and embarks on a search with her friend to find her little sister, who is still captive in a Southern state. They narrowly escape Valley Forge, where, Anderson notes, 10 percent of the Army were men of color; she explained that it was the last time the Army would be integrated until the Korean War.
The first book in the trilogy, Chains, has been adapted into various curricula, including in New York City, according to Anderson. The recently published Ashes is the last of the trilogy and explores the perspective of black soldiers during the American Revolution. A curriculum guide is available at http://seedsofamericatrilogy.com/SeedsOfAmerica-CurriculumGuide.pdf. (Reported by Jennie Bauduy)
“The Constitution as we know it starts with ‘We the People,’ not ‘We the Corporation,’” said Nader, who in 2015 founded the American Museum of Tort Law (www.tortmuseum.org), the first museum in the world on the law of wrongful injury.
In D.C., speaking just a few weeks after a very contentious election, Nader noted that 650,000 Americans are denied their full American voting rights because the capital city has been denied statehood. “It’s the only capital in the world where citizens can’t vote for members of parliament—or in this case Congress,” he said. District of Columbia residents have no representative in the Senate, and their delegate in the House cannot vote on legislation.
Nader urged NCSS attendees to teach a Congress 101 course that would require students to follow the actions of their states’ representatives throughout the semester. “What if a course studies the contemporary senators from each state and they put out a report at the end of the year, reporting in excruciating detail their work?” he speculated, suggesting that such scrutiny would encourage senators to give greater weight to citizens’ concerns.
“There’s no country that presumes to be a democracy that is more difficult to get on a ballot or to vote. You have to go through hoops. It’s unbelievably difficult,” said Nader, a former presidential candidate. He proposed having Instant Run off Voting (where voters could rank candidates in order of preference, rather than voting for only one candidate); getting rid of Winner Take All (where, in a presidential election, a winning candidate gets all the votes of that state, rather than a proportional amount); and having voting be a duty, as it is in Australia.
“If you have universal voting, you don’t have to worry about turnout,” Nader said. (Reported by Jennie Bauduy)
Roberts, who holds a Ph.D. in psychology, offered this advice to the audience: “Know yourself.” He related stories revealing that he is no angel. In a year before 1954, when he was a student at the local public school for blacks, he hit a boy who had been bullying him, sending that student to the hospital. A few years after that, he received no deep or profound preparation for entering the dangerous hallways of Little Rock High School. The nine students were given a few essays about nonviolence to read. Dr. King asked if they were ready to “love your enemy,” and Roberts decided to say, “Yes.” We have to learn as we walk, and do not hesitate to join the struggle.
Roberts does not agree that racism and violence are unusual or “dehumanized.” Actually, we all have the capacity to do horrible things. It’s part of being human. We Americans should not be surprised if the effects of 335 years of legal slavery and segregation (from the first shipload of slaves arriving in 1619 to Brown v. Board in 1954) still linger, and there is still work to do as we strive for a more just and perfect union.
During Q&A, the audience sang “Happy Birthday” to Roberts, who was born on December 3, 1941. In response to a question as to whether any white student or teacher offered any support during the Little Rock H.S. integration, Roberts answered “Yes,” and we should all remember that in any large group of people, there will be a range of opinions and feelings, even if most thoughts go unspoken. Shortly thereafter, Roberts received the 2016 Spirit of America Award, given by NCSS and sponsored by Social Studies School Service. (Reported by Steven S. Lapham)
Congressman John Lewis encouraged the audience to “Get in the way. Get in trouble. Good trouble. Necessary trouble!” Even as we struggle against injustice, we should not forget that the civil rights movement has achieved a lot and America has come a long way. Lewis recalled signing copies of his autobiography March (a graphic novel in three volumes) for a long line of students and parents at the public library in Troy, Alabama, where he’d been turned away as a child for trying to borrow a book. He recalled being inspired, in 1957, by a comic book, “Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Montgomery Story,” – which is posted free by Civil Rights Movement Veterans at www.crmvet.org/docs/ms_for_comic.pdf. Ask students to read that primary source document. Is it still inspiring?
Andrew Aydin, Lewis’s co-writer of the March trilogy, also spoke. He serves on the congressman’s staff and participates in reading programs with at-risk and incarcerated youth. Aydin told how, when he reached his teenage years, his mother pleaded with him to not grow a beard so he would not look like his father, who was a Muslim immigrant from Turkey (and who was absent during most of Aydin’s youth). Recently, Aydin did grow a beard, which he keeps neatly trimmed, and it has inspired him to think about family, fatherhood, patriotism, and who we consider insiders or outsiders, and why. Was it reasonable for his mother to worry about him looking like a dark-haired Turk? To what extent are a person’s experiences in our educational institutions, in our justice system, and in our economy constrained by how he or she looks?(Reported by Steven S. Lapham)
Slavery was central to U.S. history, and Davis posed the question: how did the founders and presidents who fought for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, go back to their plantations and assume the role of masters of their slaves? Although hundreds of African Americans fought in the War of Independence, they are not pictured in paintings celebrating the war. They were, however, ever present in the lives of their owners. One of Washington’s slaves, Billy Lee, can be seen in the background of paintings of George Washington holding his horse. Lee was a mulatto, and his lighter skin color may have enabled him to become a personal attendant to Washington rather than be sent to the fields.
The contrast between the presence of slaves in the lives of their owners 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and the owners’ lack of recognition of their slaves as human beings is exemplified by the slave burial grounds in Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation. At Monticello, the slaves were laid to rest in complete anonymity; they had no tombs and no names. No slave ever knew the date of his or her birthday.
In their capacity as personal servants, some slaves experienced very eventful lives. Paul Jennings, a slave owned by James Madison, had the job of setting dinner tables in the White House when he was only 15 years old, during the War of 1812. He witnessed the burning of Washington, DC and the White House by the British, and later wrote the first ever memoir by a White House employee. One of Andrew Jackson’s slaves, Alfred Jackson, continued to live on the Jackson plantation, the Hermitage, after emancipation until his death there in 1901, when he was buried in the graveyard near Andrew Jackson and his wife, with a tombstone recognizing him as “Uncle Alfred.”
In addressing the fact that our country has serious political divisions, Davis asserted that this has repeatedly been the case in the history of the United States. The nineteenth century disagreements over slavery that resulted in the Civil War are a case in point. “We the people” have often been left out of the narratives of history, and Davis’s latest book attempts to bring the lives of the slaves of the four presidents into the historical record.(Reported by Michael Simpson)
Gene Policinski, CEO of the Newseum Institute and First Amendment Center and David L. Hudson, Jr. of Vanderbilt University School of Law School and Ombudsman of the First Amendment Center, discussed how the “five freedoms”—religion, speech, press, assembly and petition—are being viewed today by our fellow citizens, reflected in U.S. Supreme Court decisions, and exercised by the media, which now includes social media. About 39 percent of Americans in 2016 could not name a single freedom among the five listed in the first amendment to the Constitution. Not being able to recall a term might not indicate total ignorance, but it does “make you more vulnerable to someone being able to take all five away.” Hudson, author of “Let The Students Speak: A History of the Fight for Free Expression in American Schools” (Beacon Press, 2011), said that adults have become more tolerant of student speech in recent years, but students can feel hurt by each other’s postings online. The panelists wrestled with tough questions, such as, “Where is the line between bullying statements and free expression?” “What counts as a ‘substantial disruption’ of a student body?” Policinski pondered over the future of responsible journalism, with the loss of many salaried reporters who used to study issues and attend court sessions or “obscure” city council committee meetings where important decisions might be made—and taxpayer funds allocated. The loss of local newspaper offices and reporters is making the “job of being an informed citizen” harder. He urged the audience members to pay for a subscription to any publication they care about. We have to support financially what we value as citizens, and as a society.(Reported by Steven S. Lapham)