September 7, 2016
by Peter Gow, ICG Executive Director
(This post originally appeared in the ICG’s September 2016 newsletter; it has been updated for this format.)

Experiencing the 2016 version of “political discourse” this summer has been a generally repugnant experience, and part of me thinks that schools should be starting the year with an apology to students for the way the grown-ups have been behaving. I happen to be one of those who wish that old-style civics were still taught, as in “This is how government works on multiple levels, and this is what citizens can do to be part of the process.”

Of course the imperatives of civic engagement in 2016 go beyond just knowing the three branches of government and how a bill in your state’s legislature becomes a law. We have a national civic crisis over issues of race and justice, and in general the relationship between citizens and their government—and citizens and their history, while we’re at it—has never been more fraught.

A principle of independent curriculum perhaps too obvious and fundamental to be included in our “official” enumeration is that what we teach must be truthful and must proceed from a place of good faith. If ever there were a time for truth and good faith in our teaching as it relates broadly to “civics,” it is now. And I have been heartened by some efforts that I have heard about this summer to help us face and explore truths about race and justice (and civics and history).

Our Partners at the Progressive Education Network, for example, have been busy framing a new Screen Shot 2016-09-07 at 11.20.48 AMenumeration of their Principles of a Progressive Education. But they’ve gone further still, with a special statement of “Principles in Action: Progressive Education and Racial Justice,” in which the PEN Board “implores progressive schools and progressive educators to acknowledge the urgency of addressing racial justice inside and outside our classrooms.” The Independent Curriculum Group would extend this exhortation to all schools and all educators. Earlier this summer I put forth a call on the NAIS Diversity Community discussion board for schools to start their year with a challenge to all faculty to find ways to address issues of race and justice in each of their classes and to provide teachers and students with the resources and support to do this effectively and well. Our friends at The Picardy Group, whose co-founder Kip Bordelon offered a webinar for us last year, offer just such resources, and there are more who do, as well.

We’ve also been reading a great deal about universities whose histories involve some unsavory individuals and regrettable actions related to racial and social justice. We’ve heard of seals scrapped, statues removed, titles updated, and building names changed to reject the valorization or glorification of those who advocated for and practiced the oppression of others. We hear less about this in the context of secondary and pre-secondary schools, but we suspect that more than a few independent schools might soon be encountering similar aspects of their own histories, which they will need to face as forthrightly as, say, Georgetown, Amherst, or Yale. Schools must “teach the controversy,” even when it is their own.

As educators we must also own that among the horrors of the summer just passing has been the unfolding of unsavory chapters in the realm of mostly secondary and mostly private schools relating to abuses of one sort or another, largely of a sexual nature. Such tragic stories wrench us to the core because they are so deeply personal, but we must not forget they also are about aspects of social justice that relate to power and authority as well as the rights of minors, the obligations of institutions under moral and statute law, sexual and gender identity and expression, and the right of every person to exercise control over their own body. These stories, too, are about truth and good faith (and often the absence or only belated presence of both), and they involve history and civics. The schools of which they are told, and of which they are not yet told, must struggle to find ways to engage with the challenges they represent, and our Partners at NAIS and TABS are very properly taking a lead in this work. And we know in our hearts that repairing the damage and preventing more requires ethical engagement and personal and institutional commitments to justice that go far beyond awareness of issues in law.

On a happier note, ICG Board member and former Poughkeepsie Day School head Josie Holford has posted in her blog a wonderful, comprehensive reminder to school heads of the need to be mindful of their schools’ histories and the need for good faith and forthright acknowledgment of truth in leadership.

Every school expresses somewhere in its self-presentation an ethical vision couched in words of lofty aspiration. Schools realize these visions, or not, by their willingness to acknowledge both the beautiful and the hard truths about their own histories and organizational cultures and by the good faith with which their leaders, their faculties, their boards, and their communities address them in the context of the manifold challenges of educating students.

It’s a tall order, but the work it involves can be redemptive, even cleansing. It feels to me as though as a society we are in dire need of acts of redemption and purification. What better place to start than right in our own schools?

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