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'No Citizen Left Behind': Empowering Everyone24:47
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In her new book, "No Citizen Left Behind," Meira Levinson argues that, for a strong democracy, we need to empower urban youth through civic education and engagement. (robnguyen01/Flickr)
In her new book, "No Citizen Left Behind," Meira Levinson argues that, for a strong democracy, we need to empower urban youth through civic education and engagement. (robnguyen01/Flickr)

In her new book, "No Citizen Left Behind," Meira Levinson makes a compelling case about why education is the civil rights struggle of our era. She argues urban schools need to do much more than bridge the so-called achievement gap. She says they need to re-define and then provide real civic education.

Levinson says this goes beyond tweaking the curriculum. Instead, it means up-ending it and teaching students about power, injustice and the need for collective action — and how they can have a role in improving their lives and the broader society. Levinson argues that what ails urban schools is a civic empowerment gap — which she says is as shameful and anti-democratic as the achievement gap targeted by No Child Left Behind.

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Book Excerpt from "No Citizen Left Behind" by Meira Levinson:

(Courtesy of Harvard University Press)
(Courtesy of Harvard University Press)

“Dr. Levinson, have you heard?”

“No, heard what?”

“The World Trade Center has been hit by two planes. There are rumors that the Pentagon has also been bombed, and maybe the Capitol Building. Do you have a TV in your classroom? No? Why don’t you bring your students into my room; you all can watch the news with us.”

Stunned, I line up my homeroom, nineteen eighth-grade students whom I first met only a week ago, and file them down the hall to Ms. Sanchez’s room. We fill in the extra desks and perch on the radiators in the back of her Spanish bilingual classroom. A thirteen-inch television is propped on a chair at the front of the room showing a wavy, often static-obscured image of Tom Brokaw and the World Trade Center towers pouring smoke and flames from gashes in their sides. Ms. Sanchez stands next to the TV, adjusting the rabbit ears on top every minute or two, trying to get a better picture. Some students call out recommendations to her in Spanish and English; most of us sit or stand silently, trying to assimilate the obscure images on the screen…

I send my homeroom class off to science and then to lunch. When they return to me for the last period of the day, our conversation turns to who would have done this and why. “I bet George Bush is behind this,” Laquita declares. “I bet he did this so he could have an excuse to go to war with Iraq.”

“What?!?!” I respond. “We don’t know who’s done this, but I can promise you it’s not George Bush.”

“No, Dr. Levinson, I think you’re wrong,” says Travis. “Bush doesn’t care about anybody except rich people, and he wants to go to war with Iraq to take revenge for what Saddam Hussein did to his dad. President Bush probably got somebody to do this for him, like Laquita said.”

More voices chime in to back up Laquita. Bush has the power to do something like this because he’s the president. You know that he doesn’t care about the law because he stole the whole election. All he wants to do is go to war with Iraq, and this is the perfect excuse. People in power can do anything and get away with it; look how his brother managed to keep Black people from voting in Florida, and you don’t see anything happening to him, do you? Bush is a horrible man—why wouldn’t he do something like this?

I’m completely taken aback. Up until now, I’ve taken my students’ questions in stride: their naiveté about the Pentagon, their confusion about the relationship between Manhattan and New York, their concern that terrorists might choose McCormack Middle School in Dorchester, Massachusetts, to attack next. But this vitriol against Bush, and their almost sanguine assumption that the president of the United States might choose to and be capable of killing 5,000, maybe 10,000, American citizens simply on a whim—I find it breathtaking in its combination of utter ignorance and absolute cynicism.

Electronically reproduced from NO CITIZEN LEFT BEHIND by Meira Levinson, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, Copyright © 2012 The President and Fellows of Harvard College.


White House "How To Make Change" Series: Civic Engagement

This segment aired on May 9, 2012.

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