In the summer of 2004 I taught in a program called the Civic Leadership Institute run through Northwestern University. The goal of the program was to take extremely bright high school students away for 3 weeks, plant them in the poorest parts of cities (Chicago and Baltimore), give them service projects to do each day and courses to take on civic leadership each evening, and by the end of the program they’d leave with a passion for changing the world.
The summer of 2004 was an interesting time to be teaching in this program. I spent those weeks with amazing kids and incredibly passionate teachers. The teaching staff was disproportionately liberal (in fact I’m not sure there was a Republican among us.) And with the election months away we spent many of our lesson-planning hours debating the future of our country. The war in Iraq was going badly, and we were spending every day with our kids experiencing the reality of extreme problems in our own country that were going relatively unnoticed.
Part of the Baltimore program included a trip to Washington, DC and my colleagues thought it would be a good experience for the students to arrange a protest outside the White House. I don’t remember what exactly happened politically the day before we were scheduled to go but some bit of news had really riled up a few of the teachers and when I stumbled upon them in the lounge they were talking about teaching their students to make Molotov Cocktails. They were joking of course about this element of the experience, but an organized protest was still very much in the planning stages. Several of them had been part of the war protests in Chicago the previous year and had spent time behind bars for their participation. They were heroes in my eyes, real activists who had put their beliefs on the line in a way I never had.
In almost every way the opportunity to turn our kids onto social activism was incredibly exciting, but I knew there was something wrong with this protest plan. The kids would have jumped on board in a heartbeat. They would even have loved the thrill of getting carted off and fingerprinted for their role in a protest. But I knew they would have been doing it for all the wrong reasons.
In a summer program, away from their parents, their preachers, and their communities, my kids were searching for sage adult advice to help them put the poverty, neglect, and inequity they were experiencing in perspective. Tempting though it was to provide my own perspective when solicited, I was conscious that these students’ parents, preachers, and communities had entrusted me with their safe-keeping, not their indoctrination into my own belief system.
I talked this over with my colleagues and after passions had cooled a bit they all agreed. Even though I knew we’d made the right decision, I went to bed that night feeling like I’d disappointed myself.
Had I just killed an experience that would have led these young people to become the greatest political leaders of our future?
Had I pro-actively diffused an important spark of passion for social justice?
But then I remembered the huge political movements of the past and the way that those with the power of experience and knowledge can easily persuade those without to believe in agendas that lead to both good and terribly bad outcomes. That summer it was my role as a teacher to provide my students with the space to develop their own beliefs based on their own experiences and knowledge.
Years later I know that many of those students went on to be leaders on their college campuses. They ran service learning spring break trips, majored in political science and sociology, led student activism groups, and joined political campaigns.
They will be future leaders, but I like to believe they will do this because it is a path they have chosen, not one we as teachers forced them to follow.