Book Review: “No Citizen Left Behind”

September 8, 2012

A few months ago, Meira Levinson, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education (and a member of GC’s advisory board), published No Citizen Left Behind, a must-read for anyone concerned with the Civic Engagement Gap and equity in our democracy. Meira has been an important influence on our thinking as an organization and our action civics approach. The book is engaging and well-written, and I’ve finally had a chance to write a review on Amazon, which I am also pasting below. 

-Daniel Millenson, Managing Director

How Schools Can Address Some of the Problems of Our Democracy

Meira Levinson’s “No Citizen Left Behind” – perhaps uniquely – combines the tight reasoning of political philosopher with the pathos and deep experience of a public school classroom teacher working in some of Atlanta and Boston’s poorest schools. The result is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book that challenges popular notions of how schools do and ought to teach students about democracy and civic action.

The disjuncture between the semi-triumphalist narrative of U.S. history and civics taught in today’s schools (“Yes, we made mistakes like slavery, but now things are better.), and the reality of civic institutions that low-income and minority young people often cannot trust (e.g., police forces, their own failing schools) often prompts those same students to dismiss civic engagement entirely. As a result, they fail to learn how to use the very tools that would improve both those institutions and their own lives. Levinson argues that that disjuncture, combined with a school system more segregated now than at any time since Brown v. Board, mean that schools must approach teaching citizenship (a term Levinson uses beyond the narrow legal sense) in a new way; they must explicitly teach students how to use collective action to rectify racial and class injustices.

And precisely because students’ attitudes towards democracy are often shaped by their experience of school climate, Levinson argues that schools must fundamentally reform their own quite undemocratic cultures. Practices now increasingly popular (fueled by a testing culture run amok), such as students who must walk tin-solider-like, silently in single-file lines, between classes can be inimical to cultivating critical, active citizens. In effect, Levinson points out, such schools deny their students the opportunity to learn by denying them the opportunity to make decisions and, inevitably, some mistakes.

Unfortunately, whereas Levinson’s book is always acute in its observations of inequity and quite often a stirring call to action, it can at times be frustratingly elusive as a program of action for practitioners. That said, “No Citizen Left Behind” is an important book on an under-appreciated problem, a corrective for many of the myths on modern education, and a must-read for anyone concerned with the health and equity of American democracy.

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