Wednesday, March 24, 2010

How Do We Help Students Understand the Significance of What Just Happened?

This weekend I was a speaker in a conference at the University of South Carolina entitled: “Student Activism, Southern Style: Organizing and Protest in the 1960’s and 70’s”. My topic was how a student demonstration and, in reality, “rebellion”, unleashed a chain of events that led to the creation of USC’s now famous and widely replicated University 101 course and the series of influential Conferences on The First-Year Experience. I was on the same panel with a prominent 60’s activist, and leader of SNCC, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Cleveland Sellers, now President of Voorhees College in South Carolina.

It was a moving experience for me to recall the tumult of the times and to reflect on what difference(s) the student activism of the 60’s made. And, of equal importance, speaking on the very day the US House of Representatives took its historic vote on the health care insurance reform bill, this has led me to recall some of the great events and legislative acts of my lifetime and to reflect on what I understood at the time was the significance of what just happened. My thinking along these lines has led me to wonder what can, should we do to help our students reflect on the multiple meanings of the House vote on March 21, and how this will affect their lives. For me, I recalled:

1. Reading in August of 1964 The New York Times report of the North Vietnamese “attack” on the two US destroyers, the Turner, and the Maddox Joy, in the Gulf of Tonkin. I did not know then that that would be used as a pretext by the Johnson Administration to escalate the war in Vietnam which would ultimately lead to my induction into the US Armed Forces; and how that would bring me to South Carolina and to discover my calling as a higher educator;
2. The Civil Rights Act, also in the summer of 1964; and how that would change how we all live, work, play, and love together;
3. The Voting Rights Act; and how that would help make possible the election of Barack Obama in 2008.
4. The Medicare and Medicaid Acts of 1965 and how these would lay the basis for another civil rights bill which would not come to pass for another 45 years.

I look back and give thanks to my professors of those days for engaging us students in reflection on the significance of what had transpired. They put these events in context for us. They stimulated presentation of diverse perspectives on these events. They helped us develop a mental road map of what to look for ahead. They helped us place ourselves and our leaders on a historic continuum in America’s search for social justice for all.

What are you going to do to stimulate the same kind of reflection for your students?

What will you suggest that they read? Watch? Listen to?

Who will you suggest they talk with, listen to?
Who will you encourage them to write?
How will you help them prepare their own mental road maps for their lives ahead?

These are some of the great questions of our times.

-John N. Gardner


  1. As you suggest, the search for social justice is clearly not an "upward march." There are ebbs and flows as a result of different forms of legislation -- and at times, both can be associated with the same piece of legislation. This is a complex process -- one that is time, place, and space germane.

    In this spirit, there are a few other federal legislation elements to which I would like to draw students' attention and elicit their observations on how they impacted and continue to impact social justice including:

    • The 1980 Bayh-Dole Act that gave US universities and corporations control of the inventions and other intellectual property that resulted from federal research funding. Meant to stimulate economic competitiveness, it has transformed the nature of research at universities and the role of the university in society.

    • The Economic Recovery Tax Act (ERTA) of 1981 that ushered in the “Reagan Revolution” and the New Federalism approach that has shaped how government does and does not fund both public and private interests since the early 1980s.

    • The Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2001 and the Jobs and Growth Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2003 (a.k.a. the Bush tax cuts) that provided 70% of the money to the top 5% of income earners and less than 7% of the money to the bottom 80% of income earners.

    Along with the elements you suggested above, I'd ask the students to think about how these acts influence their own lives now and how they perceive that these forms of legislation will influence them in the future -- in short, to think about these "global" laws and apply them locally. Then I would ask them to think if they were to write a better bill, how it would read and why. Thought in action – at least hypothetically.

    Thanks for letting me share, John.

  2. For my students' final project in Critical Thinking, they are assessing the opposing viewpoints offered in the health care reform debate.

    As we discuss argument evaluation in this course, I've asked my students to review the following op-ed, identify the arguments, assess whether they're valid/sound, inductive/deductive, strong/weak, etc.:

    Since many of the students where I teach do not engage public policy issues with any degree of intellectual rigor (they're pursuing degrees to help them get jobs, not as part of the cherished liberal arts history of which I am a grateful recipient), I've begun working to make these issues more central to the classroom in order interject broader application of the course objectives.

    I just began a freshman seminar course on Monday, so I'm not sure how to bring these events into focus for this new course, as many are just figuring out where to go to class. Any ideas for a prof who was too young to be part of the Civil Rights Movement?

  3. Dear Angela:

    Thanks for your query. I see that you would have many opportunities in your first-year seminar to combine the teaching of critical thinking with the examination of public policy issues. What I would do would be to require the students to do some reading of say The New York Times, on line—or if your institution participates in The Times “College Newspaper Readership” program, they could get paper copies. Anyway, either you pick one issue—or article or allow them to. I think if I were doing this, I would assign one. Then I would ask them to write you a one screen e-mail with their reactions/analysis of what they derived from the piece. Then I would do a cut and paste synthesis of some fo their gems and feed that back to them. I bet you all would enjoy that. Have fun!