Activism Isn’t a Four-Letter Word

Encouraging students to take an interest in the well-being of others is not indoctrination: It’s the right thing to do.

Have you ever heard someone say, “Activism doesn’t belong in schools! It’s tantamount to indoctrination”? We hear it regularly, sometimes from educators themselves. This statement usually means that teachers should not be encouraging student activism in the classroom. But…

Activism is probably already in the curriculum. Teach about the Declaration of Independence? You’re teaching about activism. Cover the movement to abolish slavery in the United States? You’re teaching about activism. Address women getting the right to vote? Activism. Mention this year’s 50th anniversaries of the Selma-to-Montgomery March and the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965? You see where I’m going with this.

Activism is at the core of any American history curriculum; at the very least it gets a passing mention each year around Martin Luther King Jr. Day—and rightly so. Any school that acknowledges American history must address the necessary changes that have righted so many wrongs in our country—and the protests and campaigns that led to those changes. The First Amendment guarantees the right of petition, assembly, free speech and press. The Bill of Rights begins with the assumption that citizens will need to take stands against government actions. Given these facts, one might even say activism is the “American way.”

Why, then, is activism sometimes characterized as indoctrination when educators encourage their students to take action and make change in their own communities? Why is activism deemed a four-letter word when teachers point out the wrongs that currently exist in our world, in our country and in our schools?

Unfortunately, such wrongs do exist. And students know it.

It is wrong that some children go without hot meals at school because their families don’t qualify for free-or-reduced lunch but still can’t afford to pay. It is wrong that over half of LGBT students report feeling unsafe at school, a fact that causes some students to avoid school altogether. It is wrong that women make $0.78 for every dollar men make—and the gap widens when you factor in race and ethnicity, disability, class, gender expression and sexual orientation. These are wrongs that need to be righted, and students, our future leaders, need to be aware of them so that they develop the tools to do so.

When young people learn that a classmate was killed because of his religion, educators should back their efforts to fight against hate. When kids are motivated to turn the tide of gun violence in their communities, adults should be there to help them. Even something seemingly as small as reaching out to a peer who eats alone should be supported.

Encouraging students to take an interest in the well-being of others is not indoctrination: It’s the right thing to do. And it is every student’s right to know what is going on in her world and to have an opportunity to change it.

Bell is a writer and associate editor for Teaching Tolerance.

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