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Educators must resist a return to ‘normal,’ urges scholar and activist Gloria Ladson-Billings

Photo of Gloria Ladson-Billings
“Once we can get our students to understand how and why democracy works, then we have a piece of hope," said Gloria Ladson-Billings, keynote speaker at this year's Cubberley Lecture. (Photo: Marcus Miles)

Educators must resist a return to ‘normal,’ urges scholar and activist Gloria Ladson-Billings

At Stanford GSE’s Cubberley Lecture, education visionaries reflect on the role teachers play in shaping a democracy.

In the midst of a global pandemic, deeply entrenched systemic racism, economic devastation for many and the environmental catastrophe of climate change, Gloria Ladson-Billings, PhD ’84, sees promise for a different way forward.

But much of that vision, she said, hinges on how schools meet the moment.

“This is our opportunity to stop, reset and start again,” the education scholar and activist said on April 28 during the Cubberley Lecture, an annual forum organized by Stanford Graduate School of Education (GSE). “Once we can get our students to understand how and why democracy works, then we have a piece of hope.”

The Cubberley Lecture, a GSE tradition since 1938, is the school’s signature public event dedicated to highlighting issues of critical educational concern. Speakers in recent years have included Jill Biden, Bill Nye (“the Science Guy”), author Jacqueline Woodson and actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith.

This year’s event focused on the topic of democracy and education: How can teachers engage young people in using their voices for change, especially amid heightened political divisiveness? 

A place to develop citizens

Distinguishing schools “as a place to develop democrats [with a] small d, to develop citizens,” Ladson-Billings called on educators to “move from a 19th century curriculum to a 21th century one,” one with a focus on problem-solving.

Ladson-Billings, president of the National Academy of Education, is renowned as an early proponent of critical race theory, whose groundbreaking research has explored the obstacles confronting students of color and the practices that make teachers of Black students successful.

She pointed to two recently developed classroom tools representing vastly different visions of what it means to be part of a republic: The 1619 Project, published by the New York Times to reframe U.S. history by centering the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans, and The 1776 Report, released by a committee appointed by then-President Donald Trump to support what he termed “patriotic education.”

“Which vision do we share in the classroom?” Ladson-Billings asked. “I will tell you that the smart teacher will share them both, and have students do the work that it takes to make sense of these documents.”    

No magic bullet

In a panel discussion led by Guadalupe Valdés, the Bonnie Katz Tenenbaum Professor of Education at Stanford, GSE faculty reflected on the challenges and aspirations of working to build an informed and inspired electorate.

GSE Adjunct Professor Tom Ehrlich shared findings from his research into college courses and programs aimed at preparing students for political engagement. “There is no magic bullet” in educating for civic involvement, said Ehrlich, a former dean of Stanford Law School who has also served as president of Indiana University and provost of the University of Pennsylvania. But three capacities, he said — political understanding, political skills and political motivation, taught and learned well — can enable college students “to engage actively in public policies and politics, and to do so responsibly.”

College campuses saw a sharp rise in community service learning in the 1980s, he recalled, but they fell short of preparing students to engage politically.

“As university administrators, we thought all we had to do was encourage students to volunteer, to help with the problems of their community – cleaning up parks, tutoring kids, serving in community kitchens,” he said. “We really didn’t appreciate that students should also be asking why their communities needed those kitchens, what public policies could do to correct the failings.”

Ehrlich acknowledged the pressure teachers may feel to avoid discussions about hot-button issues, fearing backlash from administrators and community members. “The easy road is to keep quiet about democratic politics and policies. But keeping quiet will not educate our students.”

GSE Assistant Professor Antero Garcia spoke to the challenge educators face in finding “the capacity to do the kind of freedom dreaming this work necessitates,” especially during a time of tremendous loss and grief.

He also noted the peril of encouraging students to debate issues as a way to engage in political discourse.

“I think a lot of harm has happened in classrooms because we position things as one side needs to win versus another,” he said, with students having to argue a stance they might not support, on topics such as abortion or the right to be recognized as a citizen in this country.

“The ways we think about what discourse looks like in a democratic classroom might have to start with a simple conversation,” he said. “Rather than thinking about discourse as being about debate or winning, what does it mean to center discourse in love and to be understood in terms of solidarity?”

Watch a recording of the April 28 event here.

Faculty mentioned in this article: Guadalupe Valdes, Antero Garcia, Thomas Ehrlich

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