Charisse Carney-Nunes is Senior Vice President of The Jamestown Project and author of the children’s book, I Am Barack Obama. She was the invited guest at the Burlington, NJ school where the kids sang for her a song about President Obama. A popular YouTube video showing the schoolchildren singing is currently at the center of the national controversy on alleged “school indoctrination.”
Much political hay has been made over the video of the New Jersey school children singing about President Obama and I have since found myself at the center of this firestorm. Conservative commentators and media outlets have labeled this “indoctrination by schools,” fueling their listeners recently to conduct a politicized protest in front of an elementary school while in session. Contrary to this position, I believe the song – which was initiated by the school’s children, not by me – represents a refreshing example of civic expression, creativity and engagement that is sorely needed in our nation’s schools.
Civic education is the teaching of knowledge, skills, values, and character needed to grow into a responsible and active participation in American democracy. It is an effort to instill the values of civility, understanding and respect. Through the civic education of elementary-aged children, I have found that they not only begin to understand their place in the world, but also begin to comprehend their power and potential to make a difference in their own lives, their family, their communities, and their country.
It is a widely accepted notion that instruction related to democratic citizenship has declined in our schools in recent years. Educators pressured by such issues as budget woes, the requirements of No Child Left Behind and high stakes testing have understandably increased their instructional time in core subjects like math and reading. “Softer subjects” like civics, social studies and art have taken a back seat.
And while most schools, in fact, cover social studies and civics to some degree, a recent study by the New Jersey Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, for example, found only 39% of districts in that state had implemented the required course in civic education and even fewer districts offered training opportunities in civic education for teachers. Moreover, another national study found that even when schools implement civic education, there is more of a focus on history than on information designed to connect civics and participation to current events that have relevance to the student’s everyday lives.
On January 20, 2009, the American citizenry – including our youngest citizens – witnessed a watershed event our nation’s history that was relevant to our everyday lives. Nearly 400 years after the first Africans were brought to the Jamestown Colony in shackles, their sons and daughters ascended – along with the American imagination – to occupy a civic space that was previously unthinkable.
And my experience, as I traveled the country listening to children in recent years, is that event our youngest citizens understood this awesome event. Educators across the nation and even the world sought opportunities to capture this inspiration and to create the place and the space for children to express it. Not only does this fall far short of politically motivated cries of “indoctrination,” but had it would have been irresponsible for educators to do otherwise.
Children have an amazing capacity to understand difficult topics when we take the time to explain them. Democracy, community, diversity, justice – these are all concepts that children not only can understand, but also must understand if we are going to inspire them to awaken the important values that they will need to grow into healthy and productive citizens who will act, participate and contribute great things to our country.
And our nation is certainly in need of these “participants” as children constitute 100% of our future. From its infancy, American democracy has always required a citizenry that is fully informed and motivated and mobilized to participate in democratic processes. Indeed, the virtues of American democracy would certainly be in peril if our nation’s children grow into “non-thinking men and women” who have little time or inclination to involve themselves in their communities and even less time for civil discourse and understanding.
Our American democracy is crying out for a new civility. We are starved by the rancor and divisiveness that inhabits the political extremes and dehydrated by a media that serves sensationalism, sound bytes and spin. We are malnourished by the unspeakable hate mail that I have received and by the reported death threats received by the principal for simply allowing students to express patriotism creatively in ways not dissimilar to what has happened in American schools for hundreds of years. I believe that if we are to nourish our great nation, the recipe begins in our classrooms with civic education, expression and creativity as was exemplified by the students in their song apparently embracing the President’s diversity, “Mmm mmm mmm, Barack Hussein Obama.”