Citizenship Starts in the Imagination

Yesterday, my community remembered the events of January 8, 2011. At a “Congress on your Corner” event held at a Tucson shopping center, a troubled man opened fire, seriously injuring thirteen people and killing six (including a nine-year old girl). Among the many public takeaways that followed that horrible event were: we need better systems for dealing with mental illness, and gun violence needs to be taken more seriously…again.

The most troubling takeaway for me, however, had nothing to do with mental health reform or gun laws, but with the message the event sent to young people about civic engagement: that it’s dangerous.

Literature on civic engagement in American society over the past few decades has painted a pretty grim picture. Voting is at an all-time low; young people are less trusting of the government than ever; and associations with clubs and committees have plummeted. Some folks seek to remedy this by proposing a renewed commitment to civic education, which would include greater emphasis on understanding how government works and a robust commitment to service learning. These kinds of efforts have been found to increase civic engagement and citizenship.

But at the real heart of civic engagement lies civility. People cannot effectively and authentically engage with their communities if they are alienated from their neighbors and peers and do not view them as actual people. Civility, as Benjamin Barber in “America Skips School” argues, is a work of the imagination. “It is through the imagination that we render others sufficiently like ourselves for them to become subjects of tolerance and respect, if not always affection.”

So where does this imagination come from? Not from lessons on the three branches of government, voting simulations, or gratuitous stints at the local soup kitchen for the purpose of beefing up a college application. The kind of imagination that is required for real civility, civic engagement, and, ultimately, democracy itself, comes from spending time with and talking and listening to people who are not exactly like you.

Most public school classrooms, even with racially or economically homogenous student bodies, hold the kind of diversity that could lend itself quite well to the cultivation of civility. The richness of varying student backgrounds, experiences, and belief systems provides the perfect field for helping students develop not only a tolerance of but a real curiosity toward and maybe even an appreciation for people that do not think just like they do.

We don’t need simulations or updated textbooks. We need teachers to establish norms of decency and respect. We need kids to be facing each other, not the teacher at the front of the room, in conversation. And we need less rigid attachment to outcomes and more commitment to the messy process of dialogue.

It’s our job as educators to teach our kids that civic engagement can be challenging, and that the real danger lies not in the chance that someone is going to open fire in public, but that we could lose our freedom to even attend public town-hall gatherings.

As educators, we may not be able to control much when it comes to gun violence, and this is indeed terrifying. But we do have control over what we cultivate in our classrooms. Civic engagement takes bravery, no doubt. It’s scary to be the only one with a certain point of view, or to reconsider an opinion that you’ve had since childhood. And while we may not be able to assuage the fear that so many of our students have around gun violence, we can help them to be not so afraid to ask questions, consider others’ viewpoints, and imagine that those “others” are not really as other as they may seem.


Eve Rifkin

Eve Rifkin

Tucson, Arizona

I have been an educator for over 20 years. As a founding co-director of City High School, I have held a variety of leadership and teaching roles, including academic director, humanities teacher, and principal. I am currently the Director of College Access and support students as they envision their lives after high school.

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