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Katy Perry, you’re awesome; Tom Jefferson, you need a makeover.

Randall F. Clemens

I originally posted this blog on September 21, 2010.

High school students know who Katy Perry is. She’s a socialite. She has a song, “I Kissed a Girl.” She dated the tattooed guy from Gym Class Heroes and now is engaged to  the funny guy from Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Teenagers could, I’m sure, also fill-in-the-blanks for numerous other pop culture figures: T-Pain, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, etc., etc…

And yet, in spite of a mandatory civics class, most students don’t know who Thomas Jefferson is. Sure, some could tell me he was a president or signed the Declaration, but they don’t know about his political beliefs; they don’t know about inalienable rights. The same goes for most other political thinkers, like Thomas Hobbes or Aristotle or John Locke or John Rawls.

The fact that they are all white old guys who belong to a traditional Western canon is important, but isn’t my purpose for today. I am certainly not a Great Books fan, but I do see value in most of these authors’ texts. After all, many African American writers and activists learned about concepts such as inalienable rights and social justice from the classics. My purpose for today is what we ask teachers and students to do or not to do in schools.

The government will announce this morning the winners of the Promise Neighborhood planning grant competition. I have been clear from the start about my hopes and reservations for the initiative, which is modeled after Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone (HCZ), as well as community-based reform. Such a “holistic” policy perspective, using acclaimed sociologist William Julius Wilson’s words, importantly targets both structural and cultural factors.

And yet, reforms in education seldom last. It seems short-sighted that policy-makers frequently place so much stress on structural changes with little discussion of cultural factors. HCZ is largely successful because of the parent academy, which provides parenting skills and knowledge to the fathers and mothers of the students in the schools. Such reform, hopefully, creates sustainable change.

The next logical step is raising a generation of learners as well as politically engaged citizens. Some readers may argue that perhaps we should first focus on getting a student to read a book or pass a test. I agree, but also think raising good human beings isn’t a zero-sum game; we can encourage multiple purposes of education. Others may worry that I am advocating for jingoism or inculcation. That is absolutely not the case. I am arguing for students who will question, problemetize, and contest.

In some classroom in Los Angeles, a teacher is creating a dialogue with her students about Thomas Jefferson, civil rights, and social movements like the Justice for Janitors campaign or the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union. That teacher is empowering her students by asking them to envision a better society. Hopefully, the Promise Neighborhood winners will dare to create the necessary conditions for lasting change too.