|Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell|
Part VI in a Series on Empowerment and Potential
Humans find great joy in getting better at something. It is probably not an exaggeration to state that the evolution of our species depends on this characteristic being passed along from generation to generation. For example, our entire educational system, when working properly, should ultimately empower students and move them towards their potential. Drawing on a wide variety of resources and discussions with staff at Currey Ingram Academy, I am writing a series of Extra Credit articles for the 2015-2016 school year on the topics of empowerment and potential as they relate to education. The articles focus on how individuals and groups can take purposeful steps towards empowerment on the road to achieving their potential.
In the August Extra Credit article I asked, “What if we focus on what is right?” In September, I asked, “What if we maximized our talent?” For October, I investigated the idea of mastery. In November, I speculated that creativity ought to be emphasized even more in all educational organizations. I explored the important role that schools can play in dealing with life’s most difficult situations in December. For January’s piece, the topic is citizenship — what it means and the fundamental role the education system plays in developing citizens.
The Big Picture
We’ve heard stories of astronauts reflecting on seeing the Earth from a distance and how that experience had a way of reducing to its essence what is truly important. Like astronauts, if you look from high above on the education system and you ask what is the essential purpose of school and schooling, preparing students to be citizens must surely fall near the top of the list.
The Value of Citizenship
The value of citizenship might best be appreciated by attending a Naturalization Ceremony. On average, over 2,000 people per day are naturalized as United States citizens. Typically, it’s a formal setting, like a federal court, and around 40 people from almost as many countries take the oath. There’s great pride, and there are tears of joy as people become American citizens. I know because I just became an American citizen under a month ago.
After working our way through various “statuses” (and lots of paperwork hurdles) over the past 11 years, the Mitchell family finally met the criteria about a year ago to pursue citizenship. Now we’re incredibly lucky to be citizens of the United States.
Besides the pride I felt for myself and my family, a few other things struck me about the ceremony. First, the pride of the United States Customs and Immigration (USCIS) officials and the officiating judge presiding over the ceremony, as Americans, was apparent. Beautifully, the judge put into perspective both the importance of a diverse citizenry and the responsibility of becoming a citizen of the United States.
Only half-joking, the judge also mentioned to me in a brief conversation after the ceremony that the ceremony was the one event that happens in his courtroom in which everyone goes away happy.
The Power of Citizenship
Aside from acknowledging and honoring our military personnel for the sacrifices they’ve made so that we can be citizens, I always think about seminal events like 9/11 and recurring worldwide events like the Olympic Games as mirrors on the potency of citizenship. On such occasions, we wear our citizenry on our proverbial sleeves, and it demonstrates how much citizenry means to us.
What Can Schools Do?
I believe the education system is the incubator of citizenry. If it is, we must think about what healthy societies need out of their citizenry. What are the qualities of a healthy citizenry?
Perhaps start with a shared set of universal values, like fairness, justice, honesty and integrity. Values that stand the test of time.
At this point, think about your (hopefully) wonderful kindergarten teacher and what he/she taught you. This hopefully evolved into character education, service learning and a solid liberal arts education as you moved up in school. These values form the foundation for a healthy citizenry, in my opinion. They are also key elements in our K-12 program and in many high-quality school programs across the nation.
Loyalty is also important. Think about the loyalty you had to your school (or have to your children’s school), whether through academics, athletics, the arts or some other extension of that school. When schools and countries are healthy and thriving, they breed loyalty. This leads to willing service, even at one’s peril. It also leads to being a good alumnae/us of your school and continuing to support it for the benefit of future students.
Healthy schools and societies are productive. It is the way of the human race to move forward via productivity. The founding purpose of the modern education system was to perpetuate a productive workforce. It has become much more than that through the 20th and 21st centuries, but instilling a sense of productivity and work ethic remains at the core. This is one reason we reward work ethic and perseverance in formal ceremonies for students of all ages.
Great schools produce advocates, and great societies always need free-speaking advocates. At the same time, advocates must be taught to come to the table with a viable solution to the problem of the day and to be willing to listen to an idea that might be better than their own. At our school, we highly emphasize self-advocacy as a key tool for success in school and in life. In fact, our seventh- to 12th-grade students practice this formally three to four times a year in their individualized learning plan conferences with parents and teachers.
The empowerment that accompanies citizenship comes via understanding and sharing core universal values, loyalty to those values, productivity and advocacy. It’s easy in this age of hyperbole to lose sight of what’s really important, but when cynicism does rear its distasteful head, hopefully the lessons our children are learning are omnipresent and they fortify conceptions of true and healthy citizenship.
When our children are having difficulty remembering those lessons, remind them they will soon have the right to cast a ballot or run for office, to have a real say about what needs changing.
Better yet, bring them to a U.S. Citizenship Ceremony. They are, in this free and wonderful country, open to the public.
Dr. Jeffrey L. Mitchell is the head of school for Currey Ingram Academy. “Extra Credit” is provided each month by Currey Ingram Academy to help parents at all schools and at all stages of the parenting journey.
Currey Ingram Academy is a private K-12 day school for bright students with learning differences and unique learning styles. For more information, click here.