How does the aversion of conflict lead to a stifling of student initiative?

It should be the goal of social studies education to produce and promote initiative among students. This means encouraging students to independently seek out injustices or areas that need change and to take action in making that change occur. This will undoubtedly put students into conflict with others, as all change comes at the expense of the status quo. This can be especially antagonistic when students begin challenging institutional racism, sexual disenfranchisement, and the lack of upward mobility among working class families.

I was reading James D. Anderson’s book The Education of Blacks In The South 1860-1935 (1988) and was struck by the line; “In short, McKenzie attempted to repress [black] student initiative, undermine their equalitarian spirit, and control their thinking on race relations so as to produce a class of black intellectuals that would uncomplainingly accept the southern racial hierarchy.”

This quote describes how southern white educators/administrators and northern-white philanthropists were supporting black colleges, but with the guarantee that these educated blacks would not add to liberal or radical ideas. I was particularly interested in the word “initiative” and thought about how the goal of white educators and philanthropists was to extinguish independent action of young black academics. These white leaders were concerned that independent action on the parts of blacks would lead to further conflict among the races.

To initiate something means to independently assess and pursue some type of action. In social studies education, I do not see much of this happening in the day-to-day activities of classrooms. In social studies, we would hope to see students taking initiative over issues that are important to them, but they are often quelled by administration, teachers, staff, parents, and the wider community. For instance, around the United States students (mostly female) have called into question the need for a dress code and how these rules are typically focused on hiding young women’s bodies, or just ensuring that women conform to some sense of “decency.” Are these young women not taking an initiative to independently act? As educators, should we not only be proud of their action, but also encourage them to research ways in which to make social change?

How can projects be effective tools to promote this action? Perhaps at the end of each project students can write a civic action plan that describes how they will take the knowledge and skills learned through the project and apply it to social injustices. Also, students should know that they can choose projects based on topics of injustice. 

Returning to the dress code example, this may look like students completing a research project that examines how women’s bodies have been considered in society at certain moments of time or throughout our country’s history. The suggestions considered together, this would transform how students see research. Students would be expected to take their research and create some kind of action plan that would encourage change to happen.

Bibliography

Anderson, James D. (1988). The Educator of Blacks In The South, 1860-1935. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press.

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