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Convocation 2010: Remarks of Faculty Speaker Meira Levinson

Thank you so much for inviting me to speak to you today. This is an honor, and a surprise. I had frankly never thought before about what I would say in a speech to graduates, just as I never planned my wedding as a young girl. This may explain why, after agreeing to write our own vows, my husband and I realized on our wedding day we had written nothing. We shrugged, and simply stuck to the script our rabbi thrust in our hands.

It would be to your benefit if there were similarly a pre-established script for this talk. My guess is it would be short, sweet, and funny, include a touch of pathos, and many congratulatory words of wisdom. Unfortunately for you, however, I'm terrible at "sweet with a touch of pathos." The best I could come up with at the end of last semester for my students, whom I absolutely adored, was that I felt like a bit less of a sellout for having left teaching in the Boston Public Schools in favor of the indulgences of Appian Way. So, although it's too late now for you to change your votes for faculty speaker, consider yourselves warned that warm and cuddly congratulations are not on the table.

Instead, I want to put forth some ideas that I invite you to think through as you go out and do the great work you've prepared to do. In particular, I want to reflect together about what it means for education to be the "civil rights issue of our time."

This specific phrase has astounding, and inspiring, resonance these days. Our dean has talked and written passionately about this issue, as have Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and President Barack Obama. Interestingly, this phrase cuts across party lines. In 2002, President George W. Bush declared education "the great civil rights issue of our time." Conservative scholars and policy makers Abigail and Stephen Thernstrom followed suit soon after, and Bush's first Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, has just coauthored a book called The Black-White Achievement Gap: Why Closing It Is the Greatest Civil Rights Issue of Our Time.

Given how many people of different ideological bents have used this phrase, it should not be surprising that there's some fuzziness in the concept.

To bring some clarity, I want to start by suggesting that we actually change the phrase. It's striking that from President Bush to President Obama and everyone in-between, education is described as a "civil rights issue" rather than a "civil rights struggle." Issues are important, sure -- but they can be dealt with relatively passively, through discussion, negotiation, and policy tweaks. "Issues" don't scream injustice or demand great sacrifice. If education really is the civil rights challenge of our day--see, even "challenge" changes the tone a bit--then we need to get serious. Let's wrench the conversation where it needs to go.

Education is the "civil rights struggle of our day" because of the massive injustice that lies at its core. Many young people in this country suffer the daily injustice of attending schools that teach them how to fail -- and teach them they will fail -- rather than how to succeed. They suffer the daily injustice of being told that their knowledge, passions, and talents are irrelevant in the face of others' standards and expectations. They suffer the daily injustice of attending schools that treat them more as inmates than as valued community members and developing learners. They suffer the daily injustice of attending schools with no libraries, no playgrounds, and not even doors on the bathrooms or toilet paper in the stalls. We should have the confidence to name these injustices, loudly, in service not of the "civil rights issue," but the "civil rights struggle of our time."

We must also prepare ourselves and others to sacrifice for the sake of this struggle.

It may seem unnecessary, even insensitive, to speak to you of sacrifice when many of you are staring at graduate school loans in the tens of thousands of dollars and an earning potential that's a fraction of your law or business school peers. My apologies for pouring salt on the wound. So let me clarify my suggestion. Since struggle requires sacrifice, let's not be afraid to demand of others sacrifices as great as those we make ourselves. Let's not pretend that a bunch of outstanding, public-minded educators, policy makers, administrators, social entrepreneurs, and educational researchers--in other words, those of you sitting before me today -- let's not pretend that you can overcome deep educational injustice on your own. Rather, your sacrifices need to become shared sacrifices. All Americans -- including those law and business school classmates across the way -- must take on the burden of this fight.

Now, how will we know when we've "won" this civil rights struggle? Would closing the achievement gap represent victory, as Rod Paige suggests? If kids from all walks of life--wealthy, poor, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, gay, straight, immigrant, native born, Native American, with and without special needs, bilingual, monolingual, rural, suburban, urban--even if kids from all of these groups got equally high test scores, would that satisfy us that we could stop waging this civil rights struggle? I don't think so. Equal test scores are not in fact our goal.

It is far too easy to be bought off by symbolic and partial progress. In this respect, I am reminded of the belief of many of my former eighth grade students that "not having to sit at the back of the bus" is the accomplishment worth celebrating.

Just 10 days ago, on the 56th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, Arne Duncan claimed that the "civil rights issue of our time" affirms "our collective commitment to providing a high quality education to all children regardless of race or background so they can succeed in college and careers and prosper in life." I commend this vision. Consider how different our country -- and individual kids' lives -- would be if schools in the United States uniformly prepared all children to succeed in further education, work, and life. That would indeed represent a radical transformation.

But I'm frankly not convinced even this is enough. Success in college and careers brings students to the front of the bus. But -- to push this metaphor possibly beyond the point of no return -- they don't ensure the quality of the ride, nor do they enable riders to reroute the bus' ultimate destination.

To do this, we need to think about schools as places that teach students themselves to take on the civil rights struggle, not just as academies that prepare students passively to receive the benefits -- equal educational opportunities, equal content knowledge and skills -- that the struggle confers. Consider, for example, the network of Freedom Schools established by SNCC and CORE in 1963. Charlie Cobb was only 20 years old when he designed the Freedom Schools curriculum to enable students, as he put it, "to stand up in classrooms around the state and ask their teachers a real question" and "make it possible for them to challenge the myths of our society, to perceive more clearly its realities and to find alternatives and ultimately, new directions for action." These Freedom Schools -- escendents of which still thrive today -- empower youth to set their buses toward a new destination, not just settle in for the ride.

Consider what it would mean if all of our schools did this today. What if our schools didn't just teach students to cross-multiply then divide, write an analytic essay, compete fairly and win gracefully, glaze a pot, and explain the significance of the Battle of the Bulge? I realize this is already an achingly unrealistic vision of what many schools do around the country. But I nonetheless urge you look beyond this worthy intermediate vision toward an even more ambitious conception of schools as politically empowering institutions
that give young people the tools to fight the civil rights struggle of our and their time alongside us.

Most current and former civil rights movements are and were fought by the oppressed themselves -- by people fighting for their own rights. They have (and had) allies, but the movements were necessarily and appropriately led by those seeking more rights for themselves. We treat education differently, seeing adults as the appropriate actors on behalf of youth. This shouldn't be the case. If we believe in this fight, then we should be activists with youth, which also means that we need to help empower youth.

Hence, whether you are going into teaching, policy making, curriculum development, research and scholarship, administration, social entrepreneurship, new educational media, or some other field--I suggest that to the extent that you see yourself as committed to the "civil rights struggle of our time," you should work to empower youth rather than solely to advocate or act on their behalves.

Since I've slipped into advice-giving mode, let me make one more suggestion disguised as an argument. Civil rights movements have always been collective projects. Those that have succeeded stand as a testament to the power of collective action. I urge you to take this lesson to heart. Don't try to go it alone. Construct and maintain networks of allies both within and outside of education, including colleagues from HGSE. Work together to create reservoirs of strength so that you -- so that we -- can collectively struggle for a better, more effective, and more just educational system for all.

To the students who invited me to serve as your speaker, thank you. This is an incredibly humbling experience. I continue to be absolutely unsure about whether I'm doing the world the right amount or kind of good by indulging myself as a HGSE professor. But I take heart when I feel I am engaged in a collective project -- a collective action on behalf of the "civil rights struggle of our time" -- with you.

To the extent that my fellow faculty members and I have been able to help you tackle these challenges better than you could before you arrived -- to the extent that you leave more informed, more capable, more empowered educators -- then we're doing some good.

But vigilance demands that we don't sink into complacency or self-satisfaction -- a particular strength of Harvard professors, I admit. Hence, I commit to you that I will continue to do what I can to support you in the important work that you are all now heading out to do. And I ask you to demand such support of all of us here at the ed school. As of tomorrow at this time, you will be HGSE alumni. You will also therefore be permanently part of the Harvard Graduate School of Education community. Let us continue to work together -- to struggle together -- in the years to come. Thank you.