Should We Let Them?
Last week students throughout the country demonstrated their concern and memory for the 17 students and educators who were killed at their high school in Florida. The reactions to the question: “Should we let them?” were across the spectrum from “no, and there will be consequences if you do”, past benign neglect all the way to the other end where administrators facilitated the event and faculty participated with students.
My first reaction was why the question was even asked. Many years ago the Supreme Court made clear that students do not leave their first amendment rights at the school house door unless the demonstration of those rights would disrupt the education of others.
Of course, the supporters of “there will be consequences” immediately jumped on the disruption factor. Yet in school systems that either allowed but did not facilitate and in school systems that facilitated and participated there were no disruptions. The students and their supports walked out of class for 17 minutes, mostly stood in silence with heads bowed, then reentered their schools. In some communities, students had assemblies and discussions on the event and their very strong feelings that they did not want this tragedy to touch their school and what could be done to prevent that.
We have universal education at public expense in our country. We even limit the liberty of children between 5 and 16 (mostly although the end limit varies) to do anything but attend school. It is expensive so there must have been a good reason for this requirement.
Although it is often forgotten, the reason was that as suffrage expanded we needed an educated electorate to make these elections work. The need to train workers for the economy is a relatively recent reason to fund public education.
If we go back to our roots in public education, we still need an educated electorate. Our students need more education in civics than they need chemistry or trigonometry. The students who left their classrooms last week were not only speaking out for their cause but they were demonstrating an understanding of how a democracy works. I found it particularly confusing that the advocates for punitive consequences for the students leaving school for 17 minutes and, thereby, disrupting their education was to promise that they would be suspended for a day causing their education to be further disrupted. Where is the consistent value here?
We have no business asking the question should we let them. Our job as educators is to not only “let” them but to encourage them to think more about their values as citizens in a democracy and how those values will be played out by their civic activism and their voting record. The children of the 1950’s were repeatedly reprimanded for being the apathetic generation. Now our children are no longer apathetic. They want to take up the discussion and make change. And we have the nerve to ask the question- Should we let them?