Guest Columnist

What should we care about?

September symposium will bring high school students together to research and share knowledge

Rosa Parks, considered the “Mother of The Civil Rights Movement,” is escorted into the Museum of African American History on Aug. 7, 1995, to a celebration honoring the 40th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Parks died of natural causes in 2005. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)
Rosa Parks, considered the “Mother of The Civil Rights Movement,” is escorted into the Museum of African American History on Aug. 7, 1995, to a celebration honoring the 40th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Parks died of natural causes in 2005. (Rebecca Cook/Reuters)

As a non-traditional graduate student studying digital media and education within the school of education at the University of Michigan in 2011, I decided it would be interesting to step back in time so I enrolled in an elective course on the history of American education. It turns out the past is the present.

More than 100 years ago, as the Industrial Revolution fueled mass migration of families from farms to cities, a fierce debate began about what high school students should learn.

As the 20th century approached, a committee of college presidents advocated for a rigorous, liberal arts curriculum for all students.

Opposing that position was a group advocating for a differentiated curriculum giving students many options for a diploma. Published in 1918, the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education formed the basis of high school public education for most of the 20th century and into the 21st century until vocational education began disappearing a few years ago.

The debate begun in the 19th century to deal with the Industrial Revolution is the same debate we are having today to adapt to the Digital Revolution.

More than 100 years ago, W.E.B. Du Bois, the first African American to earn a doctorate from Harvard, and Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute, engaged in a similar yet separate debate, necessary because of segregation.

Washington believed race barriers could best be ameliorated or erased by black students learning skills that would always be in high demand.

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Taking an opposing view, Du Bois argued for academic parity with white students so that black students could pursue careers as professors, lawyers, doctors, and politicians. He sharply criticized Washington publicly although praised Tuskegee’s success and acknowledged there was value in training skilled laborers.

Rosa Parks formed her worldview, in part, by reading both of their autobiographies.

In my last semester before graduating in spring 2012, I took a course in evaluation. The professor first asked us to define evaluation. Everyone struggled with an adequate definition. Evaluation, the professor said, was simply what you cared about. That one class had a seismic effect on me and my work developing educational content anchored by current events.

What do I care about?

I care deeply about the meaningful use of technology at home and at school. One of the tragic, unintended consequences of the internet is the pervasive myth that schools no longer need librarians because students can search online for any information they need. Knowledge is not merely information. Cognition requires expert guidance from teachers who value collaboration with librarians because of their advanced work at the graduate level learning how to navigate the world of books, research, reference, and multimedia in support of learning, a process that transforms students. Many schools no longer have full time librarians.

I care deeply about not losing touch with the past by engaging students in current events to unlock that past. I recently interviewed Irene Hasenberg Butter for the second time in 15 months. Irene is a professor emerita at the University of Michigan and a Holocaust survivor who was briefly with Anne Frank in January 1945 at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Irene was a teenager when the Holocaust ripped her childhood from her soul.

After enduring 18 months in concentration camps, Irene found herself alone in Algeria at a camp for displaced people operated by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. On Dec. 25, 1945, she arrived alone in the United States.

Irene is quick to point out she is a survivor, not a victim. She began speaking publicly in 1986 about her horrific experiences as a teenager. Since then, she has told her story to hundreds of students. A teacher by nature, she asks them to send her a reflection about her visit. Irene said she often receives letters from students telling her their parents do not know about the Holocaust. How did this happen?

But it doesn’t matter what I care about. What do national, state and local educational leaders, and the politicians who allocate funding for them, care about? I posit the educational community is the only constituency with the social capital to ensure our youth learn about the Holocaust, about Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement, the liberation of Europe during World War II, and other important events in American and world history. Many topics are difficult to discuss but we must.

We cannot abdicate our responsibility as educators by empowering the internet to form our students’ worldview. It’s not an indictment of technology.

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Many years ago I recognized the powerful potential of technology to transform education — and lives.

As a parent volunteer, using separate phone lines with dial-up connections, I designed and spearheaded an online mentoring program connecting at risk students in an urban school with parents at a rural school. Students loved it. Mentors loved it. Teachers loved it. The telecommunications company that funded the project through a grant immediately wanted to upgrade the technology to enable two-way video. They featured the project in one of their publications. Sadly, the school could not afford the monthly telecom fees. The project ended.

That has been the outcome for too many worthwhile educational projects requiring computers, yet millions of dollars are still being spent on equipment. Closets at many schools are graveyards for devices, old and new. Human capital needed to give meaning to computers has not been supported.

There is an urgent need for those who hold the purse strings or have the authority to enact policy and curricula to revise what they care about given the dizzying, complex nature of the Digital Age and the contentious times in which we live. Neither the internet nor the latest electronic device will be the sole solution.

IF YOU GO…

• What: Student Symposium: “Actions and Accomplishments of African American Women in the 1940s and 1950s”

• When: Sept. 14, 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.

• Where: Iowa Theater on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City and streamed live on studentsshareknowledge.com

• Presented by: Student News Net

• Cost: Free, but registration is required

The event hopes to bring high school students together to research and share knowledge. All high schools are invited to participate.

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• Judith Stanford Miller is editor and co-founder of Student News Net in Toledo, OH, which will host a September symposium at the University of Iowa, “Actions and Accomplishments of African American Women in the 1940s and 1950s.” Student News Net was launched in 2003 to connect the dots between non-fiction literature, literacy and primary source events.

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We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

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