The lesson we should have learned from the Romney girl incident

Recently, a Philadelphia high school student accused a teacher of belittling her because she wore a Mitt Romney T-shirt. The student later left the school after the media publicized the incident, labeling her “Romney Girl?

In light of recent events surrounding Charles Carroll High School geometry teacher Lynette Gaymon’s alleged controversial comments about sophomore Samantha Pawlucy’s pink T-shirt endorsing the Romney/Ryan ticket, it is important to take a step back and reflect regarding the issue that public should be concerned with most—the civic culture and education of a school.

If we start with the fact that Pawlucy doesn’t feel safe at Carroll anymore and is now seeking alternative schooling options, we might gain a deeper appreciation for the lack of civic-centered dialogue in schools.

Despite Gaymon’s claim that a comparison of Pawlucy’s political expression via wearing a T-shirt to a black person wearing a KKK shirt is “a light and humorous remark,” it represents insensitivity to divergent views and the nature of healthy civic discourse.  That is, name-calling and opposition to any belief that is contrary to one’s own is not how democracy thrives.  Even if Gaymon was not trying to “belittle Mrs. Pawlucy,” it has been reported that the incident has created tension throughout the school and made it uncomfortable for Pawlucy to travel the halls.

That being said, an apology by the teacher (which wasn’t really an apology to Pawlucy) is not enough.  A veterans’ organization declared Pawlucy deserves a medal is nice, but should be rhetorically unnecessary.

So while school and government officials would like to either sweep this issue under the rug and move on or gain political points, this moment should be a reminder that adults and students are struggling to understand the nature and outcomes of civic discourse.  But who can blame them. Both Pawlucy and Gaymon take part in an education system that has come to devalue civic education and student voice—essential features necessary for schools to mold active and responsible citizens.

Since the 1980s less time per week has been spent on social studies and more so on English and math.  There is a growing concern that this trend is continuing due to high-stakes assessments, which in practice, forces schools under pressure to perform.  As a result, struggling schools replace social studies instruction with tested subjects such as English and math.

Furthermore, when civic instruction does occur, it is mostly relegated in many schools to a semester-long senior year course and focuses more on dry, abstract lesson on institutional mechanisms and rote memorization rather than students wrestling with political and social issues. The goal: improve students’ civic knowledge, whereas a well-rounded civics class should address more than just civic knowledge, it should also foster civic skills and dispositions necessary to be engaged citizens.

And, public schools have become increasingly less democratic and more highly centralized. In fact, next to prisons, schools are some of the least democratic institutions in which students are not provided any space both physically or conceptually where they can discuss their schooling environment and the issues they face.

Therefore, it is not surprising that a student’s endorsement of a republican presidential/vice presidential ticket in a “democratic school” was meet with anger and jeer instead of ensuring that students have an opportunity to practice discussing pressing societal issues, learn the skills of deliberation, and come to understand that a healthy civic culture and disposition respects the pluralistic nature of our society.

The lessons we should then draw from the Pawlucy incident is that we as a society, need to reexamine school reform and ensure that schools have the capacity to build a healthy civic culture and can finally put in place an program of studies that fosters the next generation of citizens who will become guardians of democracy.

Marc Brasof is the education fellow at the National Constitution Center and serves on the Pennsylvania Council for Social Studies’ Board of Directors.

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