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The March Is Not Over Yet: A Different Education for the 21st Century

03/10/2015 05:13 pm ET | Updated May 10, 2015

Saturday, March 8, was the 50th anniversary of the "Bloody Sunday" march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Television scenes of nonviolent demonstrators beaten by police shocked the nation. As the movie Selma details, the March played a critical role in the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

My father, Harry George Boyte, on the executive committee of Martin Luther King's organization the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, was taking pictures at the end of the bridge. He was beaten and his camera destroyed by the police, as we learned when he called home to Atlanta that night.

At the commemoration of Bloody Sunday in Selma this weekend, President Obama described the reality that while America has made racial progress, "this nation's racial history still casts its long shadow over us. We know that the march is not over yet."

Thinking about this weekend brings home a less well-known but vital legacy of the movement. The approach of the movement's citizenship schools across the south has enormous relevance for education and higher education in the 21st century.

The citizenship schools embodied the vision of Jane Addams, visionary leader of the settlement house for new immigrants. In Democracy and Social Ethics, her 1902 book about Hull House, the settlement which she co-founded in Chicago, Addams said that "We are gradually requiring of the educator that he [sic] shall free the powers of each man [sic] and connect him with the rest of life."

This tradition can be called student-ready education. Such education begins with the unique talents, interests, and cultural backgrounds of each participant.

In 1961 Martin Luther King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, took over what was called the Citizenship Education Program (CEP) from Highlander Folk School, co-founded by Myles Horton. Horton had been mentored by Addams and inspired by the Danish folk schools which had a similar philosophy. From 1961 to 1968, CEP trained more than 8000 people at the Dorchester Center in McIntosh, Georgia, who returned to their communities and created citizenship schools, teaching literacy to thousands of people to pass the literacy tests used to keep blacks from voting and also training people in nonviolence and basic community organizing skills.

The vision of CEP, drafted by Septima Clark, was to "broaden the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepen the concept to include every relationship." This involved a transformation of identity from victim to change agent. Dorothy Cotton, CEP's director, describes in If Your Back's Not Bent: The Role of the Citizenship Education Program in the Civil Rights Movement.

"People who had lived for generations with a sense of impotence, with a consciousness of anger and victimization, now knew in no uncertain terms that if things were going to change, they themselves had to change them." Cotton calls citizenship education "people empowering."

As Charles Payne describes in I've Got the Light of Freedom, citizenship education also had a practical, everyday political quality which taught skills of effective action, much more than protest. Martin Luther King, often at Dorchester, voiced CEP's understanding of democracy in his famous "Letter from a Birmingham Jail."

The most innovative colleges and universities in the country today are in this tradition of student-ready education which "frees the powers" of students for contributions to a democratic society. At the recent launch of the national conversation, "The Changing World of Work - What Should We Ask of Higher Education?" at the National Press Club in Washington on January 21, Byron White, Vice President at Cleveland State University, argued that we need a paradigm shift from asking how students can be college-ready to asking, "How can colleges become student-ready?"

Similarly, in an interview for the Civic Caucus, a Minnesota policy group, Paul Pribbenow, president of Augsburg College, described the ways in which Augsburg is seeking to meet students where they are at. Forty percent of the school's incoming students each fall now are students of color. "We've become the place that is responding to demographic shifts," Pribbenow said. "It's actually changed the nature of our day-to-day life on campus. This is a deep commitment."

Augsburg has 50 full-time-equivalent staff members working in areas related to student success: remedial needs, emotional challenges, learning disabilities, and recovery from addiction. "If we admit them, we have to believe we can help them be successful," he said. "That means making the investment to provide that help." Augsburg is also pioneering in the idea that students need to be prepared to be change agents for work roles, not simply have students fit into today's existing jobs.

The Augsburg special education program, dedicated to changing the entire special education profession from an approach which seeks to fix "problem kids" to an empowering pedagogy called Public Achievement which develops their public skills, is an outstanding example.

As Cheryl McClelland, an African-American graduate of the program puts it, "Students labeled Emotional Behavioral Disability {EBD in special education] are the students that are tucked out of sight in basement classrooms or in the furthest corners of schools. They may go to school, but they are not part of the school culture. Public Achievement offered a way to change this, and it did. Leaders and visionaries have emerged from this group of students labeled as 'behavior problems.' The students have announced their presence to the school community and redefined what it means to be in an EBD special education program. The school culture is shifting."

McClelland is describing a freedom movement for the 21st century.

It is a direct descendant of the Selma March 50 years ago.

Harry C. Boyte is editor of Democracy's Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities, just out from Vanderbilt University Press.