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Critical Thinkers Needed: At Convocation 2017, a Call for Civic Engagement

“The time has come to revive civic education for today’s multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic, digital society.”
—Susan Fuhrman

Declaring that “the time has come to revive civic education for today’s multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic, digital society,” President Susan Fuhrman set the stage for a week of Teachers College Convocation ceremonies in which speaker after speaker emphasized the need to revive public participation in American democracy. As civic education has been “squeezed out” in recent decades by “an ever narrower focus on testing math and reading skills,” Fuhrman said, the nation has seen a rise in political divisiveness, racial and cultural stereotyping, and violence against people of color, women, and LGBT individuals. But now, she said to cheers, TC – “the largest and best school of education in the world” – has launched a major new initiative to redesign, reinvigorate, and re-establish civic education for the 21st century.

 “And this time, the lessons of critical thinking, civil dialogue, and public engagement must go hand-in-hand with an unshakeable commitment to confront prejudice and discrimination, and to secure safety, opportunity, and equality for all.”

Addressing more than 2,000 graduates at three master’s degree ceremonies and one doctoral hooding, held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine during the week of May 15th, Fuhrman highlighted the contributions of several graduates who have exemplified civic engagement in their work and lives.

Among them were Cindy Wiltshire, a veteran New York City teacher who enrolled in TC’s Neuroscience & Education program and has been working with Professor Kimberly Noble on studies of how poverty affects brain development; 18 military officers (“citizen leaders,” Fuhrman called them) receiving their master’s degrees in Social-Organizational Psychology from the Eisenhower Leader Development Program jointly run by TC and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point; and Deidre Flowers, a History of Education doctoral student who wrote her dissertation on the importance of historically black colleges and universities, with a particular focus on the role of black women in civic activism and change.

(Click here to read about students and alumni who gave musical performances at Convocation. Click here to read about first-generation graduate students who received their degrees. Click here to read about TC’s third annual Golden Anniversary brunch, for alumni who graduated 50 years ago or more. Click here for photos from all of our ceremonies on Flickr.)

Fuhrman noted that Flowers would not be “taking any breaks” after the festivities: “Tomorrow, she begins teaching a summer course on the History of Education in the United States.”

Four guest speakers, each of whom received TC’s Medal for Distinguished Service, elaborated on the theme of civic participation.

At Monday’s master’s degree ceremony, Jacqueline Woodson, the National Book Award-winning author of the memoir Brown Girl Dreaming and titles for young adults and children, challenged graduates of the Departments of Arts & Humanities and Curriculum & Teaching to teach for a world in which “no perfectly-fitted glass slipper brings about a happily ever after, no straw spun to gold defeats Rumpelstiltskin, no pea beneath a mattress ends in some hetero-normative, very white world of marriage and Queendom.”

At Tuesday morning’s master’s ceremony, the speaker was Melissa Fleming, chief spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency and senior adviser to the UN Secretary General. Fleming told graduates of the departments of Biobehavioral Sciences, Counseling & Clinical Psychology, Education Policy & Social Analysis, and Health & Behavior Studies that while they might hear that their “future is now,” refugees forced to “send their child to work in a potato field instead of to school” reject that notion. Only half of elementary school-age refugees, and fewer than a quarter of middle school children, attend school, said Fleming, author of A Hope More Powerful than the Sea: The Journey of Doaa Al Zamel, calling the world’s continued failure to rectify that situation “short-sighted” and “dumb.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Madhav Chavan, head of Pratham, India’s largest non-government provider of basic literacy and numeracy for under-privileged children, urged graduates of the departments of Human Development, International & Transcultural Studies, Math, Science & Technology, and Organization & Leadership to help rethink the linear, assembly line-style education spawned by the Industrial Revolution. Such wholesale change is necessary in nations such as India, he said, where school attendance has risen to more than 90 percent but half of all students are still unable to read by fifth grade. But all nations need to eliminate “the contradictions between what young people want to do in life and what the system is offering.”

At Wednesday’s doctoral hooding ceremony, Harvard historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad argued that racism has created a “sick society” that can only be healed through an honest retelling of the past.

“Our historical illiteracy ends up being a more potent tool than anything an authoritarian leader can impose. In other words, we imprison ourselves.”
—Khalil Gibran Muhammad

“Slavery wasn’t a bump on the road, it was the road,” said Muhammad, author of The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America. “It degraded the humanity of whites. It made no one a better person. It sickened us to the point of a devastating war that is still playing out.”

Citing a national predisposition for “grand simplifications” (a term coined by the writer and editor Lewis Lapham) that includes a willful blindness toward ongoing inequality and injustice, Muhammad said that “our historical illiteracy ends up being a more potent tool than anything an authoritarian leader can impose. In other words, we imprison ourselves.”

Student speakers at each of the master’s degree ceremonies also described intense personal journeys toward their respective callings in which TC has played a key role.

Usama Javed Mirza, who was receiving his master’s degree from the Department of Curriculum & Teaching, began his speech with a simple declaration: “My name is Usama, and I am from Pakistan.”

Mirza, who was inspired to attend TC by his second grade teacher, alumna Hareem Atif Khan, who was herself a Convocation speaker in 2009 and is now an instructor at the College, said he initially feared ever uttering those words.  But he has felt welcome at TC, which he called “a fortress for social justice” where he has been “transformed by seeing the courage and love of educators fighting for their students to have a place in their schools where they feel loved.” Guided by several faculty members, he has created a nonprofit, which he will launch upon returning home, to teach villagers in remote regions of Pakistan how to deliver emergency medical care.

“I’ve learned the importance of flaunting the masterpiece that is you. Do not denounce your essence and label it as humility. Today I challenge you all to no longer silence your greatness.”
—Kenya Crawford

Kenya Crawford, receiving her master’s in Counseling Psychology, recalled struggling with “imposter syndrome” when she first arrived at TC.

“I worried that this first-generation Black, Queer, Woman from Philadelphia  somehow was in the wrong place,” said Crawford, who went on to serve variously as Co-Director of TC’s Sexuality, Women and Gender Project, research assistant in the Stigma, Identity and Intersectionality Lab, and Co-Coordinator for the College’s 37th annual Winter Roundtable. But aided by supportive friends and mentors, “I’ve learned the importance of flaunting the masterpiece that is you,” she said. “Do not denounce your essence and label it as humility. Today I challenge you all to no longer silence your greatness.”

Jamie Librot, receiving her master’s degree in Social-Organizational Psychology, urged her fellow graduates to think about “achievement” in the broadest possible terms. A self-defined “achiever,” Librot encountered personal tragedy soon after coming to TC, losing a pregnancy and her mother. Against her instincts, she yielded to family, friends and colleagues who urged her to take time off to recover and care for her then-two year-old daughter.

“What I have learned through my experience at TC is that success is not about acing tests and getting good grades,” said Librot, who has since had a second daughter. “Success is understanding what really matters to you and putting your time there.”

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Published Wednesday, May 24, 2017