It’s safe to say that optimism is not the prevailing sentiment these days when it comes to American politics.
Eric Liu knows this. But in delivering the annual Phyllis L. Kossoff Lecture on Education and Policy at TC’s tenth annual Academic Festival on April 7th, Liu – bestselling author of You're More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen's Guide to Making Change and founder of Citizen University, a national non-profit dedicated to civic engagement – energized his Cowin Center audience by powerfully arguing the opposite case: That this is a time of great promise for American democratic renewal, and that all of us – particularly in the education community – have power to enact change.
Teachers College itself, Liu pointed out, was established at the height of the Gilded Age, a period similarly characterized by economic disparities and massive dislocation. Yet TC’s founders had “the audacity to imagine that a teachers’ college, steeped in practical methods and rooted in the life of the city could help educate the poor and thus redeem the American promise.” Time and again since then, Liu pointed out, difficult periods have produced civic progress.
“Mastery of power without character makes you a highly skilled sociopath...Power does not corrupt so much as it reveals character.”
Now, with American democracy undergoing “self-inflicted fragility” – which, Liu was careful to note, has roots far deeper than just the 2016 election – we may, in fact, have embarked on a “great civic awakening: a revival of democratic practice and values.”
Liu, who also directs the Aspen Institute Citizenship and American Identity Program, was awarded TC’s Presidential Medal of Excellence by President Susan Fuhrman.
“Mr. Liu has taken on one of today’s most urgent causes: the development of a stronger culture of citizenship through education,” Fuhrman said. Bill Gaudelli, Professor of Social Studies and Education, presented Liu with a citation, telling him that “your call for civic participation is clearly the message for this politically charged moment in our nation’s history.”
At the core of Liu’s message was a rejection of a zero-sum vision of public life. “Big Citizenship,” meaning a belief in and engagement with democracy, as opposed to merely owning nationality papers, stems from power and character. Power is “argued,” he said; it should be sought without euphemism or apology. But its exercise requires consideration of others, ethics, responsibility. “Mastery of power without character makes you a highly skilled sociopath,” he said, adding that “power does not corrupt so much as it reveals character.”
“The immune system of the body politic is kicking in. But going from acute illness to chronic illness isn’t going to cut it. We need a renewal.”
The good news, Liu said, is that power is not a finite commodity. “It is possible to generate it out of thin air, through the magic act of organizing.” He pointed to the young students in Parkland, Florida, who responded to the horrific shooting at their high school by sparking a national mobilization. He praised teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma campaigning for better pay and investment in schools. “They have rediscovered power that they did not think they had.
As for character, Liu said, it is true that many of the voices who harp on the theme are in fact “loud-mouthed hypocrites.” But their hypocrisy only compounds the responsibility of those in a position to foster the development of ethical traits.
The Seattle-based Citizen University, which Liu founded, champions “powerful citizenship.” It runs programs with an unabashed ritual aspect, such as Civic Saturdays – church-like gatherings where people hear “civic sermons,” share readings, and exchange ideas on democratic values – and Joy of Voting, a mini-festival that elevates that fundamental participatory act. And it partners with other organizations to help activate their audiences and turn ideas into deeds that strengthen community.
“Every teacher is a civics teacher. If you are not teaching power as an educator, you are committing professional malpractice.”
Ultimately, Liu argued, promoting powerful citizenship can and should be everyone’s mission – but particularly that of educators. He commended the rise of “action civics” in schools and said that everyone should become involved, irrespective of subject or grade. “Every teacher is a civics teacher,” he said. “If you are not teaching power as an educator, you are committing professional malpractice.”
Today, Liu said, the state of national politics is sparking a major surge of grassroots civic engagement. The challenge now is to build on that important start. “The immune system of the body politic is kicking in,” he said. “But going from acute illness to chronic illness isn’t going to cut it. We need a renewal.” He pointed out that each day offers fresh material: the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, the growing debate over Facebook and how technology platforms manipulate our trust.
Educators are essential to our civic revival, in Liu’s view. And from John Dewey to Shirley Chisholm, Teachers College has historically offered some of the best role models. “Democracy, like teaching, is an act of faith,” Liu said in closing. “You are the product of this great lineage. Now go and pass it on.”