What Educators Can Learn From Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger had a public life. He was a critical pedagogist who questioned the status quo, and through his music, attempted to make sense of cultural situations and circumstances. He was active politically and socially, and once said, “The world will be saved when people realize we all have to pitch in. You can’t just pay your money and hope that someone else will do the job right.” With all the current talk about Common Core Standards, I can’t help but wonder why there is not a larger focus on civics education, on creating thoughtful and informed citizens who care enough to get involved, and are liberated to make a difference. This is what educators can learn from Pete Seeger.

Pete Seeger came from a family of educators, and he sang in schools for more than 70 years. He said it was one of the most rewarding experiences of his life. I would call him a critical educator, which, according to Peter McLaren in his book Life in Schools, is an educator who “Endorses theories that are, first and foremost, dialectical — they recognize the problems of society as more than simply isolated events of individuals of deficiencies in the social structure. Rather, these problems are part of the interactive context between individual and society (171). In my first semester course, students examine the question, What is the role of a citizen in a democracy? In second semester, we look at poetry, lyrics, words, songs, and the power of music. A question students explore is, Which song has shaped your political and social view of the world? Pete Seeger’s songs not only shaped political and social views of the world, but changed them. He saw the good connected to the bad, and through his music, encouraged young people to participate in spite of domination, and encouraged activism instead of passivism. So what can we learn from Pete Seeger?

First, we need to go back to the basics, to a world where participation, contribution, and generosity are honored, to a community where people take care of each other, are given an education that embraces our individual strengths, weaknesses, styles, and quirks, and celebrates them, rather than tests the passion and life out of them. We must return to what it means to be educated, not by a textbook alone, but through life experiences, challenges, accomplishments, and mistakes. We must care again. Do the Common Core standards ask that our young people care? Become active? Get angry, outraged, and inspired enough to do something about it? Or do they ask that students sit by and let life and learning happen to them?

I support the Common Core Standards. I believe in rigorous, scholarly work. I am a Common Core Ambassador at my school site, I have presented at numerous conferences in favor of Common Core, have written about it here for Getting Smart, and I although I firmly believe in the standards overall, I think we are missing some major pieces, and are doing our students a disservice if we continue to focus on literacy alone, without emphasizing compassion and community. The Common Core standards do not use the word civics anywhere in the document. How can we educate students without addressing civic education?


Pete Seeger lived a life of contribution.

(Photo credit pinwords)

In the Introduction of California ELA CCSS, it is stated that students who are college and career ready in reading, writing, speaking, and listening, and language, demonstrate independence, build strong content knowledge, respond to varying demands of audience, task, purpose, and discipline, comprehend as well as critique, value evidence, use technology and digital media, and come to understand other perspectives and cultures. The entire focus here is on obtaining skills, to prepare for the next thing, and to be successful on assessments.

We must have a bigger picture plan. The transition to CCSS has been focused on assessments, curriculum, and materials. The focus should be on creating citizens, and in doing so, implementing the Common Core standards to achieve the bigger goal. I aim to use English Language Arts to teach students. We should aim to use Common Core Standards to develop citizens. I’ve asked this before, and ask my students in my courses — “What is the purpose of school?” If it is to prepare students for the next thing, whether that is college, or career, then we will continue to have “educated” students who know nothing about democracy, who do not have a deep-rooted appreciation for understanding and engaging actively in a civic and political life, rather than people who possess skills, knowledge, and attitudes that allow them to be competent and responsible citizens throughout their lives

I highly recommend you read The Civic Mission of Schools, created by CIRCLE (The Center for Information & Research on Civic learning & Engagement) in 2003. The goals of civic education are listed below:

Competent and responsible citizens:

1. are informed and thoughtful; have a grasp and an appreciation of history and the fundamental process of American democracy; have an understanding and awareness of public and community issues; and have the ability to obtain information, think critically, and enter into dialogue among others with different perspectives.

2. participate in their communities through membership in or contributions to organizations working to address an array of cultural, social, political, and religious interests and beliefs.

3. act politically by having skills, knowledge, and commitment needed to accomplish public purposes, such as group problem solving, public speaking, petitioning and protesting, and voting.

4. have moral and civic virtues such as concern for the rights and welfare of others, social responsibility, tolerance and respect, and belief in the capacity to make a difference.

Does all of this sound familiar? It should. Pete Seeger was all of these things, and essentially, the CCSS are asking teachers to create competent and responsible citizens, but we focus on Smarter Balance, resources, and loads of money to spend in order to implement them rather than address WHY it is important to have them. If the focus became citizenship rather than standards, students would become more motivated. Plus, this is easy to do.

Are there barriers and factors working against educators with the even the best intentions? Of course. Some include teachers fearing criticism for addressing topics that be be considered controversial or political in nature, the movement for high-stakes testing, and school-based extracurricular, and schools wanting to experiment with different approaches, and are prevented from doing so (The Civic Mission of Schools pages 15-16). Are there others since 2003 that come to mind?

Below is a graph that outlines the changing priorities when it comes to seeking an education. According to CIRCLE, “In 1968, for example, 86 percent of incoming college freshmen claimed that “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” was a high personal priority. By 2000, this proportion had been cut in half. In 1968, 42 percent of incoming freshmen said that becoming “well-off financially” was a high priority. By 2000, this proportion had risen to 73 percent.”

Are students today interested in political discussions and public issues? Should they be? Should the Common Core support that?

Civics benefit teachers and administrators, as well as students. Not convinced? Read “Civics in the Common Core” by Web Hutchins, where it is stated,

“Through promotion of the Common Core State Standards, the Obama administration and its allies orchestrated one of the most dramatic assertions of federal power into K-12 education since Brown v.Board of Education in 1954, but failed to promote civics where it counts—in the common core’s package of standards and assessments. These documents determine what will be taught, and what will not be taught, to more than 40 million children across the United States. Because the core is barren of civics—the word does not appear in the 66-page standards document for English/language arts—the imperatives of the “not tested, not taught” mindset will diminish time for citizenship education, as it did under the No Child Left Behind Act.”

How can we determine what students should be taught without including civics education? What are your thoughts on the subject?

Rest in Peace Pete Seeger May 3, 1919 – January 27, 2014

(Photo credit rivertownkids.org)

Courtney Hanes

Mrs. Courtney Hanes is a Staff Development Specialist for grades 7 - 12 at the Riverside Virtual School in Riverside, Ca

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