Voices in Education

Designing Educational Gateways to a New Democracy Through Speculative Civic Literacies
As the coronavirus pandemic has upended lives and societal structures around the world, the thoughts of many have begun turning toward what life could (and should) look like on the other side of this crisis. In a widely circulated article, “The Pandemic is a Portal,” author Arundhati Roy warned against the yearning for a return to a “normal” characterized by social inequity and environmental degradation. Instead, Roy suggests that the virus has opened a “gateway between one world and the next,” giving humanity the opportunity to imagine alternative forms of shared existence.

Roy’s words made us wonder: where and when do we humans find opportunities to practice the incredibly difficult task of dreaming a new world into existence? As educators, we know that societies (particularly the United States, the context in which we live) place a great deal of faith in schooling to accomplish this feat, trusting that in their classrooms young people will learn not only academic subject matter but also the dispositions toward democracy (often dubbed “civic education”) to build a society better than the one the previous generation leaves them.

Yet in our recent article in the Harvard Educational Review (written before the pandemic began), entitled, “I Hesitate But I Do Have Hope: Youth Speculative Civic Literacies for Troubled Times,” we argue that existing paradigms of civic education have long been insufficient for preparing young people to address the intractable social challenges of this moment (e.g., white supremacy, climate change, gun violence), largely because they are more focused on incorporating youth into existing civic structures than on supporting them to imagine new approaches. We suggest that such structures, which remain tethered to narratives of American exceptionalism and trust in incremental reforms to redress a foundation of inequity, are not able to foster the creativity and innovation needed to create a just future.

In response, we suggest the need for a new framework for democratic learning, which we call speculative civic literacies, that privileges the ways that young people experience public life, fosters connections across forms of cultural, social, and identity difference, and encourages radical dreaming about what a mutually humanizing society could be. In order to explore this framework in action, we analyze the learning that emerged from the Digital Democratic Dialogue (3D) Project, an online social network of teachers and students from six demographically distinct communities across the US who committed themselves to vulnerable sharing about the civic issues that mattered to them and the future they want to live in.

As we ford the murky uncertainty of the present moment, trudging toward Roy’s gateway of an awaiting, next world, the voices of the students and teachers in the 3D Project affirm that a better tomorrow is far from a given. As we write this, capitalist and oppressive structures are seeking to lock in place the bodies and imaginations of teachers and students throughout the US. The stranglehold of accountability and No Child Left Behind-era policies guide where, when, and how teachers and students are expected to engage in the labor of schooling, even as most are mandated to “shelter” in place today. In our alternative paradigm, speculative civic literacies are actualized through persistent work by communities of learners, as the participants in the 3D project demonstrate. It is only through the wary cautiousness and intentional resistance to the machinations of profit and evaluation that “the next” world is one that embraces and responds to the civic voices of all members of US society.

About the Author: Nicole Mirra is an assistant professor of urban teacher education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. Her most recent book is Educating for Empathy: Literacy Learning and Civic Engagement (Teachers College Press, 2018).

Antero Garcia is an assistant professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. He is the author of Good Reception: Teens, Teachers, and Mobile Media in a Los Angeles High School (MIT Press, 2017).

Nicole Mirra and Antero Garcia are the co-authors of the article “I Hesitate but I Do Have Hope” in the Summer 2020 issue of Harvard Educational Review.