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For the Students, By the Students: Redirecting Civic Education through the American Trustees Project
Unformatted Document Text:  before they’ve had an opportunity to admire them” (p. 16). Because youth are more “familiar with iconoclasm than they are with icons” (Schudson, 2000, p. 16), many scholars believe that traditional civics materials—which have been critiqued as “suffocatingly definitional and conceptual” (Hibbing & Theiss-Morse, 1995)—fail to connect with youth. To square with lived experience and political realities, civic curriculum needs to acknowledge that there are winners and losers in politics (and that “staying in the game” and “doing more than complain” is important) rather than limiting civics instruction to “avuncular descriptions of civic obligation” (Hibbing & Theiss-Morse, 1995). 3. Few young people can learn empowered citizenship in the “hidden curriculum” of the schools. High school and college classrooms are not democratic and many scholars question whether civic skills and values can truly be promoted in a hierarchical system in which faculty and administration hold more power than students (and in which student efforts at exercising voice, conflict, compromise and bargaining are, by design, rarely rewarded, see McMillan, 2004; McMillan & Harriger, 2002). This paper (1) reports on an entrepreneurial project that blends the benefits of information and motivation oriented approaches to make civic education more meaningful to today’s young people and (2) offers a preliminary assessment of this program. Naturally, one assessment of any program does not offer all that needs to be known. Nevertheless, the conceptual promise of this project offers important questions to guide and inform discussions on this topic at the APSA Teaching and Learning Conference. American Trustees ProjectAn Initiative of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation at the University of Texas at Austin, The American Trustees Project is a collection of short biographical films of everyday people engaging in extraordinary acts (http://www.americantrusteesproject.org/). The American Trustees mission is to motivate a new generation of youth to become actively involved in their communities and, at the same time, teach them important lessons about democracy and citizenship with real life examples of civic entrepreneurship. These films are created for classroom use to provide students with an experience that goes beyond traditional course activities and to help students understand the possibilities of citizenship and the reality that everyday individuals can make an important difference in their communities and their world. The AT program rests on a set of understandings regarding narrative, role models, media, technology and curriculum. Created by political communication scholar Roderick P. Hart, Director of the Strauss Institute, the program is guided by a set of assumptions. The first assumption is that narratives are instructive. As Hart (1996) has written, good stories teach, as they disarm listeners by enchanting them and they expose, subtly, propositional arguments. Hart contends that the native elements of narrative—featuring a natural time line (drawing an audience in through a beginning, middle and end), characterization (inspiring identification and a desire to learn more about the lives of the people described), detail (captivating an audience to another place or time through rich detail), primitive aspects (appealing to young and old audience members, alike, through a complete story with certain consequences) and hidden arguments (offering the illusion that audience members help to determine the meaning of a story)—charm audiences without their realizing that they have been charmed. Hart’s assumptions are not unique to the AT program. Indeed, several recent projects have employed www.annettestrauss.org | 4

Authors: Jarvis, Sharon. and Han, Soo-Hye.
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before they’ve had an opportunity to admire them” (p. 16). Because youth are more “familiar
with iconoclasm than they are with icons” (Schudson, 2000, p. 16), many scholars believe that
traditional civics materials—which have been critiqued as “suffocatingly definitional and
conceptual” (Hibbing & Theiss-Morse, 1995)—fail to connect with youth. To square with lived
experience and political realities, civic curriculum needs to acknowledge that there are winners
and losers in politics (and that “staying in the game” and “doing more than complain” is
important) rather than limiting civics instruction to “avuncular descriptions of civic
obligation” (Hibbing & Theiss-Morse, 1995).
3. Few young people can learn empowered citizenship in the “hidden curriculum” of the schools.
High school and college classrooms are not democratic and many scholars question whether
civic skills and values can truly be promoted in a hierarchical system in which faculty and
administration hold more power than students (and in which student efforts at exercising voice,
conflict, compromise and bargaining are, by design, rarely rewarded, see McMillan, 2004;
McMillan & Harriger, 2002).
This paper (1) reports on an entrepreneurial project that blends the benefits of information and
motivation oriented approaches to make civic education more meaningful to today’s young people and
(2) offers a preliminary assessment of this program. Naturally, one assessment of any program does
not offer all that needs to be known. Nevertheless, the conceptual promise of this project offers
important questions to guide and inform discussions on this topic at the APSA Teaching and Learning
Conference.
American Trustees Project
An Initiative of the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Participation at the University of Texas at
Austin, The American Trustees Project is a collection of short biographical films of everyday people
engaging in extraordinary acts (http://www.americantrusteesproject.org/). The American Trustees
mission is to motivate a new generation of youth to become actively involved in their communities
and, at the same time, teach them important lessons about democracy and citizenship with real life
examples of civic entrepreneurship. These films are created for classroom use to provide students with
an experience that goes beyond traditional course activities and to help students understand the
possibilities of citizenship and the reality that everyday individuals can make an important difference
in their communities and their world.
The AT program rests on a set of understandings regarding narrative, role models, media, technology
and curriculum. Created by political communication scholar Roderick P. Hart, Director of the Strauss
Institute, the program is guided by a set of assumptions. The first assumption is that narratives are
instructive. As Hart (1996) has written, good stories teach, as they disarm listeners by enchanting them
and they expose, subtly, propositional arguments. Hart contends that the native elements of narrative—
featuring a natural time line (drawing an audience in through a beginning, middle and end),
characterization (inspiring identification and a desire to learn more about the lives of the people
described), detail (captivating an audience to another place or time through rich detail), primitive
aspects (appealing to young and old audience members, alike, through a complete story with certain
consequences) and hidden arguments (offering the illusion that audience members help to determine
the meaning of a story)—charm audiences without their realizing that they have been charmed. Hart’s
assumptions are not unique to the AT program. Indeed, several recent projects have employed
www.annettestrauss.org | 4


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