by Jim Lang
“Young people want to make things better.”
This was the reminder delivered by Mary Beth Tinker last night at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany as she spoke about the power of the First Amendment.
Tinker experienced this desire to initiate positive change herself growing up in Iowa in a family that believed their religious beliefs should be put into action. This prompted her family to become involved in the 1960s civil rights movement.
And while she repeatedly described herself last night as “shy,” it was a 13-year-old Mary Beth Tinker who joined her brothers, sisters, and a few friends in peacefully defying school policy and wearing black armbands to school to mourn the dead of the Vietnam War. And when the school corporation suspended several of the students, they and their families sued the school.
The end result, of course, was the landmark 1969 Supreme Court decision in Tinker v. Des Moines that established that students do not shed their constitutionally-protected rights of free speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.
Last night’s speech by Tinker, part of the Tinker Tour sponsored by the Student Press Law Center in Washington, D.C., was a powerful reminder that young people can – and should – initiate positive change.
As Tinker spoke about her own experiences, I found myself wishing that most adults respected teenagers and believed in their capacity for change as much as she does.
As a journalism teachers and newspaper adviser, I see the educational value of empowering young people to ask questions, examine school and governmental policies, and use their writing and communication skills to report, analyze, and, yes, sometimes challenge the system to initiate change.
Far too much of our modern education system is designed for today’s students to obediently jump through hoops and pass a test rather than truly critique and examine why they believe what they believe. Today’s students often seem more concerned with scooping up AP credits, maintaining their class rank or grade-point average, or selecting which classes to take based on their “weight.” Challenging the status quo to change the system has its risks.
That was the value of Mary Beth Tinker’s speech last night. She reminded us that the risks are worth it. And in a time when, as she put it, “Young people are not getting a fair deal in our society,” she reminded us of the moral imperative for teenagers to embrace that desire to make things better.
As Tinker stated, “Rights are like your muscles. You can lose them if you don’t use them.” As educators, we must ensure that our schools provide the opportunities for students to know and practice their First Amendment rights, even when it is uncomfortable for us.
Supporting student media free from administrative prior review and censorship, encouraging the arts, emphasizing literacy and civic education, embracing and educating students about social media, and promoting strong student government and community service programs are just a few ways to ensure that our children understand and practice their guaranteed rights of free speech and expression.
As educators, we must do more than simply prepare teenagers for their careers.
We must ensure that our students exercise their rights, embrace their responsibilities, and use their voices as well as Mary Beth Tinker.