Conformity, Commerce, or Meaningfulness

Any situation in which some individuals prevent others from engaging in the process of inquiry is one of violence. The means used are not important; to alienate human beings from their own decision-making is to change them into objects. – Paulo Freire

In light of the above words of the renowned Brazilian literacy teacher Paulo Freire, violence permeates schools today. This violence becomes apparent in the reports of growing percentages of students who have expressed feeling alienated from their teachers and peers, as well as from their families and communities at large. Many students report feeling mistreated by teachers because of their racial or ethnic heritage, language barriers, gender, as well as other prejudice. The school violence and the resultant crackdown on students’ civil liberties in the last decade stand as the sad manifestation of this violence. 

Ironically, students in all grade levels are increasingly being embraced as powerful market segments by companies vying for their consumer spending power. Young people of all ages are targeted in their homes, on the playground, in their classrooms, and throughout schools. While budget constraints and education reform are limiting the real choices students can make in their schools, vis-‡-vis classes and after-school programs, corporate America directly appeals to students by giving them one of the few actual choices they can make in school: how to spend their money. As critical theorist Henry Giroux has noted, the commercial hijacking of schools glorifies the role of young people as customers in the marketplace while simultaneously undermining their ability to be engaged, critical learners. 

There is hope for schools, embodied in the growing buzz of classrooms and boardrooms, brought to life by the assertion of studentís ideas, opinions and knowledge. There is hope for students, made real when students are engaged as education planners, researchers, teachers, evaluators, decision-makers, and advocates. This is the hope represented by Meaningful Student Involvement, brought to life by students and educators who are building a truly progressive pedagogy with democracy and social justice at its core.

Today, more than ever before, educators are empowering students with the critical skills of reading, writing, language, and technological literacy, along with knowledge, social experiences, and resources they need to build democracy. Today, more than ever before, students seek to enhance their own abilities as well as future generations’ capacities to understand, comprehend, engage, and, when necessary, transform the world they live in. This teaching and learning is happening through Meaningful Student Involvement by engaging students in every facet of schooling for the purpose of strengthening their learning, their communities, and democracy.

Meaningful Student Involvement does not have a guidebook or a toolkit. It is not meant to gloss over the real problems schools face. Instead, it provides a glimpse into a diverse set of practices that offer hope for the future of schools. It provides a glimpse at meaningfulness for students and educators alike. The broad range of experiences represented in Meaningful Student Involvement are intended to serve as a testament to the purpose and effectiveness of engaging students as partners throughout the education system. 

 However, application is the best test. Individually, stories of Meaningful Student Involvement illustrate the degrees of possibility for broadening the roles of students in schools. Collectively, they entrust educators today with a grand conspiracy of hope. This hope, when activated, incorporated and infused into teaching and learning, is one that will change the very nature of schools, and society, for a long time to come.

Excerpted from Stories of Meaningful Student Involvement, © 2003, 2005, 2012, Adam Fletcher for CommonAction. All rights reserved. For more information, including professional development for educators and students, contact our office today by emailing

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