Merritt speaker Lynda Stone to explore motivating youth past politics to action

Lynda Stone
Lynda Stone

It happened in a heavily traveled minority neighborhood south of the center of San Francisco.

Mary Lou Vanilla, a beloved art teacher at a nearby school, lived at a dangerous and unguarded intersection along Army Street. The number of deaths there deeply concerned her, as did the city’s inaction on erecting a stop sign.

Colleague Lynda Stone had an idea.

“My students and I took on this project,” says Stone, who taught social studies, “and we got what we have called in story-telling the Mary Lou Vanilla Memorial Stop Sign.”

Stone had involved students in civic engagement before, assigning them to “practice democracy” by creating and distributing pamphlets about local elections, simply because she knew that talking about it in the classroom was not enough.

Her 12 years of living and teaching in a poor community, one where she witnessed the ethnicity shift over time to a mostly Chicano population, pointed her into a new direction.

Perhaps the seed already had been planted during her undergraduate years studying political science in the early 1960s at the University of California at Berkeley. She then taught for 15 years.

In 1980, Stone began her pursuit of two master’s degrees and a Ph.D. at Stanford University, where she studied with philosophers of education and democratic curriculum theorists engrossed in school reform.

Now in her mid-70s, she is the Samuel M. Holton Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, where she arrived more than a quarter-century ago.

“When I moved from being a teacher to a scholar, I spent a number of years interested in reading and thinking about the world in which we live, and trying to make sense of this world, in the U.S. context that I know the most,” Stone says.

“I think we’re in a very interesting time in which I’m not so sure that we’re perpetuating American democracy,” she adds. “Part of the problem, I think, is that kids in schools are caught up in taking tests. Everyone’s preparing for college. There’s no sense of understanding about what it means to live in a democracy, or what it means to live in a democracy in the diverse world in which we live now.”

Stone is the 2019 recipient of the James and Helen Merritt Distinguished Service Award for Contributions to Philosophy of Education, an award given by the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations.

She will deliver the annual Merritt Address, titled “What Youth Can Do: Philosophy and Political Action,” at 4 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17, in the Holmes Student Center Sky Room. A reception begins at 3:30 p.m.

Helen and James Merritt
Helen and James Merritt

Named for the late James Merritt, philosopher of education and professor in the College of Education, and the late Helen Merritt, artist and professor of art history in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, the series spotlights scholars who have deeply influenced educational thought and practice.

“Both of my parents were the first in their families to graduate from college. They felt passionately that education should provide opportunity and advance justice,” says Deborah Merritt Aldrich, daughter of the professors. “I know that they would be as excited as I am to hear Lynda Stone’s lecture on ‘What Youth Can Do: Philosophy and Political Action.’ ”

All are welcome to attend; email Professor Leslie A. Sassone at lsassone@niu.edu for more information.

Undergraduates in the Oct. 17 audience will hear a call to action.

“I hope they can see, in a sense, that there are things they can do to help perpetuate the society they would like to live in because we’re not getting there, I don’t think, very quickly,” Stone says. “Let’s talk about how kids connect. We are living in a moment in which there is youth enthusiasm, and I think we need to take account of it and do things outside of the classroom. We need to do something more because our times demand it, and I think our students demand it.”

Potential learning modules are shouting out from within the news every day, she says.

May 4, 2016: President Barack Obama sips filtered water from Flint following a roundtable on the Flint water crisis at Northwestern High School in Flint, Mich. (Official White House Photo)
May 4, 2016: President Barack Obama sips filtered water from Flint following a roundtable on the Flint water crisis at Northwestern High School in Flint, Mich. (Official White House Photo)

Consider the water problems in Flint, Mich., for example.

“What if there were two schools where people were really worried about the water there? A group of teachers – and not just social studies teachers – could reach out to teachers at another school, and they could determine, ‘OK, what do we do together?’ ” she says. “Adults and kids could work together on a project involving their communities, and not just an academic or instructional issue in their classrooms.”

Or, she says, Black Lives Matter. Or immigration, DACA and DREAMers. Or voter suppression.

“Kids could help people register to vote,” she says. “There are all kinds of things that can be done.”

Much of Stone’s work as a follower of John Dewey and his ideas on educational reform has explored concepts of overcoming the polarization of a diverse society.

She proposes ways to solve problems “as people in neighborhoods, as people who come together over specific issues, to get us somehow beneath and outside of all the politics. We need to learn to live in a society in which we all come together.”

Stone finds reason for optimism in local issues, such as the library board wrestling over the need to repair costly drainage problems while also maintaining its intended purpose and function. Commissioners and patrons typically are able to shed their labels – “We’re not the liberals, we’re not the conservatives, we’re not the Democrats, we’re not the Republicans,” she says – while building trust over years of cooperation and solving problems. She names these efforts as working in small democracies.

Her own story influences some of her work with undergraduates.

Movie poster for “Blackboard Jungle”Growing up on the move around California “as a middle-class white girl, coming from a conservative family, I had no idea that I’d be this person now,” she says. “My father was a Berkeley grad and a businessman, but he was very conservative.”

Living in the very poor neighborhood as a teacher, and studying under Nel Noddings and Elliot Eisner at Stanford University, “I began to see the world in different ways,” she says. “I went through a transformation to be fairly radical today.”

Now she watches arts and science majors in Chapel Hill reporting for their research classroom placements in a growing suburban area close to the North Carolina state capital, sometimes interacting with a large Burmese and Karen population.

They’ve already read books assigned by Stone about teenagers and watched school-based films, including “Blackboard Jungle,” as part of their minor in education at UNC.

“These students are fun! They’re well-prepared. They’re very serious. But they’re still young. They’re undergraduates who are still trying to figure out their place in the world,” Stone says.

“How do I meet them where they are? They’re 20, 21, 22. Can they possibly see themselves as grownups compared to the kids they’re working with in classrooms? If I can get them to do that, then maybe I can get them to do the other things,” she adds. “In the end, my present philosophy of education is that if we can keep our discussion beneath politics, then at least we can talk.”

Nicholas J. Shudak
Nicholas J. Shudak

Such thinking makes Stone a “treasure” of her discipline in the philosophy and foundations of education, says two-time NIU College of Education alum Nicholas J. Shudak, a Ph.D. dissertator of Stone at UNC and a 2003 recipient of the Merritt Scholar Award for Outstanding Contributions by a Student to Philosophy of Education.

“Our recent era is marred by the technocratic rationale that views educator preparation as economic and workforce development at its best and mirrored job preparation at its worst,” says Shudak, dean of the School of Education and Counseling at Wayne State College in Nebraska.

“Dr. Lynda Stone has an inimitable record of keeping the field rooted in historical conversations to help broaden the future horizons for what the roles and responsibilities of educators could and should be within our democratic context,” Shudak adds. “This work is essential, though it is getting pushed out of educator preparation.”

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