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Book Review of "You’re More Powerful Than You Think" by Eric Liu

Wednesday, March 21, 2018  
Posted by: Christina Mimms
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Book Review of You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen by Eric Liu

Reviewed by Diego Duran-Medina, Director of Service Learning and Co-Director of the Center for Service Learning Leadership, Shorecrest Preparatory School, St. Petersburg, FL

There is a force that permeates every institution and dynamic in our society, and yet, it remains strangely absent from our classrooms and curricula. We rarely name it and yet it shapes almost every decision we make; however, it is a skill we rarely teach to students. That force is power – understanding its intricacies, the challenges to wielding power and what it means for students as citizens, while they are in our schools and when they join the world beyond our institutions.

In Eric Liu’s You’re More Powerful Than You Think: A Citizen’s Guide to Making Change Happen, the author takes us through three fundamental concepts to understanding power. These three concepts help shape political movements, discussions and asking questions about power with students. Power: Who has it? Who needs it? How do I get it?

Why would it be important to teach about power? Today’s world demands a new framework for understanding power, and in doing so, we need to help our students become political beings in the best sense of the word – no matter their political leanings, they become citizens who know what they believe and can act on those beliefs. The concept linking these two states of being – thought and action – could be understanding power, and Liu lays a blueprint for teaching these concepts to students.

I use this book in my own class called LeadServe, a class I’ve retooled in various ways over the last decade. In its current format, it is a class for upperclassmen, mostly sophomores, juniors, and seniors. It is a class meant to go beyond history, social studies, and traditional civics to create an intellectual space where students can begin to ask fundamental questions about their own beliefs while critically analyzing and redefining terms like activism, service learning, democracy, and citizenship.

One of the first things Liu does is help us think about redefining power from a word that is often whispered but never said, to a concept that must first be named in order to understand its intricacies. The book is replete with examples of citizens (as he mentions, not just defined by a paper but by members of a body politic) working to change the dynamics of power to advance a certain cause or opinion.

I believe the power of the book lies in that our students very much have politics have on their minds, but even more importantly, we need to do a better job as educators in creating both the spaces and the mental habits where students can express themselves in a way that is civil, informed, and does not diminish the power of voice for others. This, I believe, is our responsibility as educators for all young people and it is vital for our democracy.

Many of our schools have missions that talk specifically about citizenship, service, and ethics, but how many specifically mention power? It’s there, between the lines, but we must name it, and then we must teach it. We must allow students to taste it, work with it, to wield it, especially in a world that often tells young people that they must wait until 18 or 21 to wield certain powers.

This book is a powerful primer for having our students think about the kind of world they want, and Liu’s words help us craft a roadmap on how we may help our students arrive at political consciousness. In a world where students are constantly bombarded with opinions from pundits, their devices, and the endless news cycle, I think there is real value to creating a community within the classroom where students can figure out what they themselves think before the world tells them what they should think.

The feedback I’ve received from my students is that the LeadServe class is often the first time during their schooling that they have been asked to think deeply about what they believe and to justify those beliefs as grounded in values that they themselves value. I’ve had students use the class as an incubator for a service project or for discovering new service related career paths.

This book would be a great text for upper school students and as a great addition to a civics, history, social studies, or philosophy course, and even better as a text in a stand-alone class on citizenship, social change, activism, or global studies.

I think beyond the classroom and our students, the book also lends itself to critical reading by adults who might be thinking about how to make sense of a world where we seem to be “beyond” truth – facts matter less than emotion, rhetoric, or the messenger. This book asks us to think about how power shapes our lives, our responses, and how we might imagine a world in which power is defined, dissected, and discussed, it becomes easier to learn it, wield it, and shape the society we think we deserve.

As Liu writes on page 7: “But power is no more inherently good or evil than fire or physics. It just is. The only question is whether we will try to understand and harness it.” The question for us as educators is whether we are willing to have our students understand and harness their power as citizens, as intellectual beings, as agents of change, and as the future leaders of our country and the world. I cannot think of a more important or pressing charge for our schools as building competent and ethical global citizens who understand the power of knowing power.

 

 

 

 

Diego Duran-Medina is director of service learning and co-director of the Center for Service Learning Leadership at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg, FL. Follow him on Twitter @leadservelearn.

 


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