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Case for Critical Thinking

Teachers put a human face on politics and get high school students fired up about world affairs

Case for Critical Thinking

Raise your hand if you studied the United States government in high school social studies.

OK. How about globalization? No show of hands?

Then it’s probably safe to say you learned nothing about Mama Doudou (pronounced dodo). She’s a businesswoman who supplies miners with “temporary wives” deep in the rain forest of Africa in exchange for a kilo of coltan, a mineral found in most electronic toys, cell phones and computers.

Professor Steve Lamy wants to change all that. In a new civic-engagement program, the director of the School of International Relations at USC College is helping to get high school students pumped up about current global issues.

Called Case Teaching Initiative in Civics Education, the program brings 25 teachers from the Los Angeles area to USC for monthly workshops. During the sessions, teachers learn how to use cases — or real historical events — when instructing students on complicated world affairs.

“You guys to me are the most powerful people in the world,” Lamy told a group of high school teachers during a Saturday workshop in late February. “Kids will be socialized about how the world actually works because of your teaching.”

Lamy emphasized the importance of getting students involved in international relations at a young age. Teachers can use case teaching to reach this goal, he said.

A method often used in law and medical schools, case teaching encourages students to use critical-thinking and analytical skills. Each case helps to illustrate wide-ranging topics, from foreign policy belief systems to globalization — a term referring to the hotly debated worldwide phenomenon of technological, economic, political and culture exchanges.

Take the case of entrepreneur Mama Doudou, which teaches students the devastating results when political, economic, social and cultural worlds collide.

The case describes the life of Doudou Wangonda, dubbed Mama as a title of respect. She arranged for prostitutes to live with hundreds of temporary miners working in illegal camps in eastern Congo.

The Congo forest preserve is home to endangered species of monkeys, gorillas and okapi. The miners paid Mama Doudou in coltan — a gritty, super-thick mud three times heavier than iron and slightly lighter than gold. Once refined in American and European factories, it becomes tantalum, found inside nearly every laptop, pager, personal digital assistant and cell phone.

The consumer demand for electronics in wealthy nations has fueled a mad rush for coltan across the globe. When the price of coltan peaked, Mama Doudou made a killing.

But the trade of minerals such as coltan has also sparked unprecedented violence in the region, as people fiercely compete for a share. The illegal mining and fighting has devastated the environment. Miners and soldiers routinely kill the endangered species for food.

Mama Doudou’s business venture represents a catastrophic encounter between the global high-tech economy and one of the world’s most devastated countries, Lamy told the teachers.

Ed LeVine, a U.S. government teacher at Chatsworth High School, was ahead of the class. Prior to that Saturday session, he had discussed the Mama Doudou case with his students.

“My students really responded to the Mama Doudou case because it was short and interesting,” LeVine said. “They were fascinated by it.”

The case, LeVine said, helped to put a human face on political terms such as embargo, as well as prompted his students to ponder more philosophical questions such as the role of the U.S. in the Congo.

His student Andrew Chung, for example, said a U.S.-led embargo against Africa wouldn’t help lessen the problems in the ravaged country.

“The people of the Congo are dirt poor,” Andrew explained. “They’ll turn to any means necessary to make enough money to get by. As long as the Congo remains an overwhelmingly Third World country, illegal activities such as coltan mining will continue.”

Andrew said that the U.S. should be part of the solution, but he expressed concerns.

“I highly doubt that other than a small segment of the population, anyone will give up cheap electronics for the sake of some far-off Third-World country,” he said.

This is exactly the kind of discussion LeVine had hoped the case would spark.

“For some of my students who aren’t going on to college, this is going to be it,” LeVine said. “This is all they’ll learn in school about international relations. For others, it might plant a seed to pursue a career in international relations.”

The Case program is sponsored by CALIS (Center for Active Learning in International Studies), operated under the auspices of the East Asian Studies Center and School of International Relations.

The center’s goal is to build strong civic engagement programs aimed at teaching youths about world issues.

Since the state cut its funding to CALIS in July 2005, the center began charging fees for some services. The Case program was possible because the Los Angeles Unified School District agreed to compensate its participating teachers. Of the 25 participants, 21 are from LAUSD.

“Since I met Steve Lamy in the early 1980s, teaching current global issues in high schools has always been the goal,” CALIS director Teresa Hudock said.

Hudock was a high school social studies teacher working in Studio City when she attended one of Lamy’s outreach programs. Since Lamy recruited her in 1984, the pair has worked to get international relations taught in high schools. It’s a challenge because the state does not require such lessons.

“This is a major coup for CALIS,” Hudock said of the Case program.

Teachers such as LeVine hope the case lessons are just the beginning. He wants to work with Lamy to develop a new international relations course at his school.

“I just want my students to be able to pick up a newspaper and understand the issues,” LeVine said. “I want them to be able to analyze what’s going on in the world and have their own opinions. I want them to develop an interest, a passion.”