Who will educate the presidential candidates, incendiary filmmakers, "527"-group founders and FactCheck.org directors of tomorrow?
It might be Kentucky Avenue School in Shadyside, a 72-student private school whose head, Brian Horvath, instituted a course called "Social Activism" this fall for its 17 seventh- and eighth-graders.
"We can teach them as much as we want, but they aren't getting out there and doing anything with the information," Horvath says. The class, he felt, would let students discover "how they can take charge of their lives a little more."
While the presidential election was not the impetus for the course, it's certainly the first thing his classes discussed. Topic one: propaganda.
"Most of the kids seem to think if it's coming off of some media, some credibility is automatically attached to it," says Horvath. The educator is perhaps best known for his role in the 1982 Steven Spielberg film E.T. as one of the bicycle-riding friends of film star Henry Thomas. (Well, not really. But didn't that sound true, just for a second?) "In their opinion television was the least reliable," he reports. "You can't skim through it like you can a newspaper and there's the whole visual sensationalism that goes with it."
The students are now preparing bios of influential figures, both good and bad (Albert Einstein, Adolf Hitler, Ho Chi Minh and Oprah Winfrey, for instance) and are set to meet with more Pittsburgh-scale personnel, such as Grant Street-bestriding colossi City Councilor Bill Peduto and Deputy Mayor Tom Cox, next month.
They are also choosing traditional activist topics -- pollution in the Allegheny River, for instance -- and approaching authority figures via letter and phone to gather information and rate it for information versus propaganda.
The three-year-old school, a reinvention of the former McEwan School, which occupied the same space until the summer of 2001, recently revised its curriculum to be more community-focused, taking math classes out to the businesses on nearby Walnut Street, for instance. "Social activism" is a phrase often associated with progressive causes, but Horvath says his class is even-handed: "Maybe social responsibility would be a better word. We're just trying to get kids to go out in the world. We're just trying to fight apathy. I just want the conversation to be about change -- whatever they want."