Education Opinion

Educating for Citizenship

By Barbara Landau — March 06, 2002 7 min read
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Who will miss our freedoms if we don't know what they are?

About 15 years ago, I began presenting professional-development workshops on student rights, social responsibilities, and how teaching the two can be used as a framework for classroom management. Basically, the presentations focused on managing classrooms by teaching students about rights and responsibilities and how to make appropriate decisions that balanced the two. The workshops included some practical strategies for using this approach to management on a daily basis.

Because the workshops had a credit option available to participants, I used a couple of assessment tools to determine their grades. Along with some other activities, I used pre- and post-tests administered at the opening and completion of the workshops to assess the learning gains of the teachers, school counselors, and administrators in attendance. The pre- and post-tests were pretty basic, asking things like “What is the Fourth Amendment? What rights are guaranteed by the First Amendment? What is due process?” There were about six questions altogether.

I found that the participants usually knew the First Amendment had something to do with freedom of speech. Beyond that, their answers were thin, or they made no attempt to answer the questions at all. Some of the respondents thought the Fourth Amendment had something to do with the right to carry guns (actually, that’s the Second Amendment) and, typically, they left blank the questions that asked what they knew about the 14th Amendment and due process.

Over a two-year period, I administered this small quiz to well over 400 educators in three different states and in many different educational settings. The teachers in attendance represented every grade from kindergarten through high school, including some social studies teachers. The responses to the questions on the pretest from teachers and administrators alike were consistently dismal. Teachers would joke with each other while doing the quiz about how little they knew. They never seemed to be troubled by the fact that they were so ill-informed about what our Constitution guarantees or the rights guaranteed to their students.

One teacher asked, with great anxiety in her voice, ‘Do I have to teach students their rights? Can't I just teach them their responsibilities?’

All of this, frankly, was very puzzling to me. I began asking the workshop participants about their own education on the subject of the U.S. Constitution and the rights belonging to citizens. What I heard back from them was that they had all taken a course covering the Constitution somewhere in their schooling, but they remembered the courses being based on rote memorization and tests that were primarily made up of fill-in-the-blank and true/false questions. The educators told me their courses lacked any substantive discussion of how the material was relevant to their lives. Rather, their citizenship rights were learned as odd bits of information having no cohesive theme, no tangible value, and little impact on everyday decisionmaking. I further learned that the elementary teachers and social studies teachers in the audience used most of the same practices for teaching the Constitution to their students.

When we got into the content of the workshops, an even more interesting trend began to emerge. Not only did the educators and counselors in the audience lack information about their constitutional rights, but a sense of nervousness began to emerge that was related to actually teaching students about exercising citizenship rights in school as well as in society. One teacher came up to me after a daylong workshop and, with great anxiety in her voice, asked, “Do I have to teach students their rights? Can’t I just teach them their responsibilities?” While the question surprised me the first time I heard it, I have since been asked that same question many times, in many different places, by educators at every level.

In the years that I have been teaching education law and presenting workshops on citizenship education, I have found that many teachers and administrators equate students’ knowing about their rights with the threat of imminent chaos. The thinking goes that if students know their rights, they will want to exercise their rights, so we are better off not teaching them that information in the first place. Rather than valuing the educational experience that would present itself in teaching students about their rights and then helping them to understand that every right carries with it an equally important responsibility, most educators simply want to teach students that they have to be responsible.

As one reads the literature on some of the models for teaching citizenship that are now commercially available to teachers, the primary approach being advocated is that students can only demonstrate responsibility and good citizenship by following directions without any question or hesitation. Expecting blind obedience from students may make the running of schools and classrooms easier, but training students to obey rather than to make appropriate decisions has little to do with democratic thinking. In fact, obeying without question is the diametric opposite of democratic practices.

I have seen all too clearly that ignorance of constitutional rights allows schools to function in ways that ease the work of administrators and teachers while continuing to foster misinformation about our laws, about the meaning of democracy, and about citizen participation.

If we believe that democracy is preserved through an educated citizenry, then it makes no sense to misinform our students about what it means to be a fully functional citizen in a free democracy.

One school administrator I encountered had told her faculty that students could not wear hats because the Supreme Court of the United States had ruled that hats must be banned in schools. The teachers had bought the argument simply because they did not know any better. One principal, in an effort to head off a write-in campaign being mounted for class elections, told students they would not be allowed to write names in because people could not do that in national elections. I have heard of a teacher who barred second-language learners from attending his industrial arts class because he felt that if they could not speak English, they could not handle the tools safely. I could go on.

Many citizenship or character education programs (the two names are often erroneously used interchangeably) also use reward systems to promote the idea that obedience is the equivalent of being a good citizen. The emphasis of these programs is on expecting that students will respond to requests by adults the first time they are asked and without any question. To question an adult is viewed as the behavior of a bad citizen, rather than that of a person with a legitimate question deserving a legitimate answer.

I have been thinking back to those workshops as I follow the news concerning the policies our government is developing to respond to Sept. 11 and the threat of further terrorist incidents. We are now in a time when rights are being limited in order to preserve our common safety, and certainly some things will have to change in order to travel safely and protect our country’s well-being. But we ought to know what is being traded away to be safe. We ought to be able to engage in social discourse and hold analytical discussions about what it is that must be preserved for the United States to maintain the democratic ideals which define the essence of who we are as a nation.

Those who have voiced concerns about what is being given up have been labeled dissidents, troublemakers, or are even considered to be traitorous. There is a sense of fear about questioning whether or not we are on the best path or if we are adopting policies that will forever limit the freedoms we cherish. As a result, a healthy public debate examining the best course of action to take has been actively discouraged.

If we do not know what our rights are, or worse, if we fear our rights enough to avoid teaching them to our K-12 students, it is not surprising that when rights are limited or taken away we might not even know the difference. If we truly fear rights, then limiting them might seem like a good idea and, indeed, those who are saying, “Wait a minute, let’s talk about this,” might easily be labeled as disloyal.

Our rights can easily be limited and our Constitution weakened when no one knows the difference.

My experiences have taught me that ignorance of constitutional rights allows schools to function in ways that allow misinformation to grow. The point is, our rights can easily be limited and our Constitution weakened when no one knows the difference.

One of our reasons for having compulsory education is the belief that democracy is preserved through an educated citizenry. If this is the case, then it makes no sense to misinform our students about what it means to be a fully functional citizen in a free and participatory democracy.

A democracy is all about discourse, debate, and the open exchange of ideas. If we truly cherish the freedoms that are threatened by terrorists, there can be no greater patriotic act than to teach students—and to teach them well—the essence of what makes this country unique and worthy of our loyalty.

Barbara Landau is an associate professor of education at the University of Redlands in Redlands, Calif.

A version of this article appeared in the March 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Educating for Citizenship


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