Opinion
Education Opinion

Teaching the Habits of Democratic Citizenship

By Deborah Meier — March 05, 2015 4 min read

Dear Joe,

Well, we failed to get the lively response we hoped for, but thanks to those who did respond. I note that Wayne Jennings and I agree that charters have gone off in the wrong direction. I hope that you and Wayne therefore stop getting yourselves lumped together with “them.” You don’t belong in their camp.

Proposition: Developing the best habits of citizenship in a democracy is the central task of K-12 schooling—if we still honor democracy. Of course, to do this it helps to have a mind trained in the skills and uses of literacy, math, history, science, and the arts. But there is—I’m suggesting—one common obligation that citizenry requires of us all: to understand, defend, and nurture our principles of living together democratically or argue for better ones. Yes, it would require reading the constitutions of the nation and states (who has ever read their state constitution?) and separating fact from myth. And asking questions. And weighing answers. It’s the frame of mind with which we engage in these tasks—including in the honored academic disciplines—that requires “schooling.”

I do not mean that schools are for learning how to learn! No. We are born knowing how and are incredibly good at it. Schools as we know them, alas, usually undermine those innate learning skills and thus slow down the incredible pace of cognitive growth that occurs “naturally” from birth to age 5. It’s the task of formal education, instead, to exploit our universal natural ability in the interests of democracy. Democracy fumbles badly—especially when combined with unequal power—when the people are schooled as they are today.

Is it possible, or fair, to claim that whatever else schools do, it is their shared public responsibility to graduate a body of citizens trained to defend their own and society’s best interests? The habits that are encouraged by 12-plus years of required schooling are now, I’d claim, misaligned with the habits that democracy rests on. We may disagree on what those are, but a school should be obliged to defend their theory of how and why their students will be better citizens because of what went on during those precious years.

Every other purpose—and there are other legitimate ones—should be addressed in ways that do not interfere with that first and foremost obligation. So—what are such habits? Which of them are controversial? And might we find a consensus around some?

This may be unrealistic and utopian, but the question is: Is it also stupid and wrong-headed?

Deb

Joe Nathan responds:

Deb, I agree with much, though not all, of what you’ve written above. We agree, for example, on your concerns about many schools. For example, you wrote, “Schools as we know them, alas, usually undermine those innate learning skills and thus slow down the incredible pace of cognitive growth that occurs ‘naturally’ from birth to age 5.”

This is a very important insight. I’m so glad you pointed out that students naturally learn a great deal from birth to age 5.

Walking and talking are incredibly complex sets of skills, yet most youngsters learn to do them without formal education. We should be paying much more attention to the environment in which that happens.

Generally this involves lots of modeling. This comes from people of various ages, including but not limited to parents, grandparents, older siblings, family friends, etc.

Second, it involves lots of encouragement. As children learn to roll over, crawl, stand up, take a few steps, there is applause, smiling, hand-clapping.

Virtually all children learn to walk.

We know that young children from lower income families hear and learn far fewer words, on average, than children in more affluent families. Here’s a link to an NPR report on several studies showing this.

High-quality early childhood can help youngsters learn more words. But this needs to be done in the same kind of encouraging, playful, positive environment in which children learn to walk.

You also urged that “a school should be obliged to defend their theory of how and why their students will be better citizens because of what went on during those precious years.” Strong agreement here.

I put it a little differently a few weeks ago. I mentioned that our center produced a report titled “What Should We Do?” We did this with district and charter educators, along with evaluation authorities. We suggested, among other things, that each school produce a yearly description of what it and its students had accomplished.

This would include multiple measures to show students’ activities and progress. I think your overriding question is terrific: What is a school doing to help its students be better citizens? I’d hope that state legislators would listen to and perhaps require such a statement. Do you agree? Even without a requirement, we encourage schools to do an annual report.

As to the other thoughts you shared, you briefly alluded to charters. I’d suggest that we explore that more fully in a future discussion. Same response to your question about which are the “habits” schools should help students develop. Great topic for a future exchange.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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