Teaching Democracy: Defining the Role of Public Education In a Civil Society

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We are living in an era of experimental democracy. Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union struggle to form independent republics while Mexico and other Central American countries grapple with the consequences of a representative system. Nations across the world are embracing democracy, and they are coming face to face with its limitations and inconveniencies.

Democracy, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried over the years.

So how does one teach such an imperfect and constantly changing form of government? Our country has taken considerable steps to codify its form of democracy, imperfections notwithstanding. Teaching these codes and systems of government is called civics, and society wrings its hands as much over civic illiteracy as it does over mathematical and cultural illiteracy.

But ours is a participatory democracy: To learn about democracy, students must be allowed to participate in it. Civic literacy cannot be treated as just another subject to be covered in the six-hour school day. In other words, students might have been taught about democracy, but they have not been taught to do democracy.

Public schools in America are expected to accomplish several tasks. They must generate productive workers for the post-industrial age. We would like them to educate a generation of well-read intellectuals. They are expected to mold participating citizens with sterling values.

Education reform, for the most part, has focused on the first two goals. The latter goal, implicit in most schools' curricula, is the focus of this special commentary report.

Should public schools be more than just factories for churning out math and grammar? Are they, in the words of Benjamin R. Barber, the vessels of our democratic future?

American schools were purposefully established to be democratic institutions, to perpetuate democratic ideals. They were created to instill community values in our young people as much as to teach the three R's.

So can democracy--not just civics--be taught? And are the nation's public schools up to the task? We posed this question to several educators and reformers. Their responses point to the many expectations and views of public education as an institution.

The answers they gave are hopeful. Not only are reformers discovering what works, but they are finding that it already works in classrooms and communities across the country. And they are learning that "what works" in school reform is an evolving and changing beast. Much like democracy itself.

This special Commentary report, the sixth in a series examining crucial issues in education, is being underwritten by a grant from the Philip Morris Companies, Inc.

Vol. 14, Issue 30, Page 33

Published in Print: April 19, 1995, as Teaching Democracy
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