Teaching Opinion

Active Citizenship Is Democracy’s Best Defense

By Deborah Meier — January 19, 2017 3 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Harry and friends,

I’ve been “on the road” now for 12 days! But it hasn’t been wearying because the last seven days have been with my son and daughter-in-law and good friends in Santa Cruz County. It’s great to be able to “hang out” with those I love. Today I’m off to the Bay Area visiting with friends and family.

Given the relaxing time—and the political climate—I have been thinking a lot about Harry’s last post about the attack on Public Achievement in the Making Citizens report of the National Association of Scholars (as well as on other efforts to make democracy come alive for young apprentice citizens).

Of course, there are risks and mistakes, on occasion. It’s not easy to avoid becoming models for our students some times, and assuming that our political inclinations are theirs, or ought to be. But to avoid this controversy by ignoring the learning that comes through actual real-life engagement with history is an even greater mistake. It’s easier to learn in schools where the family and community have been partners with the school over the years.

At the old Central Park East Secondary School (CPESS) we originated a “community service” plan (half day a week) primarily so that a cluster of teachers who taught the same kids could have a half day a week to work together. It was actually a stunning surprise to me when it turned out that over five years students had found several adults who became their friends, helping the with summer jobs and college connections. Their networks were broadened in ways that come so easily to wealthier children. It was an unexpected side benefit.

Their broadened sense of membership in the larger society showed in many ways and was nourished by the many ways in which the school connected its students and its faculty with other individuals and organizations—like the Coalition of Essential Schools whose annual Fall Forums’ included many of our teachers, students and families.

This service work also accounted for the fact that students used the school library to organize their own participation in the city-wide demonstrations in response to the beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles, which they saw as an the injustice. The faculty sent a note home to families to say that while this was not a school-sponsored event we would not try to prevent students from leaving school to attend. We also sent some staff along, to provide help if needed.

Complicating it all was the fact that our school, composed mostly of African American and Hispanic students, was hosting an all-white high school chorus from Minnesota. There were murmurings among some students that a plan was afoot to walk out on them as a protest...of some sort. As I was on stage welcoming the Minnesota chorus, one of the students came on stage and asked me if he could speak. I could hardly say no, although I was tempted to. What he said remains with me forever. “I want to welcome our visitors and thank them for coming today. I remind us all that there are no enemies in this auditorium. We are surrounded by friends. Let us give them a warm welcome.”

The applause was whole-hearted and no one left the room then or as they sang their songs.

College faculty and admissions staff commented on our students’ ease and confidence in the company of adults. They had spent many years in a setting that encouraged their voices—singly and together with others. They knew that there was strength in our individual as well as our organized voices. They saw themselves s responsible for their actions and able, when appropriate, to be inclusive, seeing the larger world as their turf as well.

Yes, there are risks and never more so, for young people to act in ways that might irritate important people and complicate the school’s reputation. But like John Dewey, we thought our central task was to “teach” the habits of heart and mind that democracy requires, no matter if it occasionally disturbed our peace. In this context it was “natural” for some classes to put aside their plans for a day to listen on radio to the Clarence Thomas senate hearing.

At its best democracy assumes a rough equality of power and resources among all citizens. We hardly have such a situation today. Democracy is always fragile, even perhaps an unnatural idea. We slip back easily into one or another form of authoritarianism. But it must be defended, perhaps especially when rough equality does not exist. That’s when active citizenship is the only defense democracy rests on. Put differently, the daily practices which build people’s capacity for working together constructively are the only “safe repository of the powers of the society,” as Thomas Jefferson put it.


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