Social Studies Commentary

Educating Each Generation for Democracy

By John Glenn & Marian Wright Edelman — February 15, 2005 4 min read

Last month, thousands of Americans honored the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. by participating in the National King Day of Service. Dr. King’s dream of equality, justice, and unity took wing through his pledge to serve others. He believed that service is the hallmark of a full life. He also knew that service is a great equalizer in which people from all backgrounds come together to address important public issues.

Inspired by King’s vision, participants in the national day of service came together to teach literacy skills, rehabilitate housing, and serve meals to the hungry and homebound, to name just a few examples. For many, particularly young people, the King holiday was their first opportunity to experience the power of service: working for the common good to make the world a better place to live.

We encourage all Americans to build on the National King Day of Service by engaging in the public work of their communities and participating in our democratic system. Educating our youths for citizenship is our most important public work. We must purposefully nurture the value of service and civic engagement in each generation if our country is to be caring and just. This fundamental ideal depends on a well-informed citizenry that understands the importance of engagement in civic and political life.

Preparing young people to be citizens requires us to embrace civic learning as a core purpose of education."

Education leaders should work to ensure that the King Day of Service is not limited to a one-day shot of well-intentioned volunteerism. To let that happen would minimize a valuable learning opportunity and misconstrue the importance of King’s legacy. We urge instead that school administrators, community organizations, teachers, parents, and students advocate within their districts and schools for three action items that would:

• Make service an ongoing part of the instructional program and not merely a series of isolated experiences;

• Integrate service projects into academic study, especially the civics curriculum, so that students explore the underlying social and policy context of the community issues they seek to address through community involvement; and

• Redefine service-learning specifically, and civic education more generally, as a fundamental objective of teaching and learning and a significant part of district reform agendas.

Preparing young people to be citizens requires us to embrace civic learning as a core purpose of education. Yes, education is about preparing students for college and career, but a third vital component of schooling, one that is often left out, is preparation for citizenship.

Restoring the civic purposes of education should be paramount in any serious public dialogue about education reform. In addition to making civic education a priority in elementary and secondary schools, we should expand the definition and measurement of student achievement to include students’ civic knowledge, skills, and contributions.

More information is available from the National Service-Learning Partnership based at the Academy for Educational Development.

“Service learning” is a powerful way to educate for democracy. Service-learning is a teaching method that integrates community service with academic study to enrich student learning, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities. Students at Turner Middle School in Philadelphia, for example, worked with community, government, and church leaders to design a public-information campaign that encouraged neighborhood residents to return their census forms. Along the way, they studied the history, purpose, and importance of the U.S. Census in American democracy. Likewise, when hundreds of schools assisted with relief efforts for tsunami victims, service-learning curricula were linked to learning about Asian countries and cultures, the science of natural disasters, and the economics of forecasting and responding to these disasters.

When students are engaged in “academics in action,” they reinforce their classroom learning, give it relevance, generate enthusiasm for more learning, and strengthen their communities. At the same time, students learn in hands-on fashion the importance of civic values. Democracy depends on citizens feeling the power they have to improve their communities.

When students are engaged in 'academics in action,' they reinforce their classroom learning, give it relevance, generate enthusiasm for more learning, and strengthen their communities."

A growing body of research shows that service-learning has a positive impact on students’ civic knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors. Students who have experienced service-learning demonstrate greater civic engagement and increased participation in their communities—and those positive benefits grow over time. Students improve their caring for others and increase both their political awareness and activity. Most important, students learn that they can make a difference—just as Dr. King taught his followers that they could make a difference.

For these reasons, the National Commission on Service-Learning has challenged the country to ensure that every student in kindergarten through high school has the opportunity to participate in quality service-learning every year as an essential part of the American education experience. In the Children’s Defense Fund’s National Freedom School program, all students from kindergarten through college participate in an array of service-learning and social-justice action projects.

Nurturing each generation to become responsible citizens requires us to encourage, mentor, and lead the way. Parents, teachers, community leaders, policymakers, and, of course, students must become knowledgeable advocates for high-quality service-learning that stimulates civic engagement for all students.

Four decades ago, Martin Luther King Jr. lifted up the vision that “everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.” This inspirational statement is an urgent challenge to all of us today. But to ensure that King’s belief becomes a reality, our country must do much more to prepare young people to become effective citizens.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 16, 2005 edition of Education Week as Educating Each Generation for Democracy


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