In the heat of a particularly lively election season, it may be time for us to step back and take an objective look at the nature of democracy and the role of education in it. So much of our identity as Americans depends on our participation in a government of, for, and by the people, yet democracy in this country is ailing. “Change” seems to be the battle cry from all political fronts. It is a cry that we as educators also might apply to our essential role in preparing young people for engaged citizenship.
The word “democracy” has lost much of its idealistic resonance across the globe, and is seen today by many as an invocation of superiority, economic globalization, materialism, and a new form of Western colonialism and “manifest destiny.” At home, the percentage of citizens who actually participate in the democratic process generally is low, a showing that cuts across all Americans. And the very fabric of American society appears to be fraying at the seams. The 2006 report by the National Conference on Citizenship, “America’s Civic Health Index: Broken Engagement,” puts it this way:
“Trust in one another has steadily declined over the last 30 years; connections to civic and religious groups are consistently down; people are less connected to family and friends and more Americans are living alone; people are less well informed about public affairs; and our trust of and connection to key institutions have been largely on the decline. …
“All Americans have withdrawn from regular ‘public work’ in their communities—tackling issues of common concern—but the decline has been most pronounced among people with the least education.”
Ominously, the common bonds among citizens of varying ethnicities, religious/spiritual ideologies, genders, economic backgrounds, and lifestyles also seem to be breaking. A recent study by Harvard University’s Robert D. Putnam, who wrote the influential 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, shows that in diverse communities in the United States, as compared with homogeneous communities, people withdraw more from collective life, distrust their neighbors, and expect the worst from their community and its leaders. They also volunteer less, vote less, and have less faith that they can actually make a difference. Citizens in diverse communities, rather than welcoming interaction, build barriers to isolate themselves.
Such realities suggest a marked failure—within government, politics, families, community institutions, and our education system—in bringing people together to learn from each other. And the responsibility to reverse this withdrawal from public life lays more heavily than ever on schools. After all, education is the one public institution that includes 90 percent of the next generation of adults, is governed by public authority, and has the explicit mission of educating for democratic citizenship.
Educators need to help students go beyond their current identity group to become fully engaged citizens, and a new engagement needs a different type of education. Existing laws and policies that see education as a set of external standards, tests, and requirements often neglect the civic mission of schools.
We cannot keep waiting as democracy at home erodes to the point of being shameful. Purposeful schools that take their civic mission seriously are interesting and intellectually challenging places for students, teachers, administrators, parents, and the community at large. They have lively halls where students and adults talk easily with one another, and student work is prominently displayed and ever-changing. There is an ongoing use of rituals, symbols, and words that guide both experienced and inexperienced teachers to the values that hold the school together.
Existing laws and policies that see education as a set of external standards, tests, and requirements often neglect the civic mission of schools.
These environments foster genuine interest in students, and engage them in seeing firsthand the relevance of what they are learning. Tendencies toward alienation and withdrawal from others are overcome by the continuous placement of students with people different from themselves to work on common problems. Students learn the content knowledge, employment and life skills, aesthetic appreciations, and understandings of the rights and responsibilities of free citizens—guidance that is not the responsibility only of civics, history, or social studies teachers, but is the responsibility of all. Everyone must help students apply learning to everyday life and society at large.
The challenge is clear: Improving education and improving democracy go hand in hand. We can build upon the natural curiosity of children in making sense of the world. We can encourage them to explore new identities—giving them the tools to choose how to live their lives with respect for others.
If we can think of education as more than standards and tests and students’ meeting college and occupational requirements, we will reverse the decline of democracy and create a stronger fabric of “We, the people” for the next, and much better, generation of citizens.
A version of this article appeared in the March 19, 2008 edition of Education Week as If ‘Change’ Is the Answer, What Is the Question?