Social Studies Opinion

Teaching Active Citizenship in Schools Is Worth It

By Deborah Meier — February 07, 2017 4 min read

Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Mr. Randall (and Harry),

It’s an interesting argument! And like many good arguments about democracy, it’s tricky. In the interest of one set of concerns one risks another set of concerns. “Of, for and by the people” can rarely literally prevail, nor the preconditions inherent in democratic life as well as our Constitution.

The question before us is: where and how should we teach democracy. We each see bias in each other’s different views. I think there’s truth to both accusations. It is, we all acknowledge, not a simple idea nor an uncontroversial one—even amongst believers. There are inescapable trade-offs that place us often in sharp disagreements.Without impugning bad motives, we tend to be more or less willing to hedge our bets. Free speech is essential, but then (of course) some disagreements arise over what constitutes speech, as well as what—if any—limits may be on speech.

The expansion of full citizenship to more and more members of society comes with drawbacks. We probably agree that democracy presupposes some level of equality. E.g. equal access to information, and equal access to the means of persuasion—the media, lobbyists, etc. Or freedom to express oneself without fear of repercussions.

We celebrate the enlargement in the right to vote without asking ourselves how powerful such a right is in the absence of other dimensions of democracy.

Many of our founding fathers claimed that education was the answer—those with the right to vote needed to be well-educated. In fact, it was a “gentleman’s” education. The fact that not everyone had access to its particulars was one of its virtues. It made it easier to distinguish who belonged to which class.

Today we hold a different formal view of democracy, but have not dealt with the contradictions that arise from the idea that “everyone” is a member of the ruling class.

When I was born most of my fellow citizens did not start high school, much less graduate. Their education took place in being present where many public decisions were made, even if by “others”. The civic life of a community prior to 1930 was closer to home. Decisions were made by people one knew or at least recognized. Hardly pure democracy, but more understandable.

Since we have invented no other institution to take on this task, we’re left with publicly paid for schools.

For young citizens that cannot happen only in civics courses. How many of us understand calculus, unless we’ve been immersed at some time in a culture/occupation that requires its frequent use? Why would we imagine a civics course would work in the absence of such immersion? Making sense of calculus is child’s play compared to making sense of democracy. Even four civics classes could hardly make a dent.

Harry and I are exploring the many other ways that schools could introduce the young to democratic citizenry in order for democracy to live up to its claimed virtues. First of all, one must see oneself as a member of society, “this land belongs to you and me.” For most of the students I taught it did not seem obvious. People with civic power lived beyond one’s own turf in a different world. One essential we offered students was this sense of “belonging,” in many ways, including field trips, community service assignments, on-site studies of local political controversies, access to the media. We wanted our students to feel comfortable—but not incautious—in Manhattan. It meant getting to know people who ran the institutions they volunteered in and who made the backroom decisions in a face-to face way. Exploring institutional power was part of community service. If they ran into issues that seemed “unfair,” they learned ways of exposing such unfairness and, even occasionally, changing the rules of the game. We wanted them to see themselves and their neighborhoods as part of the public domain.

Best of all, in my view, would be to explore how the school as an institution might better operate if it were a democracy, with citizen rights extending to the adults who work there and to the families who send their children to the school. Suppose we imagined our Constitution applied inside our four walls? What wouldn’t work? What would? Why? If democratic politics are critical to the lager society, why wouldn’t they be useful to our far simpler school? What would happen if we extended the definition of school citizenship to 12-year-olds or 15-year-olds? What would be lost? Gained? Or at the very least, Mr. Randall, what would it be like if we saw our students as young citizens within their schools?

Simultaneously studying democracy in its many forms was what social studies as an academic discipline was originally intended to do. It has been crowded out of the curriculum by our short-sighted focus on the 3 Rs devoid of content and testing regimes that make it hard to take anything that doesn’t have one “correct” answer.

And, of course, it means tackling ways to respect the full-range of opinions in our work. That too needs more honest exploration. How do we do this in communities that are heavily weighted in one direction vs another politically? How do we encourage “civil” argument where controversial passions run high? Does it mean that we, the faculty, are obliged to “fairly” present fascism, communism, serfdom?


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