Social Studies Opinion

What Does It Mean to Teach ‘Civic Virtues’?

By Deborah Meier — April 07, 2016 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’m fascinated. I don’t think our definitions of democracy are in contradiction to each other, but they have interesting differences; I tend to draw the lines more narrowly. Maybe it’s semantic.

There’s a tension, I’d argue, between the freedom to decide and to act based upon our own judgment and the community’s right to do the same. What happens when they come into conflict? Self-governance refers to individual and communal agency—to “we the people” and to me—the individual person.

It’s never quite possible, probably, to fully satisfy both parts of this ideal. And the more inclusive our definition of “the people,” the more trade-offs and compromises are necessary between the actual and the ideal.

But I limit my definition to “decision-making"—governance—for simplicity’s sake and then address separately what must exist for such an idea to be attempted in practice with any integrity. But, I suppose, one could collapse the two into one definition?

I often referred to my family’s dinner table conversations—especially when guests were there—as apprenticeships in democratic dialogue. Everyone was equal but some were more equal than others! We children weren’t excluded from the adult conversation—we were even warmly invited in. But we weren’t forced to join or judged by our level of contribution either.

Maybe a little like Humphrey’s father’s pharmacy?

There’s a presumption of equality—even if not at this very moment on this very topic. At some point the age difference would be irrelevant (or at least we wouldn’t be able to fall back on it for authority), but the expertise differences—the particulars of our experience—might still be great. This too is a dilemma for democratic decision-making.

When I’m told that the decision is up to me, or us, I look skeptically at the reality of my or our respective positions of power. Equality and democracy are closely bound, which is one sensible reason that most historic examples of democracy had very limited constituencies.

We have eliminated that presumption—claiming that all citizens over 18 have rights when it comes to decisions affecting them. (If they aren’t felons or former felons, or “undocumented” immigrants—like my ancestors—or able to produce proper ID, etc.)

To some extent such rights rest on the habits of heart and mind we carry with us from childhood. The habits of passivity—including passive aggression—are the result of a deliberate education from family, school, and society at large. More so for some than others, correlating frequently with race, ethnicity, gender, and social class.

It’s the public school’s job, I’m arguing—its central function—to provide over those 12 mandatory years of attendance for the opportunity to develop the civic virtues and habits that will make it hard to ignore their rights—which includes (of course) the knowledge necessary to exercise good judgment. The strategies needed for this end are learned in many ways. I see the work of Public Achievement as a very vital strategy toward this end, which requires I’d argue requires work experiences of a much broader and more public type than we normally imagine takes place at school.

Most of what we now call education “reform” moves in quite the opposite direction, not helped by what I believe are distractive efforts to pretend that “job skills” will solve the dilemma of inequality or economic health.

Taking seriously the “virtue” side of civic virtue as well as the meaning of “civic” will require us to loosen many of the regulatory bonds that require us to standardize education. Only then can we begin to explore—from the bottom up—what it might mean to make K-12 public education (and beyond) democratic. (It’s because of their ability to ignore the standardization that the schools I most respect were invented. But valuable as it might be to break the rules, more valuable still is changing them.)

While I’m shockingly “illiberal” in my opposition to many of the regulatory rules we must live by in schools, I’m by no means ready to eliminate all of them—by a long shot. So—if I started by imagining zero—what are those most essential to add back in (if perhaps in a different way?) in the name of democracy. Let’s explore that together.


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