Teaching Democracy: Is It More Complicated Than We Think? an Ethnographic Case Study in St. Petersburg, Russia

Article excerpt

In 2006, The New York Times headlines announced an immediate Russian crackdown on foreign influence, centering upon nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating within the boundaries of Russia:

MOSCOW, Oct. 19--Scores of foreign private organizations were forced to cease their operations in Russia on Thursday while the government considered whether to register them under a new law that has received sharp international criticism ... the suspensions were the latest chapter in Russia's pressure on foreign organizations that have offices on its soil. (Chivers, 2006)

Since that time, international NGOs have continued to struggle to defend or define their legitimate roles in Russia (BBC, 2011). More recently, a move by President Obama to "free $50 million in long-stalled aid to promote democracy and civil society in Russia" has met with "accusations that the United States is meddling in Russia's internal politics" (Herschenhorn, 2012). Long-standing suspicions remain even about such well-established educational partnerships as Civitas@Russia (Civitas), part of the larger Civitas International Civic Education Exchange Program working in 50 nations around the globe (Marx, 2005).

While partnerships such as Civitas exist to benefit Russia and to promote democracy, some see those two aims as contradictory, questioning the "infiltration" of Western ideas and models globally. From a Western perspective, it is important to judge the effect Civitas has on Russian classrooms in order to evaluate the program specifically, professional development efforts generally, and the distinctions it maintains between humanitarianism and imperialism.

This study focuses on one teacher educator, Vera, who participated in the Civitas Training of Professionals program (an international partnership between Russia and the U.S. through the Center for Civic Education) in St. Petersburg, Russia. Through her case, we can trace the limitations and the influences such organizations and professional development seminars can have. We can also see how she is able to articulate her own cultural understanding of democracy from the civic education training model. This paper addresses the question of how one Russian teacher educator reconciles a democratic model of teaching, as presented at a Civitas teacher training seminar, within the context of an authoritarian state.

The larger implication considers how educational researchers trace the possible influences of Western conceptions of democracy. Here and abroad, the message of democracy is being interpreted through cultural lenses that are increasingly foreign to American audiences (Rapoport, 2007). In classrooms across the United States, we face increasing numbers of non-native students who have not grown up in the cultural understanding of democracy that we accept as "normal." In particular, educators responsible for teaching the next generation of democratic citizens need to consider the cultural implications of teaching democracy. What are the implications of teaching democracy in a diverse cultural context?

REVIEW OF THE LITERATURE

Current research in civic education looks at the effects of civic education initiatives and partnerships in developing democracies throughout the world. However, this research often fails to ask how each location interprets the message of democracy in light of its own cultural context. A brief overview of some of the existing research will help situate this evaluation of Civitas among other program evaluations. There is a lack of in-depth ethnographic studies of civic education participants and their personal meaning-making. The contribution of this study to the existing literature, therefore, helps fill that gap.

One of the most widely recognized programs for civic education both nationally and internationally is the We the People ... Project Citizen (Patrick, Vontz, & Metcalf, 2003). John Patrick (2003), Terry Mason (2004) and others reported on its use in Lithuania and Latvia. …