Public Schools Hotbeds of Democracy?

By Parker, Walter | Our Schools, Our Selves, Fall 2006 | Go to article overview

Public Schools Hotbeds of Democracy?


Parker, Walter, Our Schools, Our Selves


Democracies don't materialize out of thin air. They are created - and maintained and deepened - by citizens. If citizens are to safeguard civil liberties, elect wise officials, become wise officials themselves, make sense of the news and negotiate public policy with other citizens in an ever more diverse society, "their minds," as Thomas Jefferson said, "need to be improved to a certain degree."

Public schools are ideal sites for this work. They are public places, so they possess the essential assets for cultivating democratic citizens: a diverse student body, shared problems and a curriculum. Boys and girls are both there. Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists and atheists are there. African Americans, European Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans and more are together in the same space.

This buzzing variety does not exist at home, nor at church, temple, or mosque. But it does exist in public places where different groups of people are thrown together - places where individuals who come from numerous private worlds congregate.

But to seize the opportunity schools afford, school leaders need to stir the pot. Three actions are key. First, increase the variety and frequency of interaction among students who are culturally, linguistically and racially different from one another. If the school itself is homogenous, or if the school is diverse but curriculum tracks keep students apart, this first key is all the more difficult to turn.

Second, orchestrate those contacts so that not only interaction but also decision making about common problems - deliberation-is fostered.

This is the basic labor of democracy. In deliberation, alternatives are weighed in discussion with others and a decision is made. Diversity aids deliberation directly in several ways: It brings different problems to the table, it expands the number of understandings of a problem and it widens the range of alternatives that are considered.

In schools, this meeting of minds needs to be about two kinds of problems - social and academic.

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Public Schools Hotbeds of Democracy?
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