Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

DEMOCRACY AND CIVIC ENGAGEMENT - Reconnecting Education to Democracy: Democratic Dialogues

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

DEMOCRACY AND CIVIC ENGAGEMENT - Reconnecting Education to Democracy: Democratic Dialogues

Article excerpt

Mr. Westheimer and Mr. Kahne, guest editors of this special section, note the lack of consensus regarding the means and goals of civic education in the U.S. While there is an increasing tendency to view democratic citizenship in terms of service and patriotism, the authors in this section argue that there are many more dimensions of civic engagement for which schools should be preparing students.

FOR MORE THAN two centuries, democracy in the United States has been predicated on citizens' informed engagement in civic and political life. For much of that time, public schools have been seen as essential to support the development of such citizens. "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves," Thomas Jefferson wrote in his famous 1820 letter to William Jarvis, "and if we think [the people] not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education."1 Belief in the fundamental importance of civic education for democracy has been long-standing. But if educators can agree that schools have a role to play in educating democratic citizens, they can't seem to agree on what that means.

Indeed, what has most strongly characterized recent discussions of democracy and education -- in particular those that followed the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon -- has been a striking lack of consensus about what democracy requires of citizens and of schools. The very same efforts that are applauded by some are viewed as "the problem" by others.

"We are living in a teachable moment," former Secretary of Education William Bennett wrote in the Wall Street Journal one year after September 11th.2 He believes that "an appropriate response to September 11th begins with . . . moral clarity, the clarity that calls evil by its true name" and that we should point students to "what is good and right and true." Other educators believe this is a teachable moment, too. But, unlike Bennett, they see an opportunity to explore difficult and unresolved issues in politics, religion, and international relations. Hoping to address the ignorance of many students when it comes to international affairs, they prefer a curriculum that broadens Americans' traditional mindset. For example, Janet Myers, a Missouri English teacher, believes that "we have to understand what is going on in the minds of terrorists, and what seems real and rational to them."3

Or consider the recently released high-profile Carnegie report, The Civic Mission of Schools, which details concerns about democracy and civic disengagement and suggests how schools might improve the situation. Many, such as David Broder of the Washington Post, praised the report for focusing educators' attention on the need to stem the erosion of political participation by young people.4 Others, such as Fordham Foundation president and former Assistant Secretary of Education Chester Finn, gave the report a C- and faulted it on the same grounds -- its emphasis on helping students develop the capacities and commitments needed to engage in political activity and influence public policy.5 Finn argued that the report should have emphasized nonpolitical activity, such as being a good neighbor or community volunteer.

Students are no more in agreement on what good citizenship means than are teachers, policy makers, and politicians. When asked what it means to be a good citizen, one student from a focus group we conducted in an urban California school replied, "Someone who's active and stands up for what they believe in. If they know that something's going on that is wrong, they go out and change it." But a student from a different urban California school told us that to be a good citizen, you need to "follow the rules, I guess, as hard as you can, even though you want to break them sometimes. Like cattle." This lack of consensus around the civic goals of schooling underscores the challenge and complexity of deciding what we want schools to accomplish and how to make this happen. …

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