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Home arrow Education arrow American public education and the responsibility of its citizens : supporting democracy in the age of accountability

Rights

To set the stage for discussing our responsibilities, let me first describe rights. While these two terms are often connected in important ways, in our current society, we tend to hear much more about rights. Rights are typically defined in terms of each individual citizen, as claims that people have with respect to other people or the state. Rights entitle us to act or be treated in specific ways. In other words, rights tell me what I can do as an individual and what I must not do to impede the actions of other individuals. In a liberal state that upholds liberty as its highest principle, rights are a conception of freedom, sometimes categorized as negative rights or positive rights.1 Negative rights entail freedom from interference by the government or other people, while positive rights ensure the freedom to act, sometimes using governmental supports to do so.

Rights often come along with corresponding duties, which mandate that we act in certain ways because of the claims other people or the state have with respect to us. Often, at the very least, we have the duty to show respect for other people’s rights. On some occasions, such as when engaging in military interventions, duty requires going further by actively defending our rights or those of others from efforts to curtail or abuse them. As a matter of justice within a liberal democratic state, we must honor certain rights and fairly distribute benefits and obligations among citizens. And where justice is already in place, it requires doing one’s fair share to support it.

Sometimes, our rights correspond to a social obligation that moves us out of the realm of individualism and into the public realm, where public goods are created and sought. Dewey made this move an explicit part of his participatory theory of democracy, as he tried to demonstrate that rights are derived from the deliberations and acts of publics, and individual rights are best employed when in the pursuit of social ends.2 On these occasions, we must exercise our “rights in order to make democracy work. The right to vote, to speak freely on public issues, and to participate in voluntary organizations, for example, have little or no significance in political and civic life unless citizens regularly and effectively use them"3

Within the framework of participatory democracy, rights are not simply claims made by virtue of being a person or by residing within a nation that grants them (what we might call “human rights” or “our rights as Americans”). Instead, rights result from the public working together to construct justifications for what they believe is the good and equitable treatment of each member of the community. It is a shared and ongoing undertaking to define, agree to, and uphold rights. In today’s neoliberal society, however, rights have come to be taken as mere individual guarantees for property, privacy, and interest, with little concern for the community or the public good. There is little recognition of the ways in which rights were established via democratic processes or institutions, and it is those democratic roots that give them meaning and significance today. It was political participation that produced the foundation for rights and procured their enduring position. Too often we seem to forget this, viewing rights as individual possessions without appreciation for their development or the ongoing efforts needed to secure and enforce them through democratic participation. We are reminded of the importance of participation, however, on rare occasions, such as recent public and policy debates about civil marriage rights for gay and lesbian people.

We live in a society where individuals are quick to claim rights and to engage in rights talk. Indeed, some say we now live in an era of “rights explosion” or “rights inflation”4 Critic Mary Ann Glendon argues that we have elevated rights to such a powerful status that individuals, acting as if they were isolated beings complete with a list of entitlements, are quick to claim them with little regard for their impact on others, believing instead that their rights enable them to do whatever they want without limits.5 She contends that “this ‘rights revolution’ brought with it an equally significant social phenomenon, a change in ‘habits of thought and speech.’ The result is a rights-laden discourse that makes public dialogue and deliberation about responsibilities and the public good difficult and fosters attitudes that the Founders would have criticized as ‘liberty as license.’ ”6 Indeed, the Founders said little about responsibilities in the Constitution because they expected them to be addressed and nurtured in civil society, apart from the state. As a result, when the Supreme Court interprets the Constitution today, we get the impression that it is mainly focused on individuals and rights. For many of us, these Supreme Court rulings dictate our fundamental understanding of the Constitution as a litany of individual entitlements.7 So, rather than engaging in dialogue about the public good or responsibilities, some of us are quick to claim rights as entitlements we assume are included in the Constitution or will be protected by the courts.

This “rights explosion” today, devoid of an explicit focus on social responsibility, and yet strangely focused on personal economic responsibility (a key feature of neoliberalism I will later explain), has fostered an interrelated situation with at least three significant dimensions, each of which is exacerbated or possibly even exaggerated when viewed from the opposing perspective. First, some people of means and ability have tended to assume a client or consumer mentality, where they demand that their needs and interests be served by other people and institutions without requisite action on their part. Second, some people who lack resources or power have tended toward what some might incitingly call a state of victimhood, where individuals assert claims to entitlements based on their humanity or citizenship status without considering their responsibilities in turn.8 Still other citizens, often those working hard to receive merely adequate resources, tend to recognize the demands of both of those groups and find themselves feeling frustrated by fellow citizens who seem unwilling to shoulder the duties that correspond to entitlements, and they are unsure of what their rights are and just what they are entitled to. Detecting this cultural shift toward entitlements, in his inaugural address, Barack Obama responded by saying, “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility—a recognition, on the part of every American, that we have duties to ourselves, our nation, and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character, than giving our all to a difficult task"9

While we should take rights seriously, as rights proponent Ronald Dworkin famously proclaimed, following President Obama, I contend that it is important that we stop to take responsibilities seriously as well.10 For, as Barber warns, “Americans need their rights, but they need also to understand the responsibilities their rights entail. If seen solely as private things to be secured by judges rather than public things (res publica) to be secured by citizens, rights atrophy"11 Indeed, even rights champion Dworkin acknowledges the “special responsibility” that each person has for his or her own life, thereby opening up some space for discussion of responsibilities. Stopping to consider our responsibilities, which sometimes correspond with our rights, may help us better understand the social and political natures of both, and to identify ways in which we should act upon each.12

Instead of focusing strictly on rights as automatic individual entitlements, let us contemplate a Deweyan, participatory view of rights and responsibilities, grounded in community and participation that requires thinking carefully and deeply about our responsibilities.13 For Dewey, rights are “powers which are not mere claims, not simply claims recognized by others, but claims reinforced by the will of the whole community"14 Rights arise out of and reflect the will of a community, where, through public reason, the community determines the positive and negative liberties it will uphold and the related supports it will provide. The community then relies upon continuing deliberation and action to sustain, revise, and enforce those rights, for their provision and the freedoms they enable are best guaranteed through ongoing societal responsibility.

For example, a democratic community that values free expression and the benefits of political change and revolution may come together to decide that the town’s public square may be used by protestors for demonstrations, picketing, and other acts of dissent. It may go so far as to declare the right to public protest a positive right, which comes along with certain entitlements from the town. These might include the ability to reserve space in the public square or to have police protection from those who might try to disrupt the protest. Over time, the community must continually affirm this right through policies and practices and they must revise it if it proves to be problematic (say a protest group wants to reserve the public square during a time traditionally reserved for the town’s Independence Day celebration).

Schools provide some of the skills and knowledge needed to establish and maintain an environment where we can enact our rights to live freely. Dewey claims, “Political freedom and responsibility express an individual’s power and obligation to make effective all his other capacities by fixing the social conditions of their exercise.”15 In other words, we have an obligation to provide the social conditions that build and support our capacities as free citizens. Interestingly, this raises the role of schools, for they provide a key environment in which to develop and empower our capacities for freedom and responsibility. In Dewey’s view, we have a responsibility to enable ourselves by providing the social environments, including schools, that develop our capacities so that we can enact not only our negative freedoms, but also our positive ones. And, importantly, schools can teach about the reciprocal responsibilities of citizens, including how fulfilling these responsibilities leads to individual growth and a flourishing community.

As we move forward to consider a participatory account of responsibilities and our particular responsibilities to and within schools, let me be clear that I ground this discussion not in a narrow pairing of rights and responsibilities in an individualist sense, but rather in collective democratic participation in a broader sense. It is publics that render citizens’ rights through deliberation and public work, and it is citizens who have responsibilities to ensure that the institutions and practices of democracy continue so as to preserve and improve rights for future citizens.

Within our society, we are morally or legally obligated to uphold certain laws and mandates as duties. If we shirk our duties, there are generally predictable consequences, like prison sentences or fines. Responsibilities of citizens, however, go farther to encompass those actions within our power that we should carry out to support democracy. We can choose whether to act or not, and the consequences are less fixed. Some of these consequences are related to the health of our democracy and may not always be readily apparent. In this book, I try to outline some of these consequences in terms of schools and their contributions to vibrant democracy.

While I am using the discourse of rights to introduce my focus on responsibilities, it is worthwhile to note that it should not take resorting to rights talk to goad us into our responsibility to support our schools and their connection to democracy. This is not about merely neglecting to make good on some claim or some right. Rather, seeing the potential deterioration of our unsupported schools and the resulting impact on democracy should be sufficient to motivate us on its own. Unfortunately, however, the deterioration of democracy is often a subtle process, and many of us move forward unknowingly or without concern in the shifting terrain of public schools. Yet we are embedded in education discourses, policies, and practices that are lending to this deterioration, and therefore we have a responsibility to act.16

 
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