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


  • 1. Sir Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (New York: Oxford University Press, 1969).
  • 2. Louis Menand showcases this element of Dewey’s work in Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2001), 409-411.
  • 3. John J. Patrick, “The Concept of Citizenship in Education for Democracy,” in ERIC Digest (Bloomington, IN: ERIC, 1999), 99, Oct 26, 2013.
  • 4. James E. Fleming and Linda C. McClain, Ordered Liberty: Rights, Responsibilities, and Virtues (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2013), 29.
  • 5. Mary Ann Glendon, Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (New York: Free Press, 1991).
  • 6. Glendon as described in Fleming and McClain, Ordered Liberty, 24.
  • 7. Ibid., 24.
  • 8. Thank-you to Lori Foote for initially pointing out this situation and helping me understand its historical roots.
  • 9. (
  • 10. I draw here on J. E. Fleming, “Taking Responsibilities as Well as Rights Seriously,” Boston University Law Review 90, no. 2 (2010): 839-855; Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1977), 844. Dworkin’s staunchest critic of rights talk is Mary Ann Glendon, Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (New York: Free Press, 1991), 76-108.
  • 11. Benjamin R. Barber, A Passion for Democracy American Essays (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998), 91.
  • 12. Indeed, I too, have used rights to make considerable demands. In my last book, Teaching for Dissent: Citizenship Education and Political Activism (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2012), I made the case that children have a positive right to citizenship education that teaches them how to be political dissenters. This current book serves, in part, as a follow-up to that argument by balancing my rights claim with an account of how the reciprocal responsibilities that enable a civil society and flourishing democracy provide the conditions for and support such an education. So, unlike cultural trends that demand more and more rights and related entitlements, I’m trying to balance my book’s call with the type of responsibility and a platform for developing citizen support for public schools that will furnish the type of education I called for earlier.
  • 13. I follow closely here Beth Singer, who provides a nice overview of a Deweyan account of rights in Beth Singer, Pragmatism, Rights and Democracy (New York: Fordham University Press, 1999).
  • 14. John Dewey, Outlines of a Critical Theory of Ethics, in The Early Works of John Dewey, Volume3, 1882-1898, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008), 349.
  • 15. Ibid., 474.
  • 16. Iris Marion Young, Responsibility for Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  • 17. Gert Biesta, “Education, Accountability, and the Ethical Demand: Can the Democratic Potential of Accountability be Regained?” Educational Theory 54 (2004): 250.
  • 18. For another, see Kenneth A. Sirotnik, “Promoting Responsible Accountability in Schools and Education,” Phi Delta Kappan (May 2002): 662-673.
  • 19. Michael Gunzenhauser, The Active/Ethical Professional: A Framework for Responsible Educators (New York: Continuum International, 2012), 8.
  • 20. Ibid.
  • 21. Nel Noddings, When School Reform Goes Wrong (New York: Teachers College Press,
  • 2007), 39.
  • 22. For more, see Nel Noddings, “Responsibility,” Learning Landscapes 2, no. 2 (2009):
  • 17-23.
  • 23. Teacher Lori Foote pointed out to me that, at times, accountability and responsibility are in contest with each other for the teacher’s energies. Accountability issues reported in the newspaper may trump the more serious, pervasive responsibilities teachers feel toward students, and particularly individual students, whose lives are in chaos, who get little help or direction at home, and who could easily take up all of their time. Often there is not just one student like this, but many. Balancing all that need is hard enough; when the accountability requirements are added on top of all this, something must give. For Noddings that may mean eschewing accountability in favor of the more vital responsible actions to children.
  • 24. Kenneth A. Strike, “Liberty, Democracy, and Community: Legitimacy in Public Education,” in American Educational Governance on Trial: Change and Challenges, ed. William L. Boyd and Debra Miretzky (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 39.
  • 25. Sumner Twiss, “The Problem of Moral Responsibility in Medicine,” The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 2, no. 4 (1977): 330-348.
  • 26. Twiss’s ideas are summarized on page 129 in Fani Lauermann and Stuart Karabenick, “Taking Teacher Responsibility into Account(ability),” Educational Psychologist 46, no. 2 (2011): 122-140.
  • 27. I’m offering some distinction here between my account of citizens’ responsibilities and Hannah Arendt’s notion of “collective responsibility,” which results simply via one’s membership in a political community. Hannah Arendt, “Collective Responsibility,” in Amor Mundi: Explorations in the Faith and Thought of Hannah Arendt, ed. James W. Bernauer (Boston: M. Nijhoff, 1987), 43-50.
  • 28. This is not to say that all citizens have an obligation to engage or uphold democracy in the same ways. Within the idea of a liberal democracy, individuals pursue their own freedoms and visions of the good life, which may not include caring for others or acting on behalf of democracy. This is one of the primary conundrums within this theory of democracy: it must allow for individuals to make free choices that do nothing to support the free choices of others or future freedoms. Within participatory democracy, however, citizens bear a stronger obligation insofar as participatory democracy thrives on wide and inclusive participation among citizens and should not be easily shirked for one’s personal interests. Not every individual must act on their citizen responsibilities to support schools, but there must be widespread participation. Importantly, we should allow for exceptions, not because we support free-riding, but rather because of a commitment to liberal pluralism.
  • 29. Ronald Dworkin, Law’s Empire (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1986).
  • 30. Wayne Au, “Chartering Charade in Washington State: The Anti-Democratic Politics of the Charter School Movement and the Removal of the Public from Public Education,” in The Charter School Solution, ed. Jamel K. Donner and Tara L. Affolter (New York: Routledge, 2016), 13.
  • 31. After proposing this temporal distinction, it was brought to my attention by Kathleen Knight Abowitz that Iris Marion Young understands responsibility similarly, as forward- directed, although in the very different context of structural injustice. See Iris Marion Young, Responsibility for Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).
  • 32. Mike Rose, Why School? Reclaiming Education for all of Us (New York: New Press, 2009), 9.
  • 33. For an additional discussion of these neoliberal conditions and their impact on personal behavior, see Lauren Clark and Sarah Stitzlein, “Neoliberal Narratives and the Logic of Abstinence-Only Education: Why we are Still Having this Conversation,” Gender & Education (2016). rnalCode=cgee20
  • 34. Nikolas Rose as described in Peter Demerath, Producing Success: The Cultural of Personal Advancement in an American High School (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009), 178.
  • 35. Lawrence Mead, Beyond Entitlement: The Social Obligations of Citizenship (New York: The Free Press, 1986), 55.
  • 36. Winston Davis, Taking Responsibility: Comparative Perspectives (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 274; Mead, Beyond Entitlement.
  • 37. I thank teacher Karen Zaino for pointing out this important implication of the therapeutic model.
  • 38. Lori Foote pointed out to me ideas that many middle-class Americans who have decent jobs, but are not far removed from the struggle to provide for food and shelter, may hold. They may feel that social safety nets currently favor people who choose to be less responsible and forward-looking (not working, seemingly by choice; having many children, instead of attempting to plan and manage; and the like). Asking people who already feel overburdened to do more in the “hope” of change, especially with little evidence that such efforts will be fruitful, may seem less productive than just making sure “you get your own” (protecting what you have earned to date, providing assurances for your family and future). Given this outlook, my call may ring hollow and may require first seeing signs of success and direct benefits to specific citizens and their children before these types of citizens are willing to join in.
  • 39. I was reminded of a recent example with some parallels by Lori Foote. Many citizens, despite drives to maximize their capital and seek efficient and cheap fulfillment of their desires, have shifted their patterns of food consumption. Some now seek organic foods, others consume less meat, and still others want to purchase fair trade foods or those purchased by companies that treat their workers justly. These people, then, are choosing more expensive options and sometimes increasing their efforts to get them, but do so in hopes of achieving better individual health or eating satisfaction as well as collective well-being in terms of animal welfare, environmental impact, and fair labor practices. Citizens might be persuaded to make similarly responsible and beneficial choices for education and democracy that are themselves more personally costly in terms of finances and effort. But, like the recent food movement, a widespread shift must be supported by public work and rolemodeling of citizens and civic society organizations, affirmed by policies, and nurtured by a formative culture, including one that educates citizens in certain ways as I describe in chapter six. Citizens in both situations also need to see that they have the ability to make an impact, that their choices and efforts, especially when made intentionally and in tandem with others, can make a significant difference.
  • 40. Biesta, “Education, Accountability, and the Ethical Demand.”
  • 41. Noelle McAfee, Democracy and the Political Unconscious (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 17.
  • 42. John Dewey, “Democracy is Radical,” in John Dewey the Later Works, 1925-1953, Volume II: 1935-1937, ed. Jo Ann Boydston (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press,
  • 1987), 298.
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