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Citizenship Education and Habits of Democracy

Recently I attended a candidates’ forum hosted during my local school board election season at a church in a largely black and poor part of my city. After the candidates offered a lengthy commentary on achievement scores, charter schools, and budget concerns from the candidates, a young woman sitting beside me raised her hand. She said, “I don’t know much about the education policy or reforms you are talking about, but I’d like to know what you are going to do to produce better citizens in our schools.” With her plain-spoken and straight-forward question, she reasserted a central aim of schools, redirected the focus, and started a conversation. Educating children to be good citizens has been one of the most important and longest-held goals for public schools since their inception in America. In recent years, preparing responsible citizens has been ranked the highest or second-highest purpose for schools on the annual Phi Delta Kappa poll.1 And, on a 2013 national Civic Education and Political Engagement Study, 76% of respondents said that schools should be preparing responsible citizens.2

But other studies paint a more complex and shifting picture of our goals. For example, a 2012 Thomas B. Fordham Institute survey found that respondents strongly believe a high-quality core curriculum and an emphasis on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education are far more critical in schools than instruction in democracy and citizenship, which was found only moderately important.3 And a 2014 Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) poll, as reported in the blog of an ASCD associate, found the most widely held purpose of education to be “to create learning conditions that enable all children to develop to their fullest potential,” followed by “creating adults who can compete in a global economy”4 Anecdotally, educating for citizenship, especially as I will describe it in this chapter, is often not at the forefront of many citizens’ concerns with schools, and actually may even be contrary to the self-interest and materialist educational goals we see building steam. Also, while some teachers are aware and supportive of this goal, many others are unaware of it or find themselves forced to focus on other aims. While the goal of educating for citizenship persists in some regards, changing views of individuals, economic competitiveness, and academic achievement may be reshaping this longstanding goal both in terms of its value and how we understand its practice. These changes, alongside other changes threatening democracy that I have already discussed, render citizenship education especially worthy of attention now.

Democracies always have the potential for improvement because they can be improved by the participation and contributions of their citizens, especially, as I have argued so far, those who act responsibly on behalf of the well-being of their fellow citizens and democracy. If we are committed to sustaining or bettering democracy, we must support the development and improvement of our citizens. And, if we aim, as I do, to cultivate citizens who will work to form publics and support public schools as central institutions of democracy, we must be interested not only in the teachers, administrators, policymakers, parents, and taxpayers associated with schools today, but also in the children we are grooming for citizenship in our schools. If we provide our children with an education that nurtures the habits and skills of democratic public life and enable them to experience the benefits it offers, we will be more likely to produce a future generation of citizens that will work to preserve public schools as an important source of democracy and public life.

I’m describing a cycle here, where children learn to enact publicness and democracy within our schools and then, upon experiencing their benefits and becoming adults, seek additional opportunities for democratic participation for themselves and others, especially through schools. This is not an uncritical cycle that blindly celebrates democracy or schools, but rather an educative one that develops skills of criticality, communication, and problem solving necessary to question current democracy and schools and works to revise them, all the while guided by a hope for improved life together. In this chapter, I will begin to describe this cycle, highlighting how we might best educate children for citizenship and public life within our schools. In the final chapter I will detail some of the habits that can best fulfill and perpetuate the cycle.

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