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


Defining Habits

I turn now to introducing a significant concept for citizenship education: habits. I derive my understanding of habits from the work of Dewey and employ it here to suggest that the best forms of citizenship education for perpetuating strong democracy focus on the cultivation of habits of democracy. In a seemingly mundane statement, Danielle Allen wisely proclaims, “The ordinary habits are the stuff of citizenship”10 Indeed, it is our daily ways of living that shape our democracy and our experience of it. But, importantly, they also open avenues for improving democracy and ourselves as citizens. In this section I define habits, noting how they develop and change, and discuss in more detail their individual and social natures. Then I describe particular habits of democracy and how they might be fostered in schools or larger civil society.

All of us have impulses, activities, and urges that guide our behavior, from our pangs of hunger to our desire to be around other people. According to Dewey, these natural activities are shaped and collected into habits as individuals transact with the world around them, especially in regard to cultural norms, and when they engage in the process of inquiry. For example, from our reflections on our preferences to our experiences of cultural norms of sharing meals with family or friends, we develop a habit of gathering with others at certain times of day to partake in a meal. Habits are ways of being that are largely performed without effort or conscious attention. To continue the example, we may find ourselves drawn to the table as we hear our family gathering in the kitchen.

Habits are the dispositions, sensitivities, and ways of acting and communicating that enable us to live comfortable lives that operate smoothly. According to Dewey, habit should be understood as a predisposition to act, or a sensitivity to ways of being—rather than the more common understanding of habit as an inclination to precisely repeat identical acts or content. In Dewey’s words, “All habits are demands for certain kinds of activity; and they constitute the self. In any intelligible sense of the word will, they are will"11 Habits are active and energetic means that project themselves.12

Habits, as the will to act, engage with the world in ways that allow us to pursue desires. This is possible, in part, because habits “do all the perceiving, recognizing, imagining, recalling, judging, conceiving and reasoning that is done"13 Habits provide the mechanisms that enable or enhance reasoning, as well as carry out the activities that might result from reasoning. Habits filter and organize our perceptions, determining which environmental objects are noted and in what way. Habits, then, shape and precede our ideas. They provide us with know-how, “working capacities” that help us know how to act in the world.14

There is a reciprocal relationship between habit and thought. Habits provide us a way to implement thoughts in the world, where they can be tested out and improved. Then, reflective thought about one’s actions allows for newer and better habits to be developed. So rather than seeing habit as something merely routine and unconscious, for Dewey, habit is closely related to intelligence, for habits are brought into consideration whenever a problematic situation must be addressed or new conditions arise.

When formed tentatively as hypotheses in light of intelligent foresight into future, unpredictable circumstances, habits can be flexible agents of change whose form emerges as situations unfold. Or, in Dewey’s words, “the intellectual element in a habit fixes the relation of the habit to varied and elastic use, and hence to continued growth"15 In this way, habits, as intimately tied to intelligent reflection, are projective and sites of agency. They can be changed in ways that change the subject and, through transaction, can effect change in the world as well. The heart of agency lies in the process of acquiring new habits and changing old ones.16

Sometimes, in the course of intelligent reflection on the trying out of a habit, it is revealed that the habit is somehow bad. In the context of democracy, this might be a habit that is stagnant and doesn’t keep up with the changing population, is exclusionary, doesn’t serve social needs, blocks exchanges with others, or is unjust. We cannot easily drop bad habits, but we can work through a process of changing them and replacing them with better habits, such as habits that are more just or inclusive. Ideally, because habits are “adjustments of the environment, not merely to it" adopting new habits (through a careful process of intellectual reflection and by other means) can change the environmental phenomena that produced the problematic old habit, in this case possibly making democracy better.17 For example, a child raised in an all-white family and neighborhood may develop a bad habit of only interacting with other white children at his integrated school. As a bad habit, the child may choose to self-segregate when selecting peers to sit with at school, thereby engaging in an exclusionary practice that prevents him from learning from children of color or learning how to interact with others across differences. A novel situation may arise, such as joining a countywide baseball team, populated largely by children of color, that exposes this lack of cross-racial experience to the child, leaving him unsure how to play with his new teammates. Reflecting on this situation and discussing the struggle with his teacher might prompt a change to his seating habit at school. Selecting a new seat with children of color changes not only opportunities for new interactions and growth, but it also changes the environment, presenting new opportunities for other classmates also.

Habits are developed as individuals transact with the world around them—as they shape and are shaped by other people, traditions, practices, and experiences. While each person’s collection and enactment of habits are unique, many people’s habits are similar because they result from analogous transactions with the environment. Because these habits are shared across groups of people, they become customs—typical ways of behaving within a social group—thereby reinforcing the development of similar habits in younger generations, most notably in civil society, where they are often enacted and passed down.

There has been a tendency among political theorists, especially civic republicans, to call for civic virtues as foundations for citizenship education.18 For example, prominent philosopher Michael Sandel calls for developing character (based on an Aristotelian notion of virtues) needed for self-government. While sharing some similarities, habits differ from virtues. Habits, like virtues, entail not only dispositions, but also a cognitive element of knowledge and reflection, resulting in informed patterns of action across time.19 Habits are traits of character that are often categorized as positive or negative, as virtues or vices.20 But, as is often the case with those who celebrate virtues, we should not limit this normative judgment to a specific ethical framework or conception of the Good.

Echoing the views of the pragmatists on which I base my account of habits, we should not define judgments on the moral uprightness of one’s traits in a way that asserts foundations that are fixed prior to or outside of human experiences. Doing so would reduce citizenship to a list of virtues prespecified by experts or government leaders, denying the important role of ongoing citizen participation in shaping what counts as good citizenship as conditions change. Nor should we reduce moral behavior to the presence or enactment of one particular habit or even a small set of habits within an individual. Virtues are moral because they are tied to other habits that bring about good action. In Dewey’s words,

To call them virtues in their isolation is like taking the skeleton for the living body. The bones are certainly important, but their importance lies in the fact that they support other organs of the body in such a way as to make them capable of integrated effective activity. And the same is true of the qualities of character which we specifically designate virtues. Morals concern nothing less than the whole character.21

The categorization and measure of habits extend beyond a fixed ethical framework. While virtues are largely static and positioned within an essentially unchanging moral system, good habits of democracy involve reflection, revision, and change relative to the world around them. I agree with Shane Ralston who contends, “Indeed, both values and habits can be evaluated natu- ralistically, instrumentally, or conventionally. Yet, the ultimate test of a habit’s value is whether it directs inquiry in fruitful ways—that is, in ways that fund experience with meaning, render new connections, create helpful tools for future inquiries, and develop the inquirer’s native abilities"22 Rather than following a specific moral path, habits shape our inquiries and, in turn, we employ inquiry to revise our habits when new situations arise. Good habits are closely tied to inquiry, democracy, and education. They give us know-how that prompts us to act and carries us through our actions.

Such habits are more effective tools for achieving good public life than just following rules or moral expectations unquestioningly. And, while they are revisable, our habits are often deep and consistent across time. In this way, if we want to create citizens who continue to fulfill citizen responsibility and uphold a commitment to democracy, its institutions, and ways of life, targeting habits offers the most sustainable platform for doing so. This sustainability is especially important in light of the fact that schools have seemingly been in crisis for decades, especially since the appearance of “A Nation at Risk" which spurred widespread concerns about the international performance rankings of our schools and prompted federal and state action. Habits give us the skills and the will to keep working even in the midst of trying environments. As a proclivity to act, habits, like responsibility, move us forward, even in challenging circumstances used by Dewey. Habits also become a part of our identity, an understanding of who we are by virtue of how we tend to act or see the world. In the case of a proclivity to support democracy and public schools, our habits can shape our identities as those who actively work to create and secure democracy, thereby working against popular identities of citizens as either more passive clients or consumers, or as those more removed from democracy itself used by Dewey.

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