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Habits and Democracy

Dewey brings together our individual engagement of democracy with habits and links them to institutions of democracy when he says:

In any case, we can escape from this external way of thinking only as we realize in thought and act that democracy is a personal way of individual life; that it signifies the possession and continual use of certain attitudes, forming personal character and determining desire and purpose in all the relations of life. Instead of thinking of our own dispositions and habits as accommodated to certain institutions we have to learn to think of the latter as expressions, projections and extensions of habitually dominant personal attitudes.23

So, while democracy and the development of citizenship may ultimately boil down to individuals, those individuals can never be abstracted from their social contexts, their acts always have social or political impact, and their habits have the capacity to shape democracy and its institutions. Our identities as citizens are not individual understandings, nor are they merely constituted by a sense of membership. Instead, they are deeply social, for our intelligence and our identities are formed through transactions with others. Our understanding of ourselves as citizens is centrally about our life as actors in the social and political arena where we engage our habits. And as Dewey and I aim to deepen personal democracy, we do so, in part, through engaging individuals with others in publics and in the transformation of institutions, not by emphasizing individual virtues or acts apart from other people or society.

Further examining this quote from Dewey we see that rethinking our personal role in democracy via our habits radically changes problematic ways of understanding institutions as existing apart from us and requiring our assimilation to them, and instead regrounds civil society as an extension of our democratic habits. We are able, then, not only to influence institutions, including public schools, but also to have a key role in forming and composing them, thereby highlighting the active and powerful role our personal habits play in shared social living. With this in mind, Judith Green’s comments on Dewey can likely be extended to an analysis of social situations and popular beliefs today when she says, “Though he greatly valued America’s democratic heritage, Dewey believed that Americans’ mid-twentieth-century cultural outlook and social practices had become overly reliant on the forms of our traditional institutions, giving insufficient attention to democratic culture—to actively nurturing the kinds of dispositions and habits of daily living that underlie the actual functioning of these institutions and that are indivisible elements of the democratic ideal"24

Often, talk of virtues is focused on individuals and, especially in the case of some civic republicans, the freedoms of the individual are subordinated to the common good. It would seem that habits might also be reduced to the individual’s development and engagement with them. For Dewey, habits are individually held, and living democratically is a deeply personal endeavor. But his view of the formation of habits and their practice as inherently social and transactional prevents resulting calls for citizenship education from being problematically individualistic or overly communal. Unlike citizenship as rights talk, which is based on the assumption that individuals are isolated beings with inherent entitlements who see themselves as deserving to do whatever they want to, a habits view of citizenship begins with an individual that is always in and of society. These social relationships are constitutive of the individual, giving rise to his or her own desires and interests, but they also raise responsibilities on the part of that individual to others.

Rather than viewing democracy as merely a formal system of government, Dewey saw democracy as a way of life that guides one personally and in interactions with others. Dewey’s social definition of democracy as a “mode of associated living”25 foregrounds the importance of collective decision making and the building of social intelligence through group problem solving, communication, and the sharing of experiences. But more than this, his model of how one’s personal democratic identity—composed of one’s habits, dispositions, and beliefs—works in a social framework reveals the importance of ongoing social and political action that sustains and improves collective democratic life. Citizenship education, it follows, must be thoroughly social even as it affirms individual development.

Citizenship education must employ democratic means to achieve democratic ends. In this way, rather than merely educating for democracy— something to be achieved by graduates at some distant point in time or beyond school walls—Dewey’s view of habit formation and change demands educating through democracy, while still preparing children for their future roles as citizens.26 In other words, habits of democracy are best formed and nurtured by engaging in democratic practices within schools and related civil society in the present moment. For Dewey, democracy is both an end and a means. It is a way of life that we strive to achieve, but in order to do so, our day-to-day practices must themselves also be democratic. This includes the way that children are educated to be good citizens. We cannot teach them to see democracy as an admirable end goal while engaging in classroom practices that are, for example, totalitarian. Rather, we must employ means that are aligned with the end, allowing students to engage in collective problem solving, inclusive communication, and shared governance as we rear them into the role of citizen. The thoughts and habits developed in this process are themselves open to change and influence from students, thereby allowing democracy to transform across time, rather than limiting children to an overly narrow or predetermined sense of democracy or good citizenship.

While I will speak of developing habits in individual students, my focus is not on students as individuals, but rather on how habits enable them to work together as publics and to function democratically. Ever since the Enlightenment, we have tended to think of democratic education as being about creating independent thinkers equipped with certain knowledge or virtues, without considering their relationships to other people or contexts.27 The vision of citizenship education I offer in this book, however, while still concerned with developing certain dispositions of good citizenship in individuals, focuses much more on how those dispositions are related to transactions with others and are embedded in the real contemporary contexts of public schools and the social and political influences they currently face.

These dispositions are best cultivated when one is directly and actively engaged in public participation alongside others. They cannot be deeply instilled by merely imparting pertinent knowledge that must then lie dormant waiting for relevant circumstances to arise before it may be put to use. Or, in Dewey’s words,

The development within the young of the attitudes and dispositions necessary to the continuous and progressive life of a society cannot take place by direct conveyance of beliefs, emotions, and knowledge. It takes place through the intermediary of the environment ... It is truly educative in its effect in the degree in which an individual shares or participates in some conjoint activity. By doing his share in the associated activity, the individual appropriates the purpose which actuates it, becomes familiar with its methods and subject matters, acquires needed skill, and is saturated with its emotional spirit.28

Like Dewey, I contend that we must have opportunities to try out social inquiry and decision making in the midst of real and deep problems and disagreements. My vision for citizenship education is necessarily public and participatory, one that calls for engaging in cooperation and collaboration, in order to aid students in confronting the antidemocratic forces of competition and privatization pressing down on schools now, and to produce the types of citizens who will create publics and usher them through to maturity to ensure the future health of democracy. This is not to say that the needs or interests of individuals will be overlooked, but rather that they will be explored through public problem-solving efforts, situated within a larger redefinition of politics. While there may be some worthwhile roles for virtuous citizens who carefully adhere to foundational norms of democracy, I seek to develop those capable of and motivated to engage in the types of public work that keep democracy strong.

Too often, citizenship education is construed as socializing children into the image of an ideal citizen. While there are likely some traits of good citizens that will withstand the test of time, we cannot know just what shape citizenship will take as a democracy grows and changes to meet the needs of its environment and constituents.29 Dewey insightfully cautions,

With the advent of democracy and modern industrial conditions, it is impossible to foretell definitely just what civilization will be twenty years from now. Hence it is impossible to prepare the child for any precise set of conditions. To prepare him for the future life means to give him command of himself; it means so to train him that he will have the full and ready use of all his capacities; that his eye and ear and hand may be tools ready to command, that his judgment may be capable of grasping the conditions under which it has to work, and the executive forces be trained to act economically and efficiently.30

What we can do in the face of such uncertainty about the future of democracy and the changing problems we will encounter within it is to advocate developing political agency, via the formation of habits that support a flourishing public life and the capacity for change, as a way to provide the youth with starting points for their path to a citizenship that will transform across their lifespans.

As I have argued elsewhere,31 habits themselves should be flexible, and therein lies one of their most significant democratic implications: they can be adapted for an unknown social future. Given this, in the next chapter I provide not an all-inclusive list of specific habits of good citizenship, but rather highlight some of the habits that most need attention within, or could best serve the demands of, our current democracy, especially given the pressures impacting schools, anticipating a future where they will continue to be of use and adapted. While there are certainly elements of these habits that may have proven themselves to be enduring across centuries of democracy, my focus is not on general or static habits, but rather on flexible and context-specific habits that better prepare children for adapting to new and changing environments. In particular, these are habits that can helpfully respond to the current struggles in civil society and citizen life relative to schools that I’ve discussed in this book, thereby helping to make my calls for responsibility and increased citizen participation in schools more feasible.

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