« the Amish and freedom | Main | developmental psychology »

October 28, 2003

justice-oriented citizens

I'm in the air, en route to Colorado Springs for a conference on service-learning and cognitive science. I'll explain what that means once I've participating in some sessions and understand the topic better.

Yesterday, I spoke at a conference sponsored by the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools within the US Department of Education. This is the office that has responsibility for civic education, and the assignment may be a bureaucratic accident. But it does raise the question: Is there a form of civic education that can help makes schools safer? Perhaps a standard view is that "good citizens" are those who don't abuse drugs or act violently; thus "civic education" means reducing such antisocial personal behavior. I would like to endorse an alternative position advanced by Dr. Joel Westheimer at yesterday's conference. Joel argues that we'll only make schools safer by helping to create active, critical, participatory democratic citizens who strive for justice. "Justice-oriented" civic education will reduce crime because (a) teaching kids to be civic activists may steer some away from negative roles; and (b) if there is a critical mass of active citizens in a school, they may be able to address immediate causes of crime, such as a lack of after-school activities.

Clearly, creating "justice-oriented citizens" would be good even if it didn't make schools safer. Whether there is a link between the best forms of civic education and safe schools is an empirical question. I don't know whether it has been answered. But it is plausible to imagine that youth civic engagement would reduce crime.

October 28, 2003 12:09 PM | category: advocating civic education | Comments


I was intrigued by your discussion of Dr. Joel Westheimer's argument that creating "justice-oriented" citizens will have beneficial effects on schools.

But, I am discomfitted by half of his argument. I would counter that creating citizens -- in a normative ense of the word -- with just about any "orientation" will have beneficial effects on schools. It's another way of saying that as we improve a school's surrounding community, the school itself and the students therein will benefit. As will all institutions that require a relationship with citizens to operate effectively.

Why, I would go on to ask, do the activists need to be "justice" oriented? I assume that the use of justice here is not in terms of law enforcement but rather "social justice." In other words, a very particular sort of political orientation. And so, one might worry that what is truly being said is: "If more people were to engage in my kind of activism, then schools would be a better place." But, why not other kinds of orientations and activism? I could imagine that if there were a concerted attempt to create more "faith-oriented" citizens in a commiunity that the school would benefit. I don't mean to get silly with the riposte, but you see what I mean.

December 1, 2003 12:10 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Brad Rourke

One the one hand, I am inclined to agree with Brad Rourke that the broader a notion of "active" citizenship, the better. After all, isn't getting kids involved a good thing in and of itself? On the other hand (I always like to keep two hands around just for these kind of dilemmas), his comments imply a kind of value-neutrality to active citizenship that, left unchecked, could be troublesome.

It's true, when I talk about "justice-oriented" citizenship, I mean an orientation to social justice, but since those words are fairly meaningless these days, let me be clear: by justice-oriented citizenship I mean a conception of the democratic citizen as one who works with others to help improve society; it is a conception consistent with Vincent Harding's vision of a democracy that involves constantly "participating in the creation of something new and better than what had existed previously." This requires the ability to analyze root causes of troubles in society. So I see two dilemmas here.

First, when it comes to education for a democratic society, I don't believe all forms of activism are equal no matter the ideological orientation. Some forms of activism, in fact, are downright antithetical to the idea of democracy. Indeed, faith-based civic education (as Mr. Rourke suggests is one possible orientation) has the potential to be one such form. I am all for religious organizations encouraging members to participate in community affairs, but what happens when the beliefs of that organization go against the free exchange of ideas that are essential to democracy? The multitude of fundamentalist groups that organize to keep all sorts of books out of school libraries are active--no one could argue that they are not--but the ends to which they are organizing run counter to the democratic ideal of free exchange of ideas.

Second, too often when educators have focused on merely "being active" and on avoiding particular ideologies by remaining "neutral" regardless of the ideological orientation of that activism, they have instead paved the way for a kind of education that serves the interests of--for lack of a better way to phrase it--those with power. In short, because the media and the broader culture disproportionately reflect particular interests and perspectives and obscure others, there is no level playing field on which students can engage controversial issues. Educators must therefore help students consider the interests and power relations embedded in various perspectives--a formidable task, and one associated with (social) justice-oriented civic education. It is this constant analysis and re-analysis of power relations that, I believe, is the engine of progress in democratic societies.

Helping students learn to think about and pursue social change does not, however, require that they be taught to adopt particular perspectives on particular policy issues, only that they learn how to engage these issues critically.

In sum, I agree with Mr. Rourke that having students be active is, generally speaking, a good thing. But I don't think any and all orientations will have beneficial effects on schools. There are "activist" orientations that, in my mind, are sure to have deleterious effects on democracy: for example, a school-based civic education program that teaches students that the only legitimate explanation for poverty is that mom and dad are not working hard enough sends a message to students that deep analysis of social problems is unnecessary and counterproductive and that compassion may be misguided. It sends the message that the best we can do for democracy is stand back and let the free market work its magic. I think we can do better. I think democracy depends on it.

December 1, 2003 12:11 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Joel Westheimer

Site Meter