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May 6, 2004

democracy and education

I'm on my way this morning to the Wye River retreat center on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where the 1997 Arab-Israeli agreement was hammered out. I'll be attending a much lower-profile event: a retreat for the First Amendment Schools project. Schools may apply to join this project if they want to increase student participation in their own governance as a means of civic education. For example, they may develop a school constitution, protect free expression for students, and strengthen student government and student news media. There are grants and other forms of support available for participating schools.

Some people take the line that education for democracy must itself be democratic. This is the theme, for example, of Carl Glickman's Holding Sacred Ground. John Dewey is the patron philosopher of this movement. Dewey and his followers hold that democracy is not just a system of government; it's a way of thinking about all aspects of life, from ethics to education to science and art.

My own view is a little different. I think that "democracy" means rule by citizens; it means elections and freedom of speech. It's an open question whether the best way to educate people for democracy is to organize schools in democratic ways. It doesn't follow logically that education for democracy requires democratic methods, and the empirical basis for this claim is not very strong. Nevertheless, I admire the First Amendment Schools, because I believe that it's good for educational institutions to embrace comprehensive and inspirational guiding philosophies. If a school embraces democratic education voluntarily and thoughtfully, it should get good results. However, democratic education is not the only way to make good citizens. I can imagine that a school might be organized according to scientific values, for example, and produce excellent citizens as graduates. Science, like democracy, is compatible with public education; but science is not the same as democracy. Likewise, a school might embrace artistic creativity as its core value and get good civic results. (Although some art is democratic, democracy is not the essence of art.) Religious instruction can also produce good citizens, as Yates and Youniss showed in their evaluation of a Jesuit high school that is not internally democratic. In my own work with high school students, we try to embody democratic values, but I regard this as only one road to civic education.

Meanwhile, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools has officially announced its existence and has released applications for grants. State teams that want to improve civic education are encouraged to apply.

May 6, 2004 9:40 AM | category: advocating civic education | Comments


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