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October 14, 2005

"education for Democratic Citizenship"

This is a speech on that I delivered in Madrid on November 4, 2005, to an audience of educators from the Spanish-speaking world.

Thank you very much for asking me to speak. I apologize for talking in English. Perhaps you know the old joke:

What do you call someone who knows three languages? Trilingual.
What do you call someone who knows two languages? Bilingual.
What do you call someone who knows one language? American.

As it happens, I am not monolingual, but unfortunately I have not yet learned Spanish. I hope to begin studying it within the next few years. In the meantime, I am grateful to the translators for making it possible for me to speak here today.

I want to talk about education for democracy or civic education. I will end by discussing how schools can help make adolescents into effective citizens. I will cite data from several countries, especially Mexico, the United States, Colombia, and Chile.

"Civic education” sometimes sounds like a rather specialized or optional matter--especially at the beginning of the 21st century, when we are desperately trying to make all our students competitive in a global economy that values mathematics, science, and literacy. Under these conditions, it seems necessary to explain why civic education is not a luxury that can be considered only after we are satisfied with our children’s basic literacy. Quite the contrary--I believe that civic education is a critical component of an international struggle to sustain democracy itself.

Half of Latin Americans believe that democracy is the best of all systems, but the percentage who hold that view has fallen in 18 of the Latin American countries since 1996. Young people have been the least likely to support democracy in these annual surveys.
In Europe, we hear deep concerns about a "democracy deficit." The defeat of the proposed European Constitution in France and the Netherlands reflected the unpopularity--perhaps deserved--of that proposal; yet the status quo is also unpopular and relies on unaccountable institutions in Brussels.

In the United States, many citizens are concerned about an angry and unproductive struggle between left and right, low trust in government, and restricted democratic liberties after the attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.

I will not call this situation a "crisis,” because that word is overused. I suspect one could find a speech from every year since 1900 in which someone declared a "crisis of democracy," and I don't want to join the list.

However, it is right for every generation to be concerned. Democracy always faces threats and challenges; we overlook them at our peril. When the Constitution of my country was drafted in 1787, its authors emerged onto the hot streets of Philadelphia, and an onlooker named Mrs. Powel singled out Benjamin Franklin for a question. "Well, Doctor," she asked, "what have we got, a Republic or a Monarchy?" "A Republic," Franklin replied, "if you can keep it." Maintaining our democracies is our responsibility, and it requires constant work.

Many observers believe that the worst threat to democracy today is globalization and the rapid movement of capital. Elected governments have limited scope for choice if investors are free to move to the most profitable locations. When a democratic government decides to raise taxes, businesses may simply relocate. Even if you favor low taxes, you may still believe that a representative government should be free to set its own economic policies. In a competitive global marketplace, states are not free--especially not if they are deeply indebted.

On the other hand, it is interesting that the top seventeen "most competitive nations" in the world, according to the World Economic Forum, are all robust democracies that compete by providing good public services, not by reducing the size of their governments. The US is on the list, but it is surpassed by Finland and followed by Sweden and Denmark. Thus I am not sure that globalization is necessarily bad for democracy. States seem to have the power to compete even if they govern their own economies intensively, as long as they have strong democratic systems that protect against corruption and bias.

However, one form of global commerce creates particular problems. Increasingly, cultural products--books, movies, images, and music--move across borders and look the same everywhere. A self-governing people must be able to create its own culture; that is as important as setting its own economic policy. It is a matter of identity, and identities are threatened when everyone consumes an identical pop culture.

My country was recently defeated in a UNESCO vote on preserving cultural diversity. The vote was 158-1. The US government tends to look out for the economic interests of Hollywood and the publishing industry, which want free access to all national markets. However, let me suggest that it's a diagnostic mistake to see global pop culture as an American problem. Although some of the big media companies are headquartered in the US, others are located in Germany, Japan, and elsewhere. In any case, the demand for their products is global, which means that the cultural problem is universal, not merely American. Besides, the United States has always been a country of great internal diversity and vibrant, creative local communities. Most of us are proud of that heritage and concerned that Big Media, wherever its corporate headquarters may be located, is taking away our voices.

Pop culture exemplifies another problem that, I believe, deserves more attention. Usually, talented and beautiful celebrities and highly trained experts work together to create best-selling cultural products. Millions of people would like to be movie stars or recording engineers, but the market is incredibly competitive, and only a few people actually occupy those roles. The more that slick, professional products penetrate the international market, the less scope exists for ordinary people to create cultural products that others will value.

The same pattern has occurred in the fine arts (not just pop culture), and also in government and civic life. Increasingly during the 20th century, we saw public problems as technically complex and expected experts to address them. The offices of the European Union and the IMF and World Bank are full of such experts. A recent survey in Mexico found that half of recent secondary-school graduates define "democracy” as government by experts. Meanwhile, national political leaders have become charismatic celebrities, featured on the same pages with movie stars and models.

Indeed, expertise and talent have their place, but they create a tension with democracy. In a world that values outstanding talent and specialized knowledge, most people have a limited role to play beyond that of consumer. However, people who have little direct experience in governing their own communities will not be able to select good representatives (because they won't know what it is like to make judgments and defend positions on public issues). They may have unrealistic expectations for government--either too high or too low. They may support democratic governments when times are good but prefer authoritarianism when the economic news is bad. Not having a personal stake in democracy, or much direct experience with it, they will evaluate it only for what it can deliver in the short term.

Besides, experts don't know everything; they are subject to corruption; and they have nowhere near as much potential creativity and enthusiasm as the population at large.
Thus vibrant and effective democracies require civic participation. To participate, one needs experience. And ordinary people can have experience only if experts and professionals leave them some space.

We need everyone to create and distribute cultural products that collectively (although not homogeneously) define their communities. We also need ordinary people to be able to address community problems together, whether their problems are war, poverty, crime, or traffic jams. From their experience in working together at a human scale, individuals can develop the skills and passion to be effective citizens of Chile, Venezuela, the USA, or the European Union.

I have said that we live in an era of globalization, technical expertise, and celebrity culture. The most powerful politicians (in my country and elsewhere) combine all three problems: they are celebrities, they play to global audiences, and they use an arsenal of sophisticated techniques to manipulate public opinion. Under these circumstances, it is easy to be discouraged about civic participation.

At the same time, however, we live in an age of civic innovation, when people are creating new ways to participate, appropriate for the 21st century. As part of my job, I try to observe these innovations in the United States, but I usually find that each excellent project is part of an international network. Sometimes, the global leaders come from countries like Brazil and South Africa, relatively new democracies with extraordinary records of civic experimentation.

The civic work that I admire most has the following features.

First, it is open-ended. In other words, it doesn't attempt to drive people to any pre-determined views, but helps them to develop their own positions. It takes seriously the ideas and experiences that people actually have; it doesn't assume that they have been manipulated by capitalism, religion, the state, the mass media, or any other force to adopt views that they should be disabused of. In short, it is respectful--and respectful of everyone, including those traditionally left out (even teenagers). A single word for such respectful, inclusive discussion is "deliberation."

Second, good civic work combines deliberation with action, because talk alone is frustrating. People must be able to consider an issue together, listen to one another’s ideas, and then actually do something about it.

Third, the actions that people take are often creative. I realize that our interests sometimes clash; then we must negotiate our differences or compete for power and scare resources. Disagreement and competition are unavoidable, but they are not the whole of politics. People can also be creative together, building new institutions, increasing public assets, strengthening networks, and developing our shared culture.

Fourth, civic work occurs at a human scale, not merely in bureaucratic national organizations or the mass media.

And finally, civic work pays attention to young people, who must be deliberately supported and guided as they learn to participate in civic life.

I could provide many examples of excellent civic work that takes place in communities around the world. For instance, thousands of citizens in Brazilian cities like Porto Alegre meet to allocate a percentage of their municipal budget to priorities that they set themselves--using a model that has been borrowed in other Latin American countries. Corruption is down and efficiency is up as a result of broad public participation.

In many nations, new forms of cooperative agriculture, housing, and manufacturing are springing up and prospering. Some of these organizations are impressively competitive. For instance, the Mondragón worker cooperative network in Spain had ten billion US dollars of sales in 2003. These organizations are firmly rooted in particular geographical communities and give ordinary people plenty of opportunities to become involved.

I could also mention numerous examples of nonprofit media that take advantage of the openness of the Internet and the cheapness of video and audio production today. It is possible to create an elaborate and impressive news channel with virtually no money, as long as one can harness the volunteer contributions of many citizens.

However, today I want to emphasize work with young people, and especially work that can realistically be expected to take place inside fairly conventional schools. Few national ministries of education will be enthusiastic about engaging their students in creating alternative media channels or allocating government funds. These ideas are too radical. However, there is worthwhile civic work for students to do that is more palatable to the authorities.

A mass of evidence from developmental psychology shows that what we experience during adolescence has long-term effects on our civic skills and behaviors. What a 14-year-old believes about politics is not as important as her experiences working with others on social issues. Such experiences teach skills, they generate habits, they introduce individuals into networks of people who are busy working on civic problems. Above all, they help to create an identity. People who have a habit of being civically active begin to believe that they are responsible citizens: that is their nature. Actions like voting, participating in meetings, volunteering time, collecting information, and expressing one’s views then come naturally.

All sectors should be involved in civic education--not just teachers and schools, but also parents, religious leaders, journalists, judges, and politicians. However, schools play a crucial role.

To an extent, all education is civic education: data consistently show that people who have had more years of schooling are more skillful and confident in political settings and more favorable toward democracy. Thus, it is critical to broaden educational attainment for all young people. In the United States, where a high school diploma is considered essential for full participation in the economy, only two-thirds of young people complete high school. Only about one half of students who identify themselves as "Latino” receive diplomas. In Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic, less than half of the population that’s of age to be in secondary school is actually enrolled.

While all good education has civic advantages, we should not overlook the power of programs that are deliberately designed to prepare democratic citizens. Increasingly, we understand how to make civic education work in schools. Data collected from multiple countries shows the following relationships:

First, students who belong to clubs in the schools at age 14 or 17 are much more likely than other people to be involved in civil society--even 40 years later. These findings underline the importance of school clubs and other student organizations. Chile and Colombia are among many countries in which data show that most students belong to some kind of school group (yet many do not). Elected student governments and school newspapers may be especially valuable, but sports clubs also seem to help.

Second, students who study government, history, or law know more about those subjects than other students. Knowledge is not sufficient by itself, but it is useful. One cannot participate very effectively in politics or civil society without a baseline of facts. Probably, those who have some political knowledge at age 17 are able to acquire more throughout their lives, because they are capable of understanding the news and participating in discussions. Those who have little knowledge at age 17 may be permanently left out.

Third, discussions of current issues in schools give students a greater interest in politics, improved critical thinking and communication skills, more civic knowledge, and greater interest in discussing public affairs outside of school.
Reading the newspaper is a powerful predictor of civic engagement among young people. This relationship has been found in studies in the US, Colombia, Chile, and Portugal, among other countries. However, reading the newspaper is hard. Reporters expect their readers to have a foundation of information and skills. Therefore, it may be very worthwhile to devote time specifically to teaching young people to read a newspaper.

By the way, students should learn to assess news critically. In Chile, only 5 percent of 14-year-olds say that they always trust the national government; but more than 25 percent always trust TV news.

Fourth, students who have an opportunity to combine academic study with practical work on social issues sometimes develop civic skills and even change their identities so that they see themselves as active citizens. In the United States, a practice called "service-learning” is very common. Service-learning means a deliberate combination of unpaid community work (for example, helping elderly people or cleaning up a park) with academic study of the same topic. The phrase "service-learning” does not translate very well and is not used much in other countries, but many cultures have vital traditions of combining education with service.

Fifth, students benefit if they feel they have a voice in their own schools. To have a "voice” means that school authorities will listen to you if you express opinions in a responsible way. Students who feel that they have a voice in their schools are more civically "proficient”--they understand democratic concepts better and consider themselves more likely to participate as informed voters.

Promoting student "voice” does not mean abdicating adult responsibility or allowing kids to run a school. It does mean reducing the authoritarianism that is traditional in most countries’ educational systems, and that often makes teachers as well as students feel powerless and voiceless. Many democratic countries claim to support democratic voice in their schools. For example, a Resolution issued in Colombia in 1994 calls for all schools to operate in a democratic spirit and to include students in their Directive Councils. In the same country, the Escuelas Nuevas represent promising experiments that give a strong voice to students and teachers.

Nevertheless, authoritarian and arbitrary governance remains common in the educational systems of all countries with which I am familiar, including my own. If students are taught that democracy is excellent, but everyday they see that it does not exist in their own institutions, they are unlikely to develop into democratic citizens. Indeed, adolescents in Chile and Colombia are mostly able to describe democracy as an ideal but tend to see it as irrelevant to their experience. In Colombia, the more students that know about politics, the less they trust institutions such as schools and courts.

Finally, although I am not aware of data that proves it, I think it is likely that students who create plays, literary publications, music, or videos that have political or social themes will gain civic skills and confidence.

In short, good civic education has all of the features that we expect of good civic work for adults. It is open-ended--allowing students to form their own conclusions about political issues and respecting their opinions. It is inclusive and democratic. In combines deliberation and reflection with work. It is creative and has a cultural dimension.

Any democracy must pay explicit attention to the development of its young people’s civic skills, habits, and attitudes. We human beings do not instinctively develop the skills necessary for democracy. We are not automatically capable of working together with others on common problems. We do not naturally understand alternative perspectives. Unless we are taught to care about other people, we are unlikely to show concern from anyone beyond our immediate circle of family and friends.

Citizens are made, not born. Civic education is the process by which we teach young people to be effective and responsible members of democratic communities. Increasingly, we know how to make civic education work in our schools. Nothing is more important to the future health of our democracies.

Some sources: The Latinobarómetro poll, summarized in "Democracy’s Low-Level Equilibrium,” The Economist, Aug 12th 2004; Felipe Tirado and Gilberto Guevara, "Educación Cívica: Un Estudio Complemenatrio,” México (2005), quoted in Fernando Reimers and Eleanora Villegas-Reim,ers, "Educating Democratic Citizens in Latin America,” in Lawrence Harrison and Jerome Kagan (eds.), Developing Cultures: Essays on Cultural Change (Routledge, 2005), pp. ; UNDP statistics from 2002/3; Judith Torney-Purta and Jo-Ann Amadeo, "Stengthening Democracy Through Civic Education: An Empirical Analysis Highlighting the Views of Students and Teachers,” Organization of American States (Washington, 2004); Alvaro Rodrìguez Rueda, "Education for Democracy in Colombia,” in Judith Torney-Purta, John Schwille, and Jo-Ann Amadeo (eds) Civic Education Across Countries: Twenty-Four National Case Studies from the IEA Civic Education Project (IEA, 1999), p. 141; Judith Torney-Purta, Carolyn Henry Barber and Wendy Klandl Richardon, "Trust in Government-related Institutions and Political Engagement among Adolescents in Six Countries,” Acta Politica, vol. 39 (2004), p. 396.

October 14, 2005 3:07 PM | category: advocating civic education | Comments


David Airth contributes this comment via email:

I found your blog interesting because I too am interested in democracy. You say that many observers see globalization as a threat to Democracy. You also say that democracy requires constant vigilance. I certainly agree with the last point. However, I don't see globalization as a threat to Democracy but as a challenge that strengthens it. Its challenge provokes the vigilance you speak of. Mature democracies grow lazy and complacent. They have to be challenged so as to remain alive and awake, and vigilant. Globalization helps in that undertaking.

I also see globalization as the spreader of Democracy. Under the auspices of globalization Communism was contained and collapsed. The only alternative to failed Communism was Democracy. Globalization made it known that Democracy was the only alternative and has help implement it around the world.

John Ralston Saul once said the corporatism was the greatest threat to Democracy. But that was after Communism's collapse. I bet before he would have said that Communism was the greatest threat to Democracy. Today he is one of those many observers who see globalization as the biggest threat. To remain strong and legitimate Democracy needs its threats and critics.

October 15, 2005 7:24 PM | Comments (1) | posted by Peter Levine

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