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August 10, 2006

a cautionary tale

John Dewey and his contemporaries in the Progressive Era invented many of the standard forms of civic education, including social studies courses, student governments, service clubs, scholastic newspapers, and 4-H. Dewey rightly argued that "Formal instruction ... easily becomes remote and dead--abstract and bookish, to use the ordinary words of depreciation." He favored experiential education for democracy and tried to "reorganize" American education "so that learning takes place in connection with the intelligent carrying forward of purposeful activities." A good example would be a school newspaper, which requires sustained, cooperative work, promotes deliberation, and depends upon perennial values such as freedom of the press.

As Diane Ravitch writes in The Troubled Crusade (1983), Dewey saw educational reform as a "vital part" of a broader "social and political reform movement" that aimed at richer and more equitable political participation. Thus Dewey and his fellow progressives sought better civic education while they also battled corruption, pursued women's suffrage and civil rights, and launched independent political journals for adults. They saw civic experiences in school as means to help students begin participating in the serious business of democracy, which also needed to be reformed.

Unfortunately, the specific innovations that the progressives introduced into schools--scholastic newspapers, debate clubs, social studies courses, and the like--could easily lose their original connection to democracy. When that purpose was forgotten or ignored, extracurricular activities and social studies classes became means to impart good behavior, academic skills, or "social hygiene"--not ways to begin changing society.

Soon, Ravitch writes, "the progressive education movement became institutionalized and professionalized, and its major themes accordingly changed. Shorn of its roots in politics and society, pedagogical progressivism came to be identified with the child-centered school; with a pretentious scientism; with social efficiency and social utility rather than social reform; and with a vigorous suspicion of 'bookish' learning."

Today, there is a serious risk that we could repeat the same pattern. For example, excellent service-learning programs enhance students' civic capacity: they increase skills and motivations for self-government. The best programs allow students to tackle problems that really matter, sometimes provoking controversy. But service-learning is being widely advocated as a way to reduce teen pregnancy or drug abuse and as an alternative to "bookish" academic curricula for students who are not succeeding in school. There is merit in both rationales, but there is also the danger that service-learning will be watered down and depoliticized. To use Ravitch's terms, service-learning can be shorn of its connection to politics, made overly "child-centered" (instead of academically challenging), and used to enhance "social efficiency" (e.g., to lower rates of delinquency) as recommended by behavioral scientists.

The alternative is to recall that schools are public spaces in which young people begin the serious business of self-government and have early opportunities to pursue social change. Although it is helpful to consult scientific studies, students and other community members must decide for themselves what social causes they favor. (No "pretentious scientism"!) Service-learning, civics courses, and extracurricular activities are useful means for democratic education, but they are not ends in themselves. The point of the whole business is democracy, which begins in school and not after graduation.

August 10, 2006 1:32 PM | category: advocating civic education | Comments


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