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March 18, 2008

civic education without constraints

I have been asked to write a short article about my ideal version of democratic education. This is an opportunity to ignore the usual constraints: time, money, and political pressures. The venue for my article will be the CANDE newsletter.* I think I'll say:

We ought to treat students as citizens, giving them assignments that really matter and that stretch them both intellectually and ethically. Research shows that such opportunities boost their skills, knowledge, and habits. Besides, it is an ethical imperative to treat our fellow human beings--including our youth--as responsible members of the community.

Too often, I think, we ask students to investigate issues and problems that arise within the adolescent world--such as drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, or their own stereotypes and prejudices--without asking them to evaluate and change the world that we have created for them. That world starts with the massive and powerful institutions that we have built to school them.

If, as in many school systems, the downtown bureaucracy consumes much of the funding, the most experienced and successful teachers gravitate to the least challenging schools, or the textbooks don't match the standards, kids will feel the consequences. Therefore, one ideal form of civic education would be research by students into how their own systems are run. They will probably find that the educational system bears some responsibility for any shortcomings or inequities. But they may also find fault with other actors, such as the government as a whole, the teachers' unions, the taxpayers, or parents and the students themselves.

As long as we are fantasizing (and ignoring all political constraints), we could imagine kids filing Freedom of Information requests, interviewing teachers off the record, attending public meetings, and taking photos of facilities. They could create spreadsheets to estimate the real expenditures of their school system, thereby learning valuable civic and business skills and obtaining power through information. When they uncovered waste and mismanagement, they could develop strategies for reform: alerting the media, filing class-action lawsuits, building public websites, or even working with political challengers. (I said I would ignore all real-world constraints!) They might also discover genuine choices, dilemmas, and constraints that confront their school district. Kids could promote discussion of these choices by providing background materials and convening public meetings.

In my ideal world, research and action on educational issues would continue over years and accumulate. Often, we ask classes to develop their own plans for service or community research, because we see choice as empowering. However, short-term projects rarely amount to much, and they don't replicate real civic work, which has to be cumulative to be successful. I would love to see new waves of students recruited into ambitious, ongoing programs that combine research, deliberation, direct service, and political action--all focused on their own school systems.

*Citizenship and Democratic Education (CANDE) is a special interest group in the Comparative and International Education Society. With scores of participants from around the world, the SIG provides a community for scholars, practitioners and graduate students concerned about the role of education in democracy. The CIES conference will meet in March in New York City, and anyone interested could participate in March, 2009, in Charleston, South Carolina. The SIG is chaired by Doyle Stevick, University of South Carolina, and editor (with Bradley Levinson) of two books of possible interest to people concerned about civics: Reimagining Civic Education: How Diverse Societies form Democratic Citizens (2007) and Advancing Democracy Through Education? U.S. Influence Abroad and Domestic Practices (in print, 2008).

March 18, 2008 10:25 AM | category: advocating civic education | Comments


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