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April 5, 2011

why it is good to talk to people across the political spectrum

Three lively discussions about civic education within two weeks: one at the CUNY Graduate Center in Manhattan, the next at James Madison's Montpelier, the third in DC. A similar topic, but the participants came from very different places on our wide political spectrum.

At CUNY, at least one participant believed that No Child Left Behind was a right-wing strategy to privatize all public schools. (The theory goes: once schools fail to meet the Adequate Yearly Progress benchmarks, students will be given vouchers.) Another speaker simply called charter schools "private" and saw them as a manifestation of creeping market fundamentalism. I don't know whether these views represented consensus in the room, but no one challenged them. There was some talk about trying to revive the "open classroom" movement of the 1970s. A distinguished and experienced scholar said that he had expected Barack Obama's election to change everything, but when that failed, he was now ready to give up on politics.

At Montpelier, at least one participant felt that any federal intervention in education is unconstitutional (because education is not listed among the enumerated powers). Thus to try to influence the federal government to support civic education would be to mis-educate our students, who should be learning that the government has wantonly exceeded its constitutional limits. No Child Left Behind is a liberal plot to get the federal government deeply implicated in our schools. There was much talk about teaching the founding documents of the Republic. Some people felt that we should stay out of politics and policy completely and instead create small, alternative spaces where teachers and students could explore first principles.

These contrasting thoughts clear one's head, challenge one's clichés, and take one back to first principles. What is the proper role of a national government in civic education? What should students learn, and how? And how can we even consider national standards, if our adults disagree so profoundly about the core purposes of education?

(The participants in DC seemed less explicitly ideological to me, perhaps because they were much more numerous, predominantly centrist, and focused on pending policy changes.)

April 5, 2011 2:32 PM | category: advocating civic education | Comments



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