Educating for democracy

BY SHAWN GUDE | JULY 27, 2011 7:20 AM

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There were hours of breakout panels, several high-profile speakers, and an abundance of innovative ideas.

But this week's Iowa Education Summit was bereft of one vital emphasis: citizenship education.

With astronomical unemployment (and underemployment) and an insipid recovery, job creation likely trumps all else for many parents and students. However, education should do more than — in that ubiquitous, cringe-inducing phrase — prepare students for the "competitive global economy."

Yes, a dynamic economy requires an educated workforce. But would it really pain Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to discuss the importance of engaged, informed citizenship, and how our education system should reflect that commitment? Iowa's education system isn't simply training the next generation of workers, but the next generation of citizens.

As it stands, answers to some of the most rudimentary history and current-events questions — How many justices are on the Supreme Court? — are elusive for many students. Just 24 percent of U.S. high-school seniors attained proficiency in civics on the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress.

And that's the really basic stuff.

Being a "good citizen" means more than picking up trash at the park or knowing that the filibuster constrains the passage of bills through the Senate.

Fundamentally, democratic citizenship is about being accorded the power to shape otherwise unaccountable forces — governmental, economic, etc. — that affect one's life. It's about self-determination and empowerment. It's an emancipatory activity rooted in egalitarianism rather than crude clientelism or fawning devotion.

Through engaged citizenship — and grass-roots mobilization of like-minded citizens — the otherwise marginalized can challenge and displace entrenched structures of power. Markets have a role in building a prosperous society, but only democratic citizenship — not consumer choice — confers more than a modicum of power, regardless of material circumstance.

Democracy requires robust citizenship education because it's not merely a set of institutions that, absent renewal and concerted action, will continue interminably. It's also an ethos.

This is one of the main reasons you can't impose democracy externally: You may be able to set up institutions and hold reasonably fair elections, but it's going to be a minimalist, precarious democracy if it doesn't have bottom-up support from the citizenry. Similarly, if the electorate falls victim to manipulation and supports a demagogue — one of democracy's most real and endemic threats — the political system is weakened.

Citizenship education should do three main things: build a basic historical and political knowledge base (including media literacy); challenge students to think critically about the status quo and expose them to varying viewpoints; and allow them to realize their own capacity to effect change through democratic citizenship. (The final point is especially important for the oppressed and marginalized.)

We also need less-hierarchical learning environments that engage students on their own terms. Instead, the preponderance of schools still practice what educational theorist Paulo Freire termed the "banking concept of education," in which the teacher transmits unassailable information to passive students. This authoritarian model should be replaced with more democratic, student-centered approaches.

For democratic education enthusiasts, there was one bright spot at the education summit: the panel "Making Schools Fit Kids Instead of Kids Fit Schools." Decrying the "industrial model of education," panelists discussed ways to make school more student-driven (some more convincingly than others).

On the whole, though, the summit lacked an explicit commitment to citizenship education, a glaring oversight.

The strength of our democracy is more important than how our test scores stack up against other states.

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