Times of crisis give institutions an opportunity to assess what matters most. It’s hard not to notice that democracy is in deep trouble. Trump administration officials’ winks and nods to white supremacists, abundant corporate money in electoral politics, voter suppression, hyper-partisanship and the rising distrust of government suggest that we in society don’t know or care for basic principles of democracy, let alone know how to practice them.
Educational leaders must take responsibility for instilling basic civic practices and virtues in their students immediately, or they may lose the option to autocrats who have other ideas on how to run a country. At a gathering of the nation’s most prominent political scientists in October, Harvard lecturer Yascha Mounk said, “If current trends continue for another 20 or 30 years, democracy will be toast.”
In addition to the abandonment of democratic traditions, the brazen disregard for immigrants and immigration signals that the foundation on which U.S. public institutions stand — democracy and citizenship — is eroding. Education isn’t just affected by the problem; it’s a part of it. Tribal battles around charter schools, Common Core and school vouchers are symptomatic of a sickly democracy that educators have a responsibility to heal. In the face of nativism, anomie and extreme intolerance, it’s clear that educators have a civic duty to return the educational system to its basic democratic aims.
The purpose of an education is to maximize individual talents for the good of democracy, citizenship and social cohesion. Schools and colleges must empower citizens and potential citizens with the ability to think critically, engage in the democratic processes and behave in a civic fashion, knowing that our fates in democracy are intertwined.
Society needs schools and universities to reinforce what researcher Melissa Comber identified as “personal communication skills, knowledge of political systems, and the ability to critically think about civic and political life,” or the foundation on which education stands will crumble beneath it. We can categorize these foundational skills as components of social and emotional learning, soft skills or citizenship education, or we can plainly call it learning. Nevertheless, the current push for college and career readiness is insufficient to develop a civic mentality.
An overemphasis on individual academic development and preparation for college and career has come at the expense of learning responsible citizenship and learning for the benefit of social cohesion. To maximize our chances of getting a job or into college, we’ve separated learning into discrete components — academic, social, emotional — that when applied in narrow terms of college and career readiness defies how we actually live.
People don’t live in schools or jobs; they live in communities. Schools and employers don’t transcend neighborhoods and cities; they are part of them. We can no more dissect and separate learning from our civic selves than we can disconnect individual talents from their public impact. The segregation of learning reflects that we educators have lost our sense of purpose. Based on conventional measures, literacy is on the rise. But so are class inequality, incidents of hate as well as government attacks on basic civil liberties. We must primarily focus on our civic selves or our “solutions” will continue to further divide us.
Advances in technology, upheaval in the labor market and politics will always create skirmishes about how education should be delivered. Based on hotheaded debates around charter schools, standardized tests and new curricula, you may think the future of the country hinges on those issues. But questions of who should receive an education and what they should learn — as opposed to the delivery system of learning — have much greater bearing on our democracy.
To be clear, citizenship is the legal status of being a member of a country. Membership is important because who we deem as members determines with whom “we make those choices, from whom we require obedience and collect taxes, [and] to whom we allocate goods and services,” philosopher Michael Walzer wrote in Spheres of Justice. Deportations of students who are members of our community (though not yet citizens); prohibitions on financial aid for them; hate crimes in schools and universities; as well as high expulsion and suspension rates among specific ethic groups reflect our collective struggle in determining who is a member of our community. Not only do we have trouble defining membership, we also don’t see our fellow members as equals worthy of citizenship.
Likewise, says Derek Bok, former president of Harvard University, “Fake news, hyper-partisanship, dark money, and the widespread distrust of government has led some educators to ask what more can be done to prepare young people for responsible citizenship in a democratic society.” Low voter turnout, abdication of democratic norms and corrosive political discourse are indicators of a lack of educational quality that we should attend to.
Educators have not reckoned with questions of whom public education should prepare and for what. We generally agree upon the idea that “education is a process of preparation or getting ready,” which philosopher John Dewey interrogated most thoroughly in 1903. But questions of who and what have more impact on the fate of a democracy. Remember, women and blacks helped build the country but historically have been denied the benefits of citizenship. Those groups’ educational options reflected that second-class status. Our inability to understand why similarly situated undocumented immigrants should receive financial aid reflects that educators have not addressed important lessons of the past.
We should have as many different perspectives on how education should be delivered as our diversity affords. However, the backbone of democratic learning in every school must support our differences. Or, our sense of direction will be limited to our balkanized ideas and methods.
Though we teach Civics to encourage voting, uphold government traditions (like advancing presidents’ nominations of Supreme Court justices) and heighten the level of political discourse, we educate our children for the main purposes of civility. Today, schools are contributing to its decline by preparing kids for college and careers only. Educators must use this time of crisis to reclaim its greater purpose. If leaders uplift education’s higher purpose of democracy they may forge a way forward out of the undemocratic abyss.