Guide Civic Liberalism: Reflections on Our Democratic Ideals

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But new evidence suggests that American democracy is under severe strain. In a recent survey, two-thirds of Americans could not name all three branches of the federal government.

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Moving forward, the question has become: How can our public schools do a better job of educating children for our pluralistic democracy? This report proceeds in four parts. The first part articulates the ways in which the founders believed that public education was critical to protecting the republic from demagogues.

The second part discusses the tilt toward market values and away from democratic norms in recent years in both the courses we teach children directly and the way we model or do not model democratic practices in schooling. The third part outlines the considerable costs of failing to emphasize democratic values and embrace democratic practices. And the last part makes public policy recommendations for restoring the right balance in our schools at the state, local and federal levels. Throughout the report, we seek to synthesize the practical experiences of one of us Janey , who served as superintendent of public schools in Rochester, New York — , Washington, D.


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Since the founding of public education in the United States, public schools have been charged not only with giving future workers skills for the private marketplace, but also with preparing students to be citizens in a democracy. The American Founders were deeply concerned with finding ways to ensure that their new democracy, which provided ultimate sovereignty to the collective views of average citizens through the franchise, not fall prey to demagogues.

Spiller on Spragens, 'Civic Liberalism: Reflections on Our Democratic Idealism'

The problem of the demagogue, the Founders believed, was endemic to democracy. The potential rise of a demagogue is attenuated by dividing power between three branches of government executive, legislative and judicial ; between federal and state governments; and between government and a host of free civic institutions—an independent press, religious congregations, business groups, and labor unions—that check the power of government. The U. But the Founders believed that another layer of protection was needed.

The Constitution, after all, can be amended though with difficulty by the mob.

Putting Democracy Back into Public Education

Likewise, a demagogue, appealing to passions rather than reason, can use democratic means to win office, and, once in power, chip away at rival sources of authority—such as an independent press, and an independent judiciary—that stand in his way. Early leaders such as George Washington did not know how this system would work out. For the experiment to succeed, the Founders knew, a second fundamental bulwark against demagogues needed to be created: an educated populace. Beyond that, public education in the United States was also meant to instill a love of liberal democracy: a respect for the separation of powers, for a free press and free religious exercise, and for the rights of political minorities.

In this way, demagogues who sought to undermine those institutions would themselves be suspect among voters. Educating common people was the answer to the oligarchs who said the average citizen could not be trusted to choose leaders wisely. The centrality of public education to American democracy was not just the quaint belief of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century leaders.

The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education. Upon our educational system must largely depend the perpetuity of those institutions upon which our freedom and our security rest. To prepare each citizen to choose wisely and to enable him to choose freely are paramount functions of the schools in a democracy. Teaching students to be good democratic citizens had two distinct elements: 1 providing student the analytical and critical thinking skills necessary to be well informed and make sound decisions in elections; and 2 instilling in students an appreciation for the benefits of liberal democracy as a system of governance, thereby guarding against demagogues who would undermine democratic principles.

While many Americans take these values as self-evident, they are not in-born and must, as American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker noted, be taught and cultivated anew in each generation. It is not by virtue of birth, but by accepting a common set of values and beliefs that you become an American.

But it is our word, and we are taking it back. Americanization means becoming a part of the polity—becoming one of us. People from an extraordinary range of ethnic and religious backgrounds have embraced these ideas.

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There are two primary ways to encourage children to discover the genius of democracy: by telling them explicitly, and by showing them implicitly. A curriculum of rigorous courses in history, literature, and civics can cultivate knowledge of democratic practices and a belief in democratic values. Children should also be taught what it is like to live in nondemocratic countries in order to appreciate what they might otherwise take for granted.

But that is not enough. In addition to teaching democratic values directly, we must also address the hidden curriculum—what is taught to students implicitly, through how we conduct ourselves as a society, perhaps most important being how we choose to run our schools. Are the voices of parents and community members heard as a part of decision-making, or are they shut out by state takeovers and billionaire philanthropists who bankroll reform efforts?

Are teachers, parents, and students involved in determining how schools are run, or do principals get the only voice? Do students have access to economically and racially integrated schools where they are treated equally, or are they segregated into separate and unequal schools or tracks within schools? In recent decades, as the nature of the American economy changed to require greater knowledge and skills from workers, and as democratic capitalism spread after the collapse of the Soviet Union, educators shifted their emphasis strongly toward the role of schools in promoting private skills rather than civic education.

Fixing the civics curriculum is relatively straightforward. But getting the hidden curriculum right will require extensive efforts over time. Education reformers from both major political parties reduced the grand two-fold purposes of American public education to a narrower focus on workplace skills. As part of this effort, reformers have tended to emphasize the economic value of education to individual students using a particular focus on reading and math test scores as the salient metric of success. As civics instruction was curtailed, some education reformers went further in their push toward market-based policy, saying that there was too much democracy in the public education system itself.

Critics noted that these efforts to reduce democratic control of schools not only sent an unfortunate signal to students about democratic norms; they also frequently failed to improve educational outcomes. One popular strategy embraced by education reformers is state takeovers of struggling urban districts. These efforts have sometimes been aided by well-meaning philanthropists, who put faith in technocratic solutions and see community input as a hindrance to getting things done. This transformation would be accomplished not by reducing poverty or school segregation—strong predictors of academic achievement—but by a series of top-down reforms: closing failing schools, expanding charter schools, and weakening teacher tenure.

These reforms were adopted with little input from public school teachers, with whom Christie regularly feuded, or from the community. The Newark experience is not unique. State takeovers of local districts, writes John Jackson of the Schott Foundation, rarely achieve their stated goal of raising academic outcomes for students. Another common motif among education reformers is that democratically elected teacher union leaders are seen not as vehicles for workplace democracy, but rather as stubborn impediments to doing right by school children.

No one has embodied this philosophy more clearly than Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of Washington, D. Rhee argued that public schools in Washington, D.

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Civic Liberalism

She even proposed the idea of getting a congressional declaration of emergency, so that she would not have to bargain with the elected representatives of teachers at all. Do you want to see that? In , an arbitrator reinstated seventy-five educators fired by Rhee in , after determining that she had neither explained why they were being terminated nor given them a chance to respond to charges. Board of Education held that separate schools for black and white are inherently unequal; and subsequent research also suggested that separate schools for rich and poor are a recipe for inequality.

Integrated schools underline the democratic message of equality, while segregated schools can teach the opposite: that some citizens are more deserving than others. But education reformers have often walked away from the democratic lessons of Brown. Intimidated by the political challenges to racial and socioeconomic integration, they argue that we should instead devote our efforts to improving high-poverty schools as best we can.

Democracy was at the center of the early concept of charter schools that American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker outlined in a speech to the National Press Club and subsequent writings. Shanker saw charters as a vehicle for workplace democracy—where rank and file teachers could suggest ideas on how schools could be run better. He also believed charters offered the opportunity for socioeconomic, racial, and ethic integration of students, drawing upon the example of a school he visited in Cologne Germany that educated Turkish immigrant students alongside native Germans.

These laboratory schools would then share lessons with traditional public schools. Who would you like to send this to? Optional message. Loading metrics Abstract views Abstract views reflect the number of visits to the article landing page. Usage data cannot currently be displayed. PDF KB. The people and the friendships were already there.

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All you had to do was make a few phone calls and you had a ready made organizing committee. It was really a miraculous thing. From leafleting in political campaigns, to creating social and legal services for poor people, to enduring cross burnings on our lawn because my parents invited African-Americans to our home—-I knew that the Jefferson Club readings and conversations I overheard in my parents living room, the thoughtful reflection that was integral to their discussions, and the committed actions my family and their friends took were because democracy was not a distant ideal.