This post is cross-posted from the recently launched Reclaiming Reform project.
Public schools are not merely schools for the public, but schools of publicness: institutions where we learn what it means to be a public and start down the road toward common national and civic identity.
Watching the election-year (or really, election year-and-a-half) shenanigans unfold these past few months, I can’t help but worry about the health of our republic. Unprecedented amounts of money have poured into local, state and national candidate and issue-based campaigns, often with the end goal of misleading the public into more bad policy– or suppressing their votes altogether. This is all on top of traditionally low voter participation rates, and the tendency for only a relatively small proportion of the public to take part in civic life beyond the voting booth.
While it’s clear that our troubled news media marketplace and a glut of big money have had a negative impact on our public life, one reason these efforts have been so successful is because we as a society are too accustomed to leaving the work of democracy to someone else. After all, if every single person actively informed him- or herself about the public policies affecting them and their communities, well-financed disinformation campaigns would be ineffective– their content would immediately register as false, or at least cause people to question. Yet for many people, it doesn’t. For every average citizen who takes it upon her- or himself to find independent news sources, write to elected officials, attend school board meetings, blog about politics or reclaim public spaces in protest, there are literally hundreds who do absolutely nothing at all. I believe that our schools can and should play a bigger role in countering these sad trends.
For starters, we have to fully restore social studies to the core curriculum. One of the first casualties of the test-driven culture created by No Child Left Behind, many schools (especially those facing tight budgets) have trimmed or eliminated social studies instruction because it’s not tested. (I can remember being told by an administrator that social studies was considered “an enrichment area” to which my low-scoring fourth-graders weren’t entitled. Having watched kids assert that Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. lived at the same time, or that they could call then-Senator/Candidate Obama to help them clean up the polluted Platte River, I was stunned. “Never mind the fact that All-‘Literacy’-and-Math-All-the-Time instruction hasn’t budged test scores an inch,” I later wrote in a furious journal entry. “Civic participation is why we have a public school system in the first place!”)
Beyond that, however, we also have to improve how we teach this and all other subjects. It’s not enough to tell youth about the origins of our country and the structure of our system. Too often, the Whitewashed, heroes-and-holidays “Rah-rah!” version of American history taught in school is the very thing that promotes the civic laziness I referenced earlier. By leading people to falsely believe that America is just naturally, effortlessly free (or that our expanding freedoms inevitably flow from the passage of time, or come from the weapons of soldiers, instead of the determined actions of mobilized communities), most people get the message that our society is well-guarded by Special People somewhere, and that they themselves don’t actually have to do anything.
What we need instead are democratic experiences, for all, throughout our school day. Experience is the most effective way to learn, so even if social studies and civics were being consistently taught, that’s not enough if schools and classrooms are structured in dis-empowering ways. How can we expect students to grow up to be responsible stewards of a democratic republic if they grow up without practical experiences with democratic decision-making processes? And how can we expect educators to create environments that foster those experiences if they themselves have had few such experiences, and are not empowered to participate meaningfully in the policy-making and governance of their schools and districts?
Authentic, participatory learning environments exist throughout the country, but we need to do more to make them the norm instead of the exception.
What can we do, and what will you do, to make that happen?
Examples, Resources & Organizations:
- I’ve written about a few of the organic lessons and units I developed with fourth- and fifth-grade students in my own (apparently subversive!) urban public school classroom. In these examples, students had the chance to do work that interested and mattered to them, but they also gained experience with voting and collaborating as they worked to distill a large number of ideas into a unified whole, or come to a single choice out of many. Check out “Don’t Hate, Collaborate! (Or having fun while doing ‘serious’ learning)” and “The Year of the Hamster“
- The Institute for Democratic Education in America offers a growing compilation of schools and organizations that practice democratic education, and share their ideas online. Click here to see that list, and begin exploring ideas and examples from around the country.
- The Zinn Education Project offers materials and resources for teaching the true, people-powered history of America. (It’s also pretty educational for adults who may not have gotten that version of history the first time around!)
- Rethinking Schools has offered information and resources to educators interested in social justice for over 25 years.
- The National Youth Rights Association is a youth-led organization that educates and empowers young people to become informed and involved in public life, especially on issues that matter most to them.
- The Forum for Education and Democracy is a group of professors and P-12 educators who act as a “think tank” for what education should look like in democracy. Read their “What Works” section for an overview of the characteristics of schools and systems that effectively prepare students for democratic life.