Teaching Citizenship, Strengthening Our Communities

AEI recently published a report surveying teachers on the percieved state of civic education (Here’s a Rick Hess interview on the subject). None of the results surprise me, but I was a bit disappointed in the summary provided by Hess and by AEI. From Hess:

In recent decades education has come to be seen as the path to personal and professional advancement, the private purposes of schooling have assumed a heightened import…As the tangible economic benefits of schooling have become central to policy thinking, the teaching of citizenship has become increasingly peripheral. When citizenship is spoken of today, it is more and more in a “transactional” or vocational sense–with citizenship understood as the basket of skills and attitudes (how to shake hands, speak properly, and be punctual) that will help students attend prestigious colleges and obtain desirable jobs.

I have two concerns…1) We should not be satisfied with the purposes of schooling serving private interests as a private good. School is an enormous public undertaking and I believe it should orient us towards each other, towards our shared interests and needs, towards dialogue, and most importantly, towards community (this is an argument made powerfully by @mikeklonsky and Klonsky in Small School).

While it might not worry Hess, it deeply worries me. American society shouldn’t accept private purposes as the highest purposes. We should be valuing our shared community and commonality, valuing the importance of making the world a better place for others, and valuing taking responsibility for ourselves and for others. We should be teach ourselves to judge our actions not just by what good they do us, but by what good they do the community around us.

2) The focus of this study seems to be on what I would call “civic knowledge” and while I think it’s important students know about the separation of powers and the process of impeachment, I am very much concerned about their ability to take “civic action.” I would like to know how many teachers believe that their students would be able make a complaint with city government, participate in civic action, or deal effectively with local bureaucratic authorities.

At the REAL School, we hope to teach students to be active citizens: to negotiate systems; organize people power, and take leadership in issues close to their needs and concerns. Jeannie Oakes, Rogers, and Lipton, give us some examples in their book, Learning Power: Organizing for Education and Justice. I’m not sure schools should be trying to accelerate students through a broken world. Shouldn’t they be trying to teach students to notice that the world is broken and give them tools for trying to fix it?


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