Democratic bankruptcy: three programs to help prevent it in our schools.

AuthorWaterson, Robert A.
PositionCompany overview


Are many of America's public schools advocating an open classroom environment to invite students to engage in an expression of their opinions on current issues? Are many of the curriculums used in America's public schools reflective of opportunity for students to research, formulate opinions, recite rationally, and promote deliberation? Are many of America's teachers modeling a democratic practice in their teaching to help foster support for democratic values, participation in political discussion, and civic engagement?

We believe that "no" is the answer to these questions though there are important exceptions that we discuss in this article. We fear that our schools are on the verge of what we call "democratic bankruptcy" or the loss of democratic ways of teaching, learning, and deliberation, and we argue that emphasis upon programs such as we discuss here can combat antidemocratic tendencies in our schools. In social studies classes specifically there has long been a call to help students develop into responsible citizens of tomorrow's world. According to Walter Parker "interaction in schools can help students enter the social consciousness of puberty and develop the habits of thinking and caring necessary for public life" (2005, p. 348). Recently John Rossi (2006) has argued that preparing students to discuss public issues lies at the core of our democracy.

Peter Cookson (2001, p. 42) suggests that "education is always personal, passionate, and difficult--the opposite of training, regimentation, and standardization." Education is never linear, but creative and continuous. The search must begin for ways to incorporate programs that are designed to allow students to practice the habits of inquiry, fairness, empathy, critical analysis, rule of law. This process can be related both to American citizenship as well as global citizenship. In this article, we shall discuss three such programs that foster these habits of inquiry: We the People, Choices for the 21st Century Education, and Doors to Diplomacy. We shall show that the roots of these programs are in John Dewey's social philosophy, most clearly stated in his favorite book, Democracy and Education (1916).

Educators should be careful about eliminating programs that help develop deeper and richer understanding of the principles of our democracy. These programs are at risk of being eliminated when schools try to adhere strictly to the requirements of a standardized federal agenda, such as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002. According to the Center on Education Policy (2007), since NCLB was instituted in 2002, 36 percent of surveyed school districts reduced time for teaching elementary social studies. That percentage increased to 51 percent in districts with "failing schools." While this relates directly to elementary schools, Jeff Passe (2006) notes that this loss of instructional time in the social studies at the early stages of a learner's development has a direct effect on secondary social studies teaching. Passe further states that it is well documented that high-stakes competency tests have influenced the quality of social studies education at the secondary level. Teachers have begun shifting emphasis from higher-level concepts to lower levels such as recall and comprehension to reach students who enter the secondary social studies classroom "without ever having been exposed to most of its basic concepts and skills" (p. 189).

Social studies at the lower level have long been referred to as the 'bump,' or superfluous subject in the elementary grades, but it is now "disappearing from the school day" (Passe, p. 189). Sam Wineburg (2006) echoes this finding, bringing to our attention that "during a time of crisis social studies can be expendable" (p. 402). James Lick High School in San Jose, California, eliminated social studies from the ninth grade curriculum, citing the need to acquire more time to learn and practice reading and writing. Wineburg (2006) further discusses the rationale for another decision to eliminate social studies for middle and high school students in Salinas (California) Union High School District, as being the result of administrators concluding that "social studies is not the right venue for working on and strengthening students' reading skills"(p. 402). While Wineburg and Passe bring different perspectives regarding the current plight of the social studies crisis, the message is the same.

The weakened state of elementary social studies is also contributing to the problems in secondary social studies (Passe, 2006). Many teachers and administrators are taking the challenge by changing their curriculum goals and paths (Wineburg, 2006). According to Gayle Y. Thieman, the president of the National Council for the Social Studies, principals should understand that interdisciplinary curricula which include technology-rich learning experiences will do more to improve students' test scores than drill and practice. She notes schools using such curricula at Lake Oswego (Oregon) School District and Southeast Island (Alaska) School District which boast SMARTboard and wireless technology. Thieman further states "We have to teach our kids technological literacy skills, and for that our kids have to have access" (cited in Zamosky, 2008, p. 1).

We should be mindful to examine curriculum changes to better prepare our students for the most important job they will have, that of being a citizen. Parker (2005) argues that the ability to deliberate is "probably the most important foundation of democratic citizenship" (p. 71). While certain skills such as fair play, cooperation, problem-solving, and the awareness and practice of ethics are also very important, it is the ability to deliberate that seems most essential for a democratic citizen. Therefore, educators and policy-makers would benefit children (learners) by remembering there is value in the uniqueness each of us brings to democratic deliberation. Jean Jacques Rousseau said: "Each individual is born with a distinctive temperament ... We indiscriminately employ children of different bents on the same exercises; their education destroys the special bent and leaves a dull uniformity. Therefore after we have wasted our efforts in stunting the true gifts of nature we see the short-lived and illusory brilliance we have substituted die away, while the natural abilities we have crushed do not revive" (Rousseau, cited in Dewey, 1916, p. 116). There is a real threat in losing this value.

All stakeholders in the education of our American youth would be wise to make sure we do not "stunt the true gifts of nature" through the goal of uniformity. It may offer some rigor, but most certainly will bring greater restriction to the exploring and wondering minds of our youth and to the richness of the dialogue that is part of a vibrant democracy. Of equal concern is what happens to the individual and his/her unique learning style and temperament. Taking the individual out of any ownership of his or her direction inherently accepts that all are the same, that each to his or her own destiny can achieve at equal levels and with equal enthusiasm. This begs for purposeful questioning of the educational aim in our democracy. Standardizing people to conform to norms neither invites creativity or originality, but suggests we should all be judged according to a rule of conformity. Educational leaders need to be careful they do not just accept this rule without seeking new ideas and new approaches which can coexist with change in a fluid state, focused on sensitivity to multiple possibilities of teaching and learning.

The prospect of teaching today under these rigors of restriction seems to imply one system, one discipline, one subject, and one style. If the restrictions of standardized curriculum and mandated testing are too severe, democratic modes of teaching could be in jeopardy and may even disappear, as documented earlier. These modes at the secondary level may be unable to survive as teachers become more rigid, fearful to be innovative or creative; solely focused on the basics, similar to their elementary counterparts (Passe, 2006).

The social studies discipline...

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