Alfie Kohn is the author of many books on education and human behavior, including “The Myth of the Spoiled Child.”
Some years ago, a group of teachers from Florida traveled to what was then the U.S.S.R. to exchange ideas with their Russian-speaking counterparts. What the Soviet teachers most wanted from their guests, I heard afterward, was guidance on setting up democratic schools. They assumed that a country like ours, where the idea of democracy is constantly invoked, surely must involve children in meaningful decision-making from their earliest years.
The irony is painful. As numerous empirical investigations have confirmed, students from kindergarten to college are rarely permitted to shape their own education. Indeed, most American schools employ an assortment of rewards and punishments to make sure children do exactly what they’re told.
That story came to mind recently when I saw that a federal lawsuit had been filed charging the state of Rhode Island with failing to provide students “a meaningful opportunity to obtain an education adequate to prepare them to be capable citizens.” But what, exactly, is meant by that last phrase?
Joel Westheimer, a professor at the University of Ottawa who has written extensively on civics education, observes that the term “good citizenship” is typically employed to mean nothing more than “listening to authority figures, dressing neatly, being nice to neighbors, and helping out at a soup kitchen.”
What it should mean — what ought to define a democratic society’s approach to education — has more to do with asking difficult questions, organizing for collective action, insisting that people be able to participate in making decisions about matters that affect them, and confronting the systemic roots of problems.
Westheimer proposes a thought experiment: You have been magically transported to a classroom somewhere in the world without knowing where you are. Can you tell from the teaching whether you are in a democratic or totalitarian nation? If not, schooling in that country doesn’t really prepare students for democracy.
Civics education probably should include some basic knowledge about history and government. It is appalling, for example, that a majority of Americans believe that the Constitution established the United States as a Christian nation. And let’s teach students about the gap between rhetoric and reality where politics is concerned, rather than promoting mindless boosterism. For example, we might share research showing that economic elites actually wield much more influence on policy than do ordinary citizens.
But what defines democratic citizens isn’t what they know, it’s what they’re inclined to do. Civics education shouldn’t reflect the “bunch o’ facts” approach that, sadly, still predominates in other subject areas, with students treated as empty vessels to be filled with knowledge and tested on what they’re told — such as being made to memorize facts about magnetism or mitosis rather than developing the capability to think like scientists by actually designing experiments.
Factual knowledge may or may not be necessary for meaningful citizenship, but it certainly isn’t sufficient. Ultimately, the way children learn to make good decisions is by making decisions, not by following directions.
I’ve visited scores of classrooms throughout North America. Those that have the effect of teaching democracy — while simultaneously fostering moral growth and excitement about learning — do so by basing the curriculum on projects the students themselves design (in small groups) to answer their own questions. That means the course of study for a given age level won’t be the same in two adjacent classrooms, just as it will vary from one year to the next. Top-down, one-size-fits-all education standards make it much harder to engage in such exemplary instruction.
Real civics education also consists of convening regular class meetings so students can discuss what kind of classroom they want to have and how to make that happen — rather than being handed a list of rules (with penalties for disobedience) — as well as what they’re curious about. Students should participate in deciding what to read next, how to decorate the bulletin boards and arrange the furniture, how to solve conflicts and act as a community to ensure that no one feels excluded or unsafe. And if they disagree about something, they ought to learn how to forge a compromise or reach consensus rather than just taking a vote and letting the majority win. Voting, as the late political theorist Benjamin R. Barber remarked, is “perhaps the least important act in a real democracy.”
But this kind of civics education, like the democratic goals that animate it, is subversive. By contrast, the traditional approach, in which students are made to memorize the authors of the Federalist Papers or details about the electoral college, is popular across the political spectrum because it’s safe. We’re left to wonder: Would most politicians and corporate executives who decry civic ignorance really want a populace of committed democratic activists?