Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Educating for Democracy

In Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Demoracy, Louise Knight describes three often competing and, in ways, contradictory aspects of democracy that defined the social reform issues of the 1880s and 1890s—the Gilded Age. Today, after more than a century of change, we once again find that many of the issues facing social reformers in the Gilded Age are still very much alive. The various ways in which we define democracy continue to shape—and, in some ways, confuse—the public conversation about the future of the United States.

The three aspects of democracy are:

· Political Democracy – The right of individuals to vote

· Economic Democracy – The right of individuals to work in their own best interest, to compete, to be one’s own boss.

· Social Democracy – The right of individuals to expect equal treatment

In the 1880s and 1890s, each of these dimensions was controversial and, to some extent, there were opposing definitions of the terms. In the area of political democracy, for instance, women did not have the right to vote, but there was an active suffrage movement. In the area of economic democracy, there were competing visions, with one group arguing that capitalists had the right to become rich at the expense of workers and another arguing for a “democracy of wealth.” In the area of social democracy, the issue had to do with the treatment of the poor and of immigrants; as John Dewey put it, Democracy is a social, that is to say, an ethical conception.”

Today, the issues have changed only on the surface. While political democracy extends to almost everyone these days, every election sees attempts to disqualify whole classes of people at the voting site, especially the homeless and otherwise disenfranchised.

Economic democracy received a setback just this week, when the Supreme Court ruled that corporations—which are not citizens as defined by the Constitution—have been given the right to spend as much money as they wish on political campaigns. The potential result is that voices of non-corporations will simply be crowded out of a public discourse that increasingly is dominated by commercial media. Not only will be poor be challenged at the polls, they will be silenced in the campaigns leading up to November.

Social democracy—the idea of our society as an ethical concept—is constantly stressed by the intrusion of corporate and commercial influence and by the way in which communications media have replaced thoughtful discourse with radicalized ideology. Increasingly we live in a society in which common ground is harder to find and where the common good is harder to define. The United State Congress has failed utterly to find a middle path. Too many special interests keep the focus on the extremes rather than on the common good.

There has been significant progress in political democracy over the past century. Women and minorities now have the right to vote, for instance. In the area of economic democracy, we’ve seen great stride forward with Social Security, Medicare, and improved access to education. However, the underlying tensions between pure self-interest and a social ethic are still there and, increasingly, raw. We have not achieved social democracy and that limits our ability to truly achieve political and economic democracy.

What does this have to do with education? It suggests to me that, as our society becomes transformed by information technology and global economics, we need to put renewed emphasis on “civics” education. When I was in high school, we had a full year of “Civics” in ninth grade and another full year of “Problems of Democracy” as seniors. However, that is not always the case. The Pennsylvania Board of Education standards lists the following standard:

Civics and Government. Study of United States constitutional democracy, its values and principles, study of the Constitution of the Commonwealth and government including the study of principles, operations, and documents of government, rights and responsibilities of citizenship, how governments work and international relations.

However, this is one of four subsets of “Social Studies,” which is one of eight academic standards. Not exactly a priority.

Higher education appears to assume that students have had a good grounding in Civics before they come to college. While most curricula require some American history as part of the general undergraduate course distribution, there are few courses that give students an understanding of issues and their impact on the student as citizen.

As public discourse becomes increasingly controlled by corporations, it is essential that we educated citizens to be critical consumers of this discourse and develop in them the skills of citizenship. In the 1920s, Columbia University experimented with a first-year “Contemporary Civilizations” curriculum designed as a response to the changing social conditions after World War I. As the 1919 course catalog noted:

“The chief features of the intellectual, economic, and political life of today are treated and considered in their dependence on and difference from the past. The great events of the last century in the history of the countries now more closely linked in international relations are reviewed, and the insistent problems, internal and international, which they are now facing are given detailed consideration. By thus giving the student, early in his college course, objective material on which to base his own judgment, it is thought he will be aided in intelligent participation in the civilization of his own day (The Meaning of General Education, p. 36).

Contemporary Civilizations was one of several very innovative general education curricula to emerge in the aftermath of World War I. These innovations suggest that American higher education can, indeed, innovate when faced with dramatically changed social context. Such is the case today. The question—one that I hope readers of this will comment on—is what can we do today, when social, economic, and technological changes are transforming the context in which our students learn.