Exactly 100 years ago, John Dewey claimed that a purpose for our schools should be the creation of citizens who share the highest values of democracy. Only education can bridge the distance between our “uncivilized” nature and the skills and habits of people who have learned to exist in a thriving body politic.
American schools then perform their civic purpose by playing a powerful role in building democratic culture and educating citizens.
In progressive schools that take their democratic purpose seriously, students experience the complexity of democracy — they think critically, discuss and sometimes argue about ideas, co-create solutions to meaningful problems, and build community. A school culture that embodies civil discourse, and values conversations even when they are difficult, builds students’ capacity to act in the public world, to make good things happen. In these schools, students learn how to truly disagree in the way citizens who share a hope for common ground do, and then move toward finding that ground.
To create such a school culture, conversations about politics are essential. Because educators care about the affairs of their communities, and because they believe in the democratic process of collective decision making, educators should engage students in discussions of public affairs. To avoid what is political, because it might be difficult to discuss, would be an abandonment of the civic duty of schools. They would fail to cultivate in students the interests, skills, and habits of citizens.
Of course, educators should not use their authority to cultivate support for strictly partisan purposes. To advocate or oppose particular political parties or public political figures would be wrong. Engaging in open dialogue about public life among people with different ideas is not always easy, and requires courage. Educators can demonstrate the maturity, balance, and empathy required to listen and discuss ideas without becoming one-sided and closed to opposing viewpoints. Of course, mistakes will be part of the learning process.
Educators recognize that to engage in civil discourse, and to create a democratic and inclusive culture, students and faculty must learn to enjoy arguments and moments of discomfort. The civic duty of schools is to help students to listen and explore ideas, to co-create solutions and community, and to commit to building a world that values and protects every person.
Education Week, Bridging Differences Blog, Democracy in Schools: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/democracy-in-schools/