Liberty Matters

Nurturing American Democracy: The Importance of Transforming Learning Environments

“When de Tocqueville discussed the "art and science of association," he was referring to the crafts learned by those who had solved ways of engaging in collective action to achieve a joint benefit. Some aspects of the science of association are both counterintuitive and counterintentional, and thus must be taught to each generation as part of the culture of a democratic citizenry. Consequently, it is the key set of ideas that citizens must understand to sustain a modern democracy…If all we teach students about American government is the structure of the diverse branches of national government and what government officials do, they will wrongly assume that all democratic citizens have to do is to vote at every election. A democratic citizenry who do no more than vote in national elections cannot sustain a democracy over the long term.”
–Elinor Ostrom, The Need for Civic Education: A Collective Action Perspective
In America, civic education is at a critical juncture, as emphasized in Liberty & Civic Education by David Davenport. His essay underscores the pivotal role of robust civic education in preserving liberty and the republic. The current trends he identifies focus the urgent need to revamp not only our civic education but also our broader educational models. This essay argues that Davenport overlooks a crucial aspect—the way we approach civic education reflects our perspective on the role of children in society and, ultimately, our concept of the individual. This response explores the intersection of democratic education with various disciplines, the importance of self-governance, and the pedagogical practices that support self-governance. It delves into the challenges faced by civic education and proposes strategies to foster dynamic learning environments, enabling children and adolescents to engage effectively in democratic decision-making. By transforming educational settings, we can ensure young people not only acquire knowledge but also develop the skills to contribute meaningfully to their communities.
What is Democratic Education?
Democratic education is an expansive field that transcends disciplines. It draws upon principles from educational philosophy, educational psychology, pedagogy, political science, economics, and more. This multidisciplinary approach reflects the interconnectedness of democratic society where education is the bedrock upon which the foundations of citizenship, civic virtue, and constitutional order are built.
Amy Guttman, author of the seminal text Democratic Education, argues that the core democratic values of “liberty, opportunity and mutual respect are not self-evident or self-perpetuating. They must be carefully taught or else opposing values--authoritarianism, plutocracy, intolerance, bigotry, and hatred--will dominate our societies” (Sardoc p.245). The idea that for democracy to persist there must be careful attention paid to developing certain dispositions in the population is as old as modern thoughts on education.
To expand, most proponents view the necessary role of democratic education to be threefold:
  1. to teach about democracy and democratic processes (the knowledge component), 
  2. to facilitate the acquisition of democratic skills such as deliberation, collective decision making, and dealing with difference (the skills component), and 
  3. to support the acquisition of a positive attitude toward democracy (the disposition or values component). (Biesta, 2006, p.123)
In the years following September 11, 2001, a new focus on civic education developed the framework that has guided the field since: The Guardians of Democracy: Civic Mission of Schools Report from the Carnegie Corporation of New York. This landmark report gave the education community “six proven practices constitute a well-rounded and high quality civic learning experience”
  1. Classroom Instruction
  2. Discussion of Current Events and Controversial Issues
  3. Service-Learning
  4. Extracurricular Activities
  5. School Governance
  6. Simulations of Democratic Processes
While most educational institutions readily admit the importance of classroom instruction, it is in the cultivation of the skills and dispositions through other practices that they fail.
Self-Governance: The Cornerstone of Democratic Education
The opening pages of John Dewey’s Democracy and Education, explore the philosophical foundations of democracy, noting, “since a democratic society repudiates the principle of external authority, it must find a substitute in voluntary disposition and interest” (p.93). Since Dewey’s work came to prominence in the early 20th century, the philosophical understanding of the democratic foundation of schooling and education has continued to evolve and to be hotly debated.
Many would agree that the set of qualities constituting self-governance are a cornerstone of any democratic society, but self-governance as a goal of education has implications for the project of democratic education. This critical but often underemphasized facet of democratic education in a free society is the cultivation of individual self-governance within a collaborative social environment. The ability to self-govern implies not only self-control but also the capacity to make informed decisions and contribute meaningfully to the flourishing of your social environment.
Individual self-governance is essential for a multitude of reasons:
Active Citizenship: In a democracy, citizens are not passive observers but active participants. They must make choices, express their preferences, and engage in public discourse. Self-governance equips individuals with the skills needed to participate effectively in the democratic process.
  1. Critical Thinking: Self-governance nurtures critical thinking, enabling individuals to evaluate information, assess arguments, and make rational decisions. Informed citizens are less susceptible to manipulation and misinformation.
  2. Responsible Decision-Making: Democracy entails not only the exercise of rights but also the fulfillment of responsibilities. Self-governance instills a sense of responsibility in individuals, encouraging them to make decisions that consider the broader community's well-being.
  3. Conflict Resolution: Democracy thrives on dialogue and compromise. Self-governance equips individuals with conflict resolution skills, fostering constructive discourse and consensus-building.
The problem is that, for all the reasons Davenport outlined, self-governance is not a consideration in the design of our educational environments or experiences. The practice in the art of association, in the language of Elinor and Vincent Ostrom, is completely removed from the classroom environment in favor of easily measurable and testable content knowledge. And while every publication of the NAEP scores results in public lament, for all our efforts and policy changes, the most recent scores mirror those of 1994. Where is the space to cultivate self-governance in the modern classroom? What haven’t we tried?
Deliberative and Dialogical Pedagogical Practices
We haven’t tried designing our learning environments to promote the skills and dispositions at the core of democratic education: self-governance.
Many of those interested in democratic education focus on the knowledge component. The pedagogical practices of the classroom, however, can create a living democratic experiment for students to experience the skills and dispositions of democratic self-governance. There is indeed value in guiding students to the understanding and practice of logic and reason. But rather than abandoning the practical, experiential, and participatory form of education being advocated in this paper so far, these practices can be the very means of developing the capacities Gutmann is concerned about. In general, a genuine “Socratic” approach to education can join these two goals. Socratic education is polyvocal. It allows for practice of deliberative conversation, in which participants have equal power, and when reasoning is modeled and lived, it invites the practice of reasoning, problem solving, understanding, tolerating, and evaluating the claims of authority. Two pedagogical approaches that fall under this broadly “Socratic” category are deliberative and dialogical.
  • Deliberative pedagogy is designed around deliberation that involves thoughtful and reasoned discussion aimed at making collective decisions. In the educational context, deliberative pedagogy encourages students to engage in structured discussions on relevant civic issues. It emphasizes the importance of evidence, reasoned argumentation, and open-mindedness. Deliberative practices cultivate the capacity to analyze complex problems, weigh competing values, and arrive at informed conclusions.
  • Dialogical pedagogy centers on the exchange of ideas and perspectives among students and between students and educators. It fosters a collaborative learning environment where diverse viewpoints are respected and explored. Dialogical practices promote active listening, empathy, and the ability to engage in meaningful conversations. These skills are vital for democratic participation, where diverse perspectives must coexist and influence policy decisions.
Deliberative pedagogical practices give practice space to democratic skills and values. Dialogical practices serve similar functions to direct instruction in introducing knowledge domains, but add the layer of genuine social exploration that is necessary for democratic practices. What would our cultural landscape look like if every class, every discipline, embedded these pedagogies into their curriculum? What skills and dispositions would result? How would students think about themselves, those around them, and ultimately their role in free and civil society?
Civic Education is a wicked problem
Civic education has multifaceted challenges within our contemporary educational landscape. Davenport illuminated many: Marginalized Curriculum Status, Inadequate Time Allocation, Politicized Content, Educator Preparedness. It is what is called a “wicked problem.”
To say that civic education, and education generally, is a wicked problem is to say that it is impossible to “solve.” There is no single solution. Because of its complexities, attempting to solve for one concern inevitably reveals new concerns. There is no one solution, especially in a market of ideas as remarkably open as the history and civics education landscape across the country.
Not Just the Classroom
As Davenport rightly notes, schooling is only one influence on children: culture, community, and family have an even stronger influence.
It is not just in the classroom that skills and dispositions towards self-governance are cultivated. It is essential that we re-integrate young people into public life so that they can have the experiences independent of their school and family cultures that are paramount for their development and preparedness for their future roles as responsible citizens. When young people engage in part-time jobs, internships, or volunteer work, they not only enhance their professional skills but also foster a sense of self-reliance and independence. Being a part of public life exposes young people to diverse perspectives and societal issues that naturally engage their attention and interest. Through involvement in community activities, student government, or volunteering, they gain a deeper understanding of the challenges their communities face. This first hand exposure encourages empathy, social awareness, and a desire to actively contribute to positive change. Participating in activities beyond the home helps young people develop crucial interpersonal and communication skills. They learn to collaborate with diverse groups of individuals, resolve conflicts, and express themselves effectively. These skills are not only vital for personal growth but also essential for constructive engagement in public discourse and decision-making processes. This kind of involvement nurtures their civic engagement, encouraging them to take an active interest in local and national issues that will contribute to the betterment of their communities and the advancement of society as a whole.
As scholar Gert Biesta describes in his book Learning Democracy in School and Society:
“The desire for democracy does not operate at the level of cognition and therefore is not something that can simply be taught. The desire for democracy can, in a sense, only be fuelled. This is why the most significant forms of civic learning are likely to take place through the process and practices that make up the everyday lives of children, young people and adults and why the conditions that shape these processes and practices deserve our fullest attention if we really are concerned about the future of democratic citizenship and the opportunities for democratic learning in school and society.”
The real solution then, is to create environments at every layer of society where young people can practice the art of association in their everyday lives, making schooling only one component of varied and dynamic communities that young people engage with. And there are a lot of researchers working on supporting young people as they navigate citizenship in modern society and those who are about the future of democracy. I recommend looking into the work of Dr. Peter Gray, Dr. Jean Twenge, the Educating for American Democracy Research Taskforce led by Dr. Joe Kahne, the work of Dr. Diana Owen, Dr. Peter Levine, Dr. Diana Hess and many more!
Democratic education is a continuous and urgent task for all of us, whether we are educators, parents, citizens, or leaders. It is quickly becoming a vast field at the intersection of educational philosophy, educational psychology, pedagogy, political science, economics, and more. There is much work to be done.
Davenport opened with Ben Franklin walking out of the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The story goes that someone yelled, “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?!” and Franklin replied, “A republic...if you can keep it.”  It may be apocryphal, but Dewey understood something similar when he wrote in The Need of an Industrial Education in an Industrial Democracy, “democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife.” Perhaps this paper will assist us all in our endeavors to be midwives to a better future.