Teaching Democracy in Today's Educational System

There is a democratic education problem in the United States. The young are not learning properly to care for the body politic and the body politic is not adequately caring for the young”. This quandary presented by Walter Parker in Teaching Democracy: Unity and Diversity in Public Life establishes a connection to the mutually beneficial relationship he sees between the democratic society of tomorrow and the young people who will soon be populating it as future leaders, teachers, and citizens. Parker’s answer to this chicken-or-the-egg paradox is to promote democratic citizenship education as the pinnacle of social studies curriculum. In its simplest form, Parker (building on John Dewey’s ideas of democracy) describes the kind of democracy students of citizenship education should strive for, stating “democracy is a way of living with others, a way of being. It has no end other than the path itself”. With this statement Parker strongly advocates for individuals to come together in pursuit of a life-long journey exploring the decision-making process necessary for American democracy together, alongside a diverse group of engaged countrymen. However, it is not enough to simply participate. From Parker’s view people making democratic decisions must have a justifiable rationale rooted in some moral basis for defining what is just in society. To this end, he uses icon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as the pillar that democratic citizens should aspire to.

Parker states that democracy is a “social construct”, meaning it is a learned system of political engagement. He also establishes that the priority of democracy is popular sovereignty, the ideal of self-government. Throughout, several themes resonate, including: “democracy, diversity, deliberation… justice (fairness), and interbeing (mutuality)… social position (group circumstance), and moral development (character education)”. Perhaps Parker provides the clearest overview of his ambitions when he writes, “democratic citizenship education seeks to teach, among other things, that diversity is a social fact, that it is a social good, why this is so, and how diversity and democracy require one another”.
In the book Parker establishes two essential ideas, idiocy and citizenship. The two terms seemingly come to represent the type of citizens the American educational system is producing. Borrowing from the Greek root idios, Parker comes to define idiocy as, “separate, self-centered, and selfish”. Following Parker’s train of thought, one can deduce that an idiot is not a fool in and of themselves, but rather behaving in a foolish or idiotic manner by not connecting to society; their act of Tom Folery, being a non-participant in the public forums of their community. Idiots, in this context, are singular minded, focused only on the trials and tribulations of their own existence, and unwilling to consider the larger picture of others in society and furthermore, in terms of political action.
A citizen on the other hand would be one who engages in political thought, political debate, and political open-mindedness. A citizen is engaged in acts of citizenship such as volunteering and voting, but more importantly is having conversations, deliberating, and making choices in attempts to influence the public, lobbyists, elected officials, and other stakeholders involved in matters of public policy decision making. Parker argues that in order to move beyond the current state of idiocy that exists and into an ethos of citizenship we must take an appropriate course of action. That course of action is based on the idea of removing oneself from the mindset of being a spectator and embracing the approach of both becoming and continuing to be a participant; with the greatest focus of participation being the exploration of education and understanding appropriate to multiculturalism and diversity.

In Parker’s eyes the pulpit best available to transmit his philosophy for democratic citizenship education is inside the walls of schools. He muses on schools as the perfect microcosm for promoting students to engage in meaningful discourse and deliberation regarding the various issues of interest that persist in their neighborhood, their state, their country and most importantly, their world. Parker offers his rationale for the educational system being the lynchpin for his curricular action stating, “compared to home life, schools are like village squares, cities, crossroads, meeting places, community centers, market places”. He does allow for other external influences to mold young people beyond the classroom, but the day-to-day culture of the school is far and away the centerpiece for his thinking regarding the shifting of the nation’s thinking about democratic citizenship.

No comments: