Here in Gloucester, we are currently in the midst of local elections, which by all measures, appear to be running their natural, competitive course.
In contrast, this local election is set to the backdrop of a national scene where it seems, of late, that brinkmanship plays a more prominent role than compromise. With these two events in mind, it is appropriate that we consider what we should be teaching our children about civics, or more specifically, about civic mindedness.
The Partnership for 21st-Century Skills defines educating students in Civic Literacy three ways:
Participating effectively in civic life through knowing how to stay informed and understanding governmental processes;
Exercising the rights and obligations of citizenship at local, state, national and global levels;
Understanding the local and global implications of civic decisions.
These are laudable goals. An understanding of the dynamics of our local elections certainly provides students with an illustration of the three goals above. By degree, recent actions on the national scene have greater implications for the third goal — the potential effects of a default on the world economy being one example. But beneath these goals lies a deeper level for education in civic mindedness, namely, students’ ability to reason and to provide reasons that can be recognized by standards other than their own, i.e., by those who would disagree. What matters is whether students learn to give reasons, reasons that are not only plausible to themselves, but to those who sees things differently.
To acquire civic mindedness, students must be able to demonstrate that they can justify their beliefs, and how they arrive at those beliefs. This is essential because in a democracy, we are governed by reason. And, in a democracy, disagreements between citizens are to be handled in the arena of reason alone.
Michael P. Lynch, in his book “In Praise of Reason,” refers to democracy as an association that proceeds through public argument and reasoning among equal citizens. He goes on to say that democracies are set up to allow for mutual deliberation involving the exchange of public reasons. Reasons, in this instance, provide explanations that allow us to choose what to believe.
For us to work together cooperatively as a society, we must have common understandings about how we debate as well as how we settle disputes. Common understandings are necessary because in a democracy we often have to decide, jointly, what to do in the face of disagreement. The key, of course is not to suppress other voices, but rather to find a way to keep the conversation going, despite our differences.
Amy Gutmann, a professor at Princeton, reinforces this idea in her book, “Democratic Education.”
“Rational deliberation remains the form of freedom most suitable to a democratic society in which adults must be free to deliberate and disagree,” she writes, “but constrained to secure the intellectual grounds for deliberation and disagreement among children.”
What I think this means is that no matter how much adults may disagree, they are obligated in a democratic society to prepare their children for the capacity to disagree, reasonably (this is an example of one common understanding).
Our job, then, as educators is to teach students that if they hold certain principles to be true, then they must be able to defend them through reason (i.e. through sound explanations).
To quote Lynch, “The problem is not knowledge per se. The problem is whether we can show that we have such knowledge by giving public reasons— reasons that can be appreciated from a common point of view.”
That point of view is democracy, itself.
Richard Safier is superintendent of the Gloucester Public Schools.