As a piece in The Atlanticrecently noted, democracy is not natural. Becoming a democratic citizen involves a set of behaviors that need to be learned and practiced over time. One of the first places for that conditioning to happen is in the classroom. Beyond reading, writing, and STEM skills, students have an opportunity to engage in dialogue and debate facilitated by their teachers and learn what it means to be part of a democracy.
The term most often used to describe this is civics education, which probably brings back memories of learning about the branches of government how a bill becomes a law. As you’ll hear this week, true civics education is about so much more than that. In in a polarized political climate, are teachers afraid to engage controversial subjects? How should they address things like citizenship and patriotism? How do they have time to engage in these wide-ranging discussions given the constraints they face to prepare students for standardized tests? Mark Kissing helps budding teachers find their way — strengthening their commitments to democracy so they can pass that spirit along to their students.
Mark is an assistant professor of social studies education at Penn State. His work focuses on citizenship education, or the practice of preparing civic-minded individuals. We’ve recently seen the importance of civics education play out in the months since the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Our look at Generation Z and the future of democracy earlier this year is worth revisiting as proof that what Mark and his colleagues are teaching is having an impact.
The very idea of civic engagement has changed drastically in the past decade or so as communities form online instead of in person. Does this mean young people are more likely to become engaged in civic and political issues? And, will that engagement translate into votes? Peter and his colleagues study these questions and will be watching closely heading into November’s election.
The interview with Peter also touches on what today’s young people can learn from their predecessors 50 years ago. We heard from Tommie Smith about the struggles he faced in 1968; Peter reflects on how civic engagement looks different today and how students today can keep activism alive.
For more information on Peter’s work, visit the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at civicyouth.org or his website at peterlevine.ws.
One of the things we talked about in our episode with How Democracies Die author Daniel Ziblatt is the “grinding work” that it takes to make a democracy function. School board meeting rooms around the country are some of the places where that happens at the grassroots level.
If you’ve ever been to a school board meeting, you know that they’re not always exciting. However, the work that these boards do directly impacts the schools, the children who attend them, and the community at large. Board positions are not full-time and the people who hold them are rarely career politicians. Rather, they’re everyday citizens who want to make an impact — exactly the type of people come together to make democracy work.
We talk about the role that school boards play in a democracy with Robert Asen, a professor of rhetoric, politics, and culture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Asen is the author of Democracy, Deliberation and Education, which is based on a yearlong study of three school boards in Wisconsin. While the examples he references are specific to Wisconsin, it’s easy to hear the conversations and deliberations playing out at schools across the country.