Practicing Democracy

Kennedy at a 2010 speaking engagement

‘Silence is Golden,’ we are told, but sometimes it’s just yellow.

-Kerry Kennedy, RFK Center for Human Rights

While it’s a cliché that democracy is not a spectator sport, the unfortunate reality is that our schools are not preparing students to be actively engaged, responsible citizens. Education has a public purpose: to enable citizens to use their full intellectual and emotional potential to live as productive, interactive members of a community. Shouldn’t schools prepare students for the deliberative processes that democracy requires, including collaborative, informed action? And democracy is not a spectator sport.

“Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5000 years,” wrote the great educator W.E.B DuBois in 1949, “the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental … The freedom to learn … has been bought by bitter sacrifice. And whatever we may think of the curtailment of other civil rights, we should fight to the last ditch to keep open the right to learn, the right to have examined in our schools not only what we believe, but what we do not believe; not only what our leaders say, but what the leaders of other groups and nations, and the leaders of other centuries have said.”

DuBois recognized the fundamental importance of learning to question. What would DuBois write today, one wonders, about No Child Left Behind or our national obsession with machine-scored multiple-choice tests?

Even if educators agree that preparing for life in a democratic society requires learning about, debating and making decisions about controversial issues, they often cannot follow through in classrooms because of an unstated public “understanding” that schools should avoid controversy. However, young people connect to controversial topics immediately and on a daily basis, and by denying this reality, schools make themselves irrelevant at precisely the time that youth need guidance.

For a host of reasons, schools and teachers have not made the connections between teaching democratic citizenship and the new technological universe. They tend instead to be reactive, preferring to avoid controversy and possible litigation. Where the “safe road” eventually leads ought to be of concern to everyone.

It’s often said that teachers “teach the way they were taught, not the way they were told to teach.” What if young people grow up to practice citizenship the way they are treated in schools, which are both hierarchical and authoritarian? Schools deliver an overtly knowledge-based curriculum, but the “hidden curriculum” prizes control and order over inquiry and learning. Stated simply, schools and teachers do not typically like to pose questions they don’t already know the answers to – and what kind of preparation is that for effective citizenship in a democracy?

Notions of citizenship based on inquiry and active learning will not take root simply because some new technologies are available. But what these new technologies do, much more readily than our schools, is lend themselves to inquiry. Why? Because nearly any question can be answered – or at least explored in depth – through technological inquiry. Because they encourage questioning, the new technologies are a threat to the status quo (and should therefore be encouraged by all who want to see our youth engaged in the larger society).

A few years ago the schools in one Virginia county proclaimed, “We recognize the importance of teaching children appropriate ways in which to work with others in classrooms, workplace and community.” The district created a citizenship-building “Word of the Month,” which it posted on the district’s website. This was the message about patience:

At home, as well as at school, exercising patience is a good way to avoid conflicts with brothers, sisters, and classmates. Sometimes self-control is a key ingredient of patience, for example, “holding your tongue” when someone says something you think is “dumb.” Waiting your turn is another way of showing patience, whether you are standing in line at the water fountain, raising your hand to speak in class, or waiting your turn to receive dessert at the dinner table at home.

There is, however, no mention of the value of occasionally being impatient – with cruelty, intolerance, racism, sexism and cyberbullying for example.

And conflict, the passage suggests, is inherently bad. Am I the only one who finds a deeper message, an endorsement of docility?

Another example: When ninth-graders in upscale Hanover High School, N.H., wanted to start a debate team, not one teacher was willing to serve as faculty advisor. When the kids finally did persuade a teacher to serve and debates began, they all found themselves in big trouble – because the students were debating abortion rights, drug abuse and other controversial topics. The adults in charge were apparently so frightened by the idea of students talking openly about complex concepts such as these that they shut down the organized discussion. Perhaps they hoped that if ignored, complexity would just go away.

I asked a tenured high school veteran teacher what he does when a student tries to talk with him about a potentially controversial issue. Does he always try to avoid tough issues?

“I won’t say I always succeed, but I try to,” he said, laughing nervously. He agreed that he was teaching a value lesson right there but defended his position. “I have to be very, very careful because I could be sued. A parent could take me to task on this. I try not to interfere with what the parent is trying to pass on to their children, and I don’t find that cowardly at all.”

Fear of ideas, fear of conflict, and blind obedience – that’s one heck of a lesson to teach students. But don’t be too quick to blame the teacher, who’s only behaving sensibly, given everyone’s fear these days of inflaming passions.

Unfortunately, children who are taught to be afraid of ideas stand a good chance of growing up to be ignorant, easily led adults. I hope that older students recognize the “retreat from controversy” approach to education for what it is – and hold it in contempt.

When is silence golden, and when is it just plain yellow? Teachers ought to be questioning and teaching students to question. ‘How do you know what you know?’ How do you know that is true?’ ‘Is there evidence that contradicts your view?’ In short, how do we know what we know?

Media, in its many forms, can provide an alternate source of democracy and be a democratizing influence. If embraced by proactive public educators, media (particularly the Internet) can be a “walled garden,” allowing students to embark on educational journeys that could not even have been imagined 15 years ago – even as responsible adults are protecting the young from the very real dangers of unlimited access.

However, if schools are to benefit from the opportunities that media and technology provide, significant changes must first occur. Schools, and the adults in them, must become less reactive and controlling, and more open to learning and changing. They must embrace media in its many forms, because, to truly advance student learning and form the democratic habits of thoughtfulness and reflection, teachers must first become learners.

The technology can allow educators to more efficiently convey the body of accepted knowledge, and that’s fine. But it can also allow students to take greater control over their learning. They can be in the driver’s seat (the way they are often going to be once they leave school.)

Whether public schools, long accustomed to a largely custodial role and now under harsh attack, can make these changes is questionable. Our future as a healthy democracy may hang in the balance.

When the Constitutional Convention ended in 1787, and as our founding fathers exited Independence Hall with the Constitution they had worked so long and hard to draft, a woman named Mrs. Powell approached Benjamin Franklin.

“Well, Doctor,” she asked, “What have we got – a republic or a monarchy?”

“A republic,” Mr. Franklin replied, “if you can keep it.”

Can we keep it? With the public school education our children are receiving today, can we have enough well-informed, engaged, civic-minded citizens to actively and intelligently participate in our democracy and keep it strong and vital? I think we may find out the answer to that question sooner than we expect.

8 thoughts on “Practicing Democracy

  1. Making controversy teachable takes courage and skill, not only on the part of a teacher but also the principal, superintendent, school board, parents, and the teacher education programs that begin to shape a teacher’s professional persona. At some level, everyone in the chain has to acknowledge Dewey’s famous recognition of the “case of the conservative: if we once start thinking no one can guarantee where we shall come out, except that many objects, ends and institutions are doomed. Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril and no one can wholly predict what will emerge in its place.” Much of current discourse seems implicitly to want things to get better without changing. Not gonna happen. And those on the receiving end of a society without the courage to change are likely to be those now in school. So we have to “admit the case of the conservative” and challenge its ability to thwart controversy in school. Our kids need both the courage and the skills to challenge the status quo, and if they don’t build them in school, then where?


  2. Your message is right on.

    Unfortunately there is a link here with the previous exchanges on tenure. Teachers who are fearful of engaging students in controversial issues obviously don’t believe they have the job security that they need to have to function effectively as teachers preparing students to participate in a democracy.


  3. Hello, John,

    This sentence of yours: Media, in its many forms, can provide an alternate source of democracy and be a democratizing influence. — to what sort of media does it refer? Electronic? Or do you mean the news media? How do figures like Glen Beck provide democratizing influence? I’m curious about your perspective on journalism and democracy, and what you see as happening in their continued relationship.

    Thank you for your blog.


    • I see why that sentence is confusing. I don’t mean Glen Beck or Keith Olbermann; rather, I mean digital technology and electronic media in the hands of trained teachers who are not afraid to let students do the driving.
      The world they live in is full of information and knowledge; schools cannot be a desert but must adapt, so that they help kids explore and question. “How do you know what you think you know?” is one important starting point.
      With apologies for tooting my horn, I have a book coming out in a few weeks on this subject.It’s called ‘The Influence of Teachers,’ and I hope you will take a look at it.


  4. John,

    You pointed to important yet sensitive topics for today’s schools: open debate and fostering student discussion of the controversial. I thought you might be interested in an ASCD web page ( created to connect instructors with resources that can help them develop civically responsible citizens by viewing democratic education through four tenets: freedom, discussion, involvement, and equality.



  5. Very good piece with lots of good thought-provoking material. For sure, everyone (parents and students most especially) should support, yes even demand, open considerations of all viewpoints – in school AND at home! One “good” thing about today’s technology is what can also be considered bad even evil: the easy access to all viewpoints, including those at the extremes. (By the way, they’ve always existed; they were just harder to get or even find out about.). As you pointed out, the danger is not their existence / availability; it’s the attempts to ignor them.

    I firmly believe in the goodness of people, students included. If they / we get a chance to explore ideas and learn about them, while their may be some poor choices / decisions from time to time, the goodness will eventually come out for most people. Yes, there are a very small minority who honestly believe in the KKK or Adolph Hitler (and of course we have to deal with them), it’s I believe the non-thinking / non-questioning people who blindly become proponents.

    Bottom line: issues must be considered fully AND occasional cases of poor judgement accepted with understanding and further considerations – so important for an educated and engaged population.


  6. I teach government to High School Students. I do not know how I can teach it realistically and be able to engage my students were I to try to avoid controversy. We are only a few miles outside our national Capital, and the disputes within the government and politics are part of our local news. I see my job as helping my students to understand, to engage with topics even those containing controversy. I have been like this for all 16 years I have taught, perhaps because I came to teaching in my very late 40s.

    I am posting this comment on January 15. It would be the 82nd birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Perhaps several quotes from him are appropriate:

    “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends. ”

    “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter. ”

    “On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?

    There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right.”



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