from a public HS teacher (Gov't, Religion, Soc. Issues), who is eclectic (Dem-leaning) politically and Quaker (& open) on everything else. Hope you enjoy what you find here.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

The Fourth from the viewpoint of one teacher 

The Forum for Education and Democracy is an important new endeavor to reinvigorate public education.  Leading with a headline of Strong Schools for a Strong Democracy, their webpage has a brief one paragraph statement of their purpose:

The Forum for Education and Democracy is committed to the public, democratic role of public education - the preparation of engaged and thoughtful democratic citizens. We work to promote a public education system worthy of a democracy, one characterized by strong public schools, equity of educational resources, and supported by an involved citizenry.

For today's July 4 holiday, George Wood, who is Director of the Forum and principal of Federal Hocking High School in Steward Ohio, sent out an email which offers information on and links to several key resources appropriate to consider on this anniversary of our national independence.

I am going to offer all of those links with some reference to the comments Wood includes about them, and quote as well other portions of his email -- this is a non-profit about which I will again explain some more.  I will as is my pattern also offer a few thoughts of my own that I deem related to the contents of this email and appropriate for this day.

I will begin with the two introductory paragraphs of Wood's email, because they establish the frame for the rest of the discussion:

It seems appropriate on Independence Day to remind ourselves that a healthy democracy relies upon a healthy system of publicly supported schools. Perhaps America needs more than to be reminded, it needs to be reawakened to the fact that without public education they very notion of "the public" will perish. Or, as Jefferson put it so eloquently, "If Americans desire to be free and ignorant, they want something that has never been and never will be."

In all the sound and fury around school reform these days the notion that public education serves a public purpose - that is, preparing citizens - has been lost. We hear the commitment to citizenship mouthed in bromides that our schools are to prepare children for college, work, and citizenship; but in the very next breath the focus turns to training in job skills, boosting test scores, or taking college courses in high school. Nary a word about the habits of heart and mind that would make democratic citizenship possible.

Much of the rest of the email is designed to help us understand what is missing, and what we can do about it.   In the process there are references to items of particular interest, for which links are provided.

The first site to which Wood refers is the relatively new effort led b y Sandra Day O'Connor and Roy Romer entitled Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, about which he notes the leaders' belief that "A healthy democracy depends upon the participation of citizens and that participation is learned behavior; it doesn't just happen. Indeed."

Here I intervene with a current political observation -  the current administration obviously does not believe this.  It wants neither the American people nor their elected representatives informed of the actions it undertakes.  It has spoken untruths to both, and claims an unfettered power of action that is no where found under the Constitution.  It talks about the President's responsibility to protect the American people while ignoring his oath to preserve and protect the Constitution.  Perhaps were we better educated about our civic rights and responsibility - as citizens, voters and members of the Federal legislature - this administration's illegal arrogation of such power to itself would not for so long have gone unchallenged.

The McCormick Tribune Freedom Museum did a survey on Americans' Awareness of First Amendment Freedoms.  I will apologize in advance to Matt Groening fans for the particular comparison, but the survey found that more than one in five Americans could name all of the Simpsons while one in a thousand could name all five First Amendment Freedoms [parenthetical note from teacher:  that's if you count no establishment and free exercise of religion as one rather than two separate freedoms;  the others are, of course, speech, press, assembly and petition;  I say "of course" because I really want to believe that anyone likely to read these words knows that, although if you are a visitor who primarily frequents sites like RedState of Little Green Footballs or NRO my assumption is on the evidence likely to be incorrect].

We are as a people also geographically illiterate, as was shown in National Geographic's 2006 Geographic Literacy Study, which showed that 60% of us could not find Iraq on a map, and only 66% could, even after Katrina, located Louisiana on a map (here I presume that Michael Brown and his immediate subordinates were not surveyed or else the figures would be lower).

The Forum has specific goals in its work that are worth listing again (I have posted on this fine organization previous):

Strong Schools

Equity of Educational Resources

Democratic Responsibility for Public Schools

Building Public Education Resources

The State of Childhood

On this day it is appropriate that our focus be on the third item in the foregoing list, Democratic Responsibility for Public Schools.   Let me quote from George' Wood's email:

Developing a democratic character is not solely about memorizing amendments or reciting preambles or even, gasp, passing standardized tests of civic knowledge. Rather, the soul of a citizen is nurtured by developing, through practice, civic habits. While we should be worried about how the recent emphasis on math, science, and reading test scores are pushing out other parts of the school curriculum including civics (see our previous post on this here), it is not just what is taught that is at issue. It is, more importantly, the entire experience of school with which we should be concerned and whether or not that experience develops in future citizens the proclivity to democratic citizenship.

The civic mission of public education, the preparation of citizens who can take their place in a democracy, is the primary mission of our schools. It will not be achieved by simply adding more courses or tests on civics. Citizenship is simply not synonymous with course work or test scores. Rather, it requires that we learn by doing what it means to be an informed and contributing member of a community.

Wood then offers a wish list of ideas drawn from the experience in schools of the members of the forum.   I believe important to share this portion uninterrupted:

Start with how adults are treated when it comes to schools. Children model adult behavior on real adults, and when the adults around them (teachers and parents) are powerless to make genuine decisions about the school, young people learn powerlessness and disdain for democracy. We need to make sure that there is appropriate democratic control of schools exercised by those closest to the learners, that is, their teachers and parents.

Rethink how everything, not just civics, is taught. Do students see what they learn as a tool for understanding the world and, if need be, changing it? Or do they just learn "academic" knowledge to be memorized for the next test? Take reading for example. Is the focus on thoughtful literacy so students can use reading as a tool to explore the world or is it solely on decoding so children can pass a test?

Civic engagement is best taught, as are most things, through actual experience. How much time, funding, and opportunity are given to engaging children in the life of their community? Or for that matter, how much opportunity do young people have to influence the rules, regulations, and norms in their own school? If we want young people to learn civic behavior they have to practice it, otherwise they only learn cynicism as they simply recite what they know not to be true. See our previous post on this for more detail.

As a teacher I often wonder if the structure of our schools and our instruction is not counter to the idea of being citizens in a democracy.  Increasingly we find that some wish teaches to be quite restricted in what they present - and how they present it - in their classes.  Students are given little choice - even as high school juniors and seniors - in what they can study (especially as we increase course requirements for graduation), how they can study it, what they can wear in school, their movements within the school building, and so on.  As a society we then act surprised when their behavior away from school seems to lack evidence of the self-control and judgment we imagine they should have by middle to late adolescence, and yet for more than 6 hours on each weekday we deny them any opportunity to practice the relevant skills.  

We have many teachers in my own domain of Social Studies who will never share their own ideals or civic commitments with the students in a belief that it represents an inappropriate influence.   I disagree.  I do not attempt to inculcate my personal political or moral beliefs upon others while I function as a teacher.  But if I wish my students to accept the importance of individual civic involvement and commitment, I can think of no better way of doing so than by modeling it myself.  Besides, in an age where  "google" is a common verb, and given as visible as I have become, they are likely to encounter my activities anyhow, and were I unwilling to discuss these with them would serve as an obstacle to the building of trust and relationship which I believe is an essential part of the learning experience.  I provide my students with access to various points of view on controversial issues, and encourage them to challenge points of view with which they disagree.   They are, when we study Supreme Court cases, expected to understand the points of view and arguments of dissenters - if any - in important decisions.  I bring in speakers from the outside from across the political spectrum, in one week this year people from both The Nation and National Review.   And I try within the obligation of curriculum coverage and development of necessary skills to provide students with opportunities to periodically choose how they will study a particularly subject and then demonstrate their competence.  My personal frustration is that there is so little opportunity to do so because there is so much material to cover.

I think the survey data cited in Wood's email is a bit deceptive.  It perhaps may be a function of my age (I am 60), but I went through a period of time when there were far fewer places to learn location on a map or Globe.  And although I am a fairly aware adult I have to acknowledge that were you to give me a map of Africa and a list of all the country names there are a few I would have trouble accurately connecting.  Still, that does not excuse knowing the location of the 50 states, or of nations in which our troops are engaged in ongoing conflict.  More than 60 years ago many Americans began to learn the geography of the South Pacific only because of news coverage of the war, just as several decades before they had begun to learn the geography of France and the Lowlands because of another war.   But those wars became the major focus of news coverage, not diluted by stories of the latest missing white girl in Aruba or California, or tales of celebrity linkups or breakups.  But as my focus today is not on the failures of the media, but concerns about our schools, I will do naught but mention such things in passing.

Those of my generation sometimes do not realize how much more knowledge we expect our students to absorb.  Since I began school, there are over 100 new independent nations.  Just think about that.  We have added history of military conflicts in which the U.S. was involved in Vietnam, Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Middle East.  What was then the young nation of Israel has fought with its neighbors in 1956, 1967, 1973 and since an ongoing low-grade conflict.   I began school when Truman was president.  There have been 10 presidents since, of which to date only 3 have completed two full terms.   We have been through scandals involving Bernard Goldfine and Sherman Adams, Billie Sol Estes, Watergate, Iran Contra, Monica Lewinsky, and far too many others to list.  Supreme Court jurisprudence has expanded and the restricted our rights and the powers of the presidency in such important cases as Brown v Board, Gideon v Wainwright, Miranda v Arizona, Tinker V DesMoines, Hazelwood v Kuhlmaier, Engel v Vitale, Abingdon v Schempff, NY Times v Sullivan, Pentagon Papers, US v Nixon, Griswold v Casey, Roe v Wade, Casey, Webster, on through Kelo, Hamdi and Hamden.    When I began most people crossing the Atlantic did so by ocean liner.  Since then we have seen the 707, Sputnik, the Concorde, transistor radios, portable tvs, broader understanding of DNA, portable telephones, personal computers, video recording, Walkmen, Ipods.  When I began school far fewer people graduated from high school or from college than college, either in absolute numbers or as a percentage of the age cohort.  There were no heart transplants, or liver transplants.  

We are a remarkable nation in many ways.  We have much of which to be proud as we look back upon 230 years of independence.  As a teacher and as a citizen I believe incumbent upon me to live up to the ideals upon which this country was founded.  At the time of the Declaration not all were included in its ideals -- to a large degree one had to be a white, property owning Protestant male.  Within a few decades we began to expand that ideal to include all white males. And over time we expanded it much further, although still not all feel included.  I am reminded of the powerful words of Barbara Jordan at the hearing for impeachment of the House Judiciary Committee in 1974, that when "We the People" was first written she was not included in those words, although by the time she spoke her faith in the Constitution was whole.

There is one way as a teacher in which I suppose I impose my viewpoint, and that is on the importance and meaning of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.   We established a limited government, with a system of separation of powers and checks and balances, with guarantees of the rights of the people against governmental action, and the understanding that the people were sovereign.  It is a government of laws and not of men, which means that all people, whether holding high office or no office, are subject to the same laws.  I believe in that ideal, and oppose anything that might take this country in a contrary direction.

Which is why for me the most important words I remember on this anniversary are those with which the Declaration ends.  The Signers affixed their names beneath a statement which makes clear the risks they took:

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

I am a teacher.  I have no fortune.  I do commit my life to these principles.  And I am unwilling to live without a sense of honor, that I abide by my principles, even if it costs me position, respect or my life.  I can think of no better way to commemorate this occasion than to affix my name in principle to those of the Signers  beneath the words above.

Enjoy your barbecues and your fireworks.  

Comments, suggestions and even rude remarks are welcomed!
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