Monthly Archives: October 2003

organizing for civic ed

I was in New York City today, trying to help raise foundation money for a campaign to implement the recommendations of the Civic Mission of Schools report. (The last sentence contains far too many prepositions, but I’m too tired to fix it.) We are proposing that coalitions in several states would advocate policies to promote civic education. A multi-state advocacy campaign will cost a lot of money, but after today, I’m cautiously optimistic that we will be able to raise the necessary funds.

Democrats’ problem is not how they play the game

En route from Colorado to DC: I frequently talk to progressives who claim that Republicans and conservatives play the political game more skillfully (and roughly) than Democrats and liberals, which explains the success of the Right. Democrats would win if they could come up with simpler and more effective messages; choose issues that embarrass Republicans or split their constituencies; and tie individual conservative leaders to scandals.

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developmental psychology

Colorado Springs, CO: I’m at a conference of developmental psychologists, talking about service-learning. To repeat a definition used below, “service-learning” is some combination of community service with academic work on the same subject. Almost half of American high schools claim to use this approach. Most of the important debates about service-learning are really about values: Do we want to produce caring citizens who are likely to volunteer and provide face-to-face services? Do we want to produce citizens who are aware of social problems such as homelessness and hunger and may later act politically? What kinds of social and political knowledge do we want to foster? And so on.

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justice-oriented citizens

I’m in the air, en route to Colorado Springs for a conference on service-learning and cognitive science. I’ll explain what that means once I’ve participating in some sessions and understand the topic better.

Yesterday, I spoke at a conference sponsored by the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools within the US Department of Education. This is the office that has responsibility for civic education, and the assignment may be a bureaucratic accident. But it does raise the question: Is there a form of civic education that can help makes schools safer? Perhaps a standard view is that “good citizens” are those who don’t abuse drugs or act violently; thus “civic education” means reducing such antisocial personal behavior. I would like to endorse an alternative position advanced by Dr. Joel Westheimer at yesterday’s conference. Joel argues that we’ll only make schools safer by helping to create active, critical, participatory democratic citizens who strive for justice. “Justice-oriented” civic education will reduce crime because (a) teaching kids to be civic activists may steer some away from negative roles; and (b) if there is a critical mass of active citizens in a school, they may be able to address immediate causes of crime, such as a lack of after-school activities.

Clearly, creating “justice-oriented citizens” would be good even if it didn’t make schools safer. Whether there is a link between the best forms of civic education and safe schools is an empirical question. I don’t know whether it has been answered. But it is plausible to imagine that youth civic engagement would reduce crime.

the Amish and freedom

We’re just back from a family weekend in Lancaster, PA–Amish country. It’s dispiriting to watch real Amish people walk or trot in waggons past huge Amish-themed tourist attractions. (One store is actually called “Amish Stuff Inc.”) Extreme simplicity seems to attract the worst form of consumerism.

The Amish raise a philosophical dilemma that has often been written about. If you believe in freedom, this must include freedom of religion, which means the ability to raise your own children within your faith. Central to most religions are detailed rules or traditions concerning the rearing of children. However, if you believe in freedom, then you must believe in the right of individuals to choose their own values and commitments. Parents can interfere profoundly with such freedom. Indeed, all parents necessarily do. Anyone who grows up in a family is constrained by the legacy of family beliefs and values. (Even those who rebel have been influenced.) However, the tension between parental freedom and children’s liberty is especially sharp and clear in cases like the Amish, who prefer to be as isolated as possible from the rest of the world. In particular, they prefer their children to “drop out” of school in late childhood.

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