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October 1, 2001
Vol. 59
No. 2

Fostering Moral Democracy

Education for ethical maturity—personal integrity, community responsibility, and democratic ideas—should not be left to chance.

What do students need today to become citizens of tomorrow's world? The changes that they will face are beyond our imaginations, yet educators continue to tinker with a 19th century school system. The challenges of the future will require citizens with open, inquiring minds and moral courage—citizens who can resist rigid ideologues and fantastic escapist beliefs.
Education should not be about producing workers; it should be about educating citizens and developing leaders for the challenges of the future. We should worry less that students clear some imaginary age-graded hurdle and worry more that by high school graduation, they have internalized values of personal integrity and community responsibility.
Education is not a product to swallow without reflection and struggle, nor is it information to pour into an awaiting, but empty, brain. Students are not machines, as the standards movement suggests; they are volatile, complicated, and paradoxical. Sanitized knowledge is the polar opposite of the wildness of heart that fires all genuine learning. Education is the creative and continuous path to knowledge and wisdom; it is never linear. It is always personal, passionate, and difficult—the opposite of training, regimentation, and standardization.
Education is deeply personal, but it is also inescapably political. As Aristotle noted, we are political animals; our brains are products of social relations, intrigue, and bonding. Education is real life, a perpetual contest between competing interests, beliefs, and needs. We can reduce the potential for discord by providing a free and universal public education system that offers students a safe place to develop as citizens who can resolve differences peaceably and build on community rather than dividing through competition.
What kind of curriculum would ignite the natural genius of students and promote the qualities of education that are crucial for democracy—inquiry, tolerance, safety, and growth? What kind of curriculum would enable students to become ethically mature as adults and help create a just, global society?

Igniting Genius

First, we must create a curriculum that is appropriate for the developmental needs of students and that will foster each student's individual genius.

Literacy, Numeracy, Security

From kindergarten to 3rd grade, the key tasks are literacy, numeracy, and security. Schools should offer a safe and inviting environment that immerses students in words. As a first step toward understanding the world, students should hear the words of many languages—including English, French, Spanish, and Chinese. A culture of reading and approbation should include grandparents, parents, teachers, and administrators reading to students and applauding and rewarding all students' accomplishments. Classrooms should be extensions of nature, providing students with connections to animals and teaching important lessons of environmental ethics through experience. The only tests that students in this age group should undergo should be diagnostic; each child should have a learning plan that supports learning and does not label the student's abilities.

Mastery, Inquiry, and Membership

From 4th to 6th grade, the primary tasks are mastery, inquiry, and membership. Democracy requires clear thinking. Students should study science, including the basics of scientific measuring and the logic of mathematics, and should gain a deep understanding of cause and effect. Without these understandings, they will be unable to master any subject, including literature. Students ages 9–12 should internalize basic analytical skills through inquiry, discovery, and experience. Students of this age need to do, not listen.
This doing—and doing together—plants the seed of tolerance. No one ever became tolerant because they were told to do so. Tolerance comes from shared activities, shared failures, and shared successes. The appreciation of diversity springs from sharing, making membership in the group real and positive.

The Story of the Human Experience

From 7th to 9th grade—the infamous middle school years—students ages 12–14 must make the huge leap into early adulthood. Not only do they become sexually curious, but also they ask the embarrassing social questions that adults often prefer to ignore. A new awareness of sexuality is not problematic, but adolescents must now explore the meaning of sexuality in a world where intimate human relations have been commodified. Adolescence is a dangerous and glorious moment in human development—a crossroads between cynicism and idealism, defeat and enthusiasm, meaninglessness and meaning. If students feel engaged in the world, the dynamism of inquiry and growth carries them forward to a life of discovery. If they remain engaged only within themselves, inquiry stops and growth becomes more difficult.
During this period, the best disciplines for appreciating the story of the human experience are history and the humanities. At the core of this story is ethics. Ethical maturity requires being able to see the world from the point of view of others, balancing the demands of competing priorities, and determining the best possible course of action in a complicated world. Schools can help students appreciate history by exploring deeply both its problems and promise. Without a sense of history and a humanist sensibility, how can students develop the tolerance so crucial to democracy?

Opportunities and Achievement

High school should last only two years, the 10th and 11th grades. This period of education should serve as a bridge between childhood and adulthood, helping students make strong connections to society through a variety of opportunities, including working at internships and majoring in an academic discipline suitable for a chosen profession. As it stands now, high schools focus on preparing students for college. The injustice of this priority is apparent; it favors those with high social capital and suggests to the poor that their chances for the good life are slim.
Our current school system reproduces social inequalities with eerie regularity. Reinforcing social stratification through the stratification of schools makes a mockery of the notion that public education is the great equalizer. We need to recognize that all students deserve respect and support. High school should be about affirmation, not about sorting and separating winners from losers. And high school should be about achievement—not achievement on a standardized SAT test (the scores of which are predictable if one knows a test taker's family income)—but achievement at a deeper, more imaginative level. A young adult should graduate with a portfolio of opportunities. The job of the school is opening doors and possibilities, not providing an uncaring world with excuses to reward the already affluent and to punish those most at risk and in need of support.
No student should graduate from high school without a specific plan for the next five years of his or her life. We can provide that support if we stop favoring a small academic elite, stop wasting time and money on sports programs, and begin turning schools into oases where educators take seriously every student's dreams.

Fostering Democracy

Next, we must design our schools according to democratic principles. How else will students learn what democracy means?
Make public education free, universal, and accessible to all. This principle seems self-evident, but the logic of school deregulation runs counter to this concept of free and universal access—the premise of public education. Market-driven reform either exploits scarcity or creates scarcity; universal access is its antithesis.
Provide equal educational opportunities. If all students can attend public schools, but those schools vary widely in resources, pedagogical talent, and extracurricular support, what good is the right of access to education? The principle of equal education opportunity demands that students receive curriculum, teaching, and support that favor all rather than a few. De facto class and race segregation in the United States results in the uneven delivery of high-quality education and in education policies that favor the privileged.
Stop the influence of family wealth on advancement in education. We must abolish tracking, equalize resources, prepare all students to learn at high standards, and construct assessment instruments that test curricular competency rather than family background. In the present system, we know that the wealthier the class background of a student, the greater the education opportunities. Privilege undermines merit, and when privilege allows for uneven competition, we undermine equal opportunities.
Individuals and groups are at liberty to form their own schools, but they are not at liberty to rob others of educational mobility. When one person's liberty becomes another person's disadvantage, the liberty is really a privilege disguised as a right. By allowing alternative school systems to compete with the public school system, we undermine the principle of public rights. Foregoing some public rights for the sake of individual liberty is a social and legal compromise that should not result in private rights overshadowing public rights; attending a socially elite school should not result in special mobility privileges.
Respect all students' individual abilities, learning styles, and intellectual desires. Perhaps the most shocking characteristic of the current system is how it lays to waste so much talent. This waste can be found in all schools, although it is most intense in low-income schools. How many paintings will never be painted because students do not receive encouragement or support? How many potential humanitarians become gangsters because their worth is denied? How many future scientists do we lose every year because whole categories of students are treated with contempt?
Teach core democratic values. To prepare students to participate in society, social ethics and tolerance should be as much a part of the curriculum as reading and arithmetic. Core democratic values also include thinking clearly, taking responsibility, and accepting compromise gracefully. Democracy can flourish only when the values of a civil society and a deep respect for honest achievement prosper. In an ideal democracy, citizens form judgments on the basis of reason and fact rather than on socially engineered mass emotion. Although power will always be present in group life, power as an engine for change and for the social good should be contained, focused, and limited—never absolute.
Organize schools democratically. Within education, democracy is more honored in the breach than in practice. Most schools are hierarchical and authoritarian, even more than most businesses. Growing up in a top-down authority structure that places real decision making in the hands of a few administrators, students develop a worldview that encourages them to view powerlessness as a fact of life and reinforces the apathy to which most people are susceptible. Many students learn that they have no future because they do not fit into the system. Is it any wonder that they become self-destructive?
A democratically organized school begins with families and the students. If families have no voice in the life of a school, then the school is obstructing important social communication and the development of a democratic institution. The current demarcations between administration and teaching staff also create a form of dominance that breeds withdrawal, apathy, and anger. Creating new forms of decision making is a challenge that all schools face.
Create communities. One of the most shocking characteristics of the anti–public school movement is its complete disregard for the value of the community and for the role of schools in creating community even in the most distressed neighborhoods. Schools are not merely buildings but are communication networks that reach out to the world through technology and to the local community through sharing and service.

Teaching Goodness

The American Dream was not forged at academic seminars, in think tanks, or by conventional thinkers. It was forged by those who dared to dream of an egalitarian society and were willing to take great risks to make that dream come true. The spirit of rebellion is essential if students are to grow, question, and reach higher levels of understanding and action.
The United States is torn between two grand narratives. One narrative is about manifest destiny, accumulation, and greatness. The impulse of this narrative is proud, imperious, and even merciless. This story of pride contrasts with the narrative of goodness, which is about community, simple but sound values, and a fierce loyalty to justice. If U.S. educators pursue the narrative of greatness, their students must become economic and military warriors, engaged in the struggle for dominance. If U.S. educators help students learn the goodness narrative, their students will create a just, humane civilization, as the founders intended.
Students in the United States should understand their country's role in world productivity and security and in the planet's future, a future that is full of dangers and opportunities. Yet, in the United States today, nearly 800,000 children are farm workers with no medical protection, very little schooling, and almost no hope of a better life. One quarter of U.S. students live in poverty, and the global economy depends on exploiting child labor around the world.
As the world's strongest nation, the United States should stand firmly in solidarity with the weakest nations of the world and demand for them what it expects for itself. If the United States chooses to be selfish, what will future generations say about it when the gasoline runs out, when 1 percent of the population owns 90 percent of the wealth, and when 50 percent of U.S. students cannot read? Will they say that this generation frittered away the greatest social experiment in history?

Author bio coming soon

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