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February 1, 1997
Vol. 54
No. 5

Teaching Democracy by Doing It!

Divisive issues don't have to paralyze schools: Teachers, parents, students, and community members can turn conflicts into educational experiences for students.

How do we teach children about democracy? This question is vibrantly alive in the United States today. Educators are more concerned than ever about teaching citizenship and democratic values. But the act of asking this question leads us to even deeper and more fundamental ones.
  1. Inculcating religious values, such as the Ten Commandments and other principles?
  2. Developing children's self-esteem, autonomous decision making, and ability to clarify values?
  3. Training good corporate citizens, who are neat, prompt, obedient, productive, and respectful of authority?
  4. Raising the consciousness of young people about the history of oppression in a capitalist, racist, and sexist society?
  5. None of the above, because the curriculum should be limited to academic fundamentals?
I have learned this lesson the hard way. For several years, I directed The Common Enterprise, a program the Rockefeller Foundation designed to help communities resolve conflicts. As I researched potential sites for the program, I was struck by how often the divisive issues related to public schools. In community after community, citizens were waging war about how their children should be educated.
From Topeka to San Diego, from Boston to Portland, parents had profound differences of opinion about what should be happening in their children's schools. So extreme were their differences that the antagonists in these conflicts seemed to live in different worlds; but the clashing belief systems behind the conflicts seemed to fit a pattern, which I call "Divided States" (see p. 11).
In one community, an administrator had fired a teacher for selecting a school play that some people found objectionable. Opponents and proponents of the dismissal held separate press conferences on opposite sides of town. As a consultant to the Rockefeller Foundation, I attended both press conferences. At each event, adults impugned the motivations of the other side and claimed to be serving the best interests of the students. But as Peter Goldmark, president of the foundation, put it: "If we adults care about what children learn, then we'd better pay more attention to how we handle our differences. What affects our children most is what we do, not what we say."
The conclusion I reached was that democracy is live, not taped. We must teach about democracy so that children experience it themselves. Just as science courses need lab assignments, so educating for democracy needs hands-on encounters with the reality of self-governance. To learn democracy, students must do democracy.
The question, of course, is how.
Some educators believe that we should protect classrooms from controversy by insulating students from the bitter tugs-of-war between competing interest groups. These educators believe their responsibility is to define the curriculum so that interference by ordinary citizens is kept to a minimum.
As a general rule, this attempt to keep conflict out is valid; but a growing number of educators believe that teaching democracy requires allowing students to confront the diversity of opinion that surrounds them and to witness the conflicts that impinge on education. They believe that trying to keep conflict out of school will actually increase it. The alternative, they argue, is to build conflict in.
Let's examine both approaches.

Keeping Conflict Out of Education

For many years, educators have tried to keep conflict out of the classroom by having some higher authority settle differences of opinion ahead of time. Because no one wants schools to be battlefields, controversial policy decisions that might affect the classroom are made long before the first day of school. The scenes from the 1960s of antibusing demonstrators screaming at little black children are a bitter reminder of what happens when this process fails.
Consequently, educators—ranging from federal officials at the U.S. Department of Education to commissioners and staff of state departments of education to local school boards and textbook committees—have decided who gets taught, by whom, and with what curriculum. The more these professionals decided, the better.
But this top-down strategy to keep conflict out has had mixed results. On the positive side, it has provided (relatively) supportive and harmonious learning environments where many (but not all) children could receive a quality education. But on the negative side, it has made education monolithic. Dissenting and minority viewpoints were —alized and were either pushed underground into private schools, the swelling home-schooling movement, or other anti-public school advocacy organizations. The message from the education establishment to their customers all too often boiled down to: "Love it or leave it." Not surprisingly, many have left.
One story illustrates the dilemma public schools face today. A few years ago in Hawkins County, Tennessee, a fundamentalist Christian mother objected to her 6th grade daughter's reading assignment, a science fiction story in which astronauts encounter Martians who communicate telepathically. Offended by what she perceived to be a New Age, anti-Christian story line, this parent became the catalyst of a conflict between conservative Christians and liberal defenders of free speech. National organizations like Concerned Women of America and People for the American Way, representing polarized political views, became involved. A hard-fought courtroom drama ensued, with repeated appeals.
After four years of litigation and more than $1.5 million in legal fees, what was the result? Hostility and divisiveness in the community intensified. Officials in the educational system polarized. Trust further eroded. Stephen Bates, a lawyer who described the case in detail, summarizes the outcome succinctly: "Everybody lost."
Unfortunately, this extraordinary waste of money, energy, time, and talent happens all the time. In hundreds of school districts, parents, teachers, and school administrators are caught in battles that do little to strengthen their children's education. If the school system favors conservative values (such as when a teacher in Tucson was fired for allowing children to rehearse a controversial Broadway play), then liberals go to war. But if the school system takes a liberal position (such as the firing of a school principal in Mississippi who allowed prayer to be recited over the school intercom), then conservative forces unleash their counteroffensive.
Aware that these escalating conflicts lead nowhere, many school systems have responded with the logical policy of trying to keep conflict off school grounds at all costs. If a textbook is controversial, don't use it. If a speaker, a movie, or a musical group is potentially objectionable, avoid it. If an incident in the community leads to polarization, prevent the incident from entering the educational process. If a powerful advocacy group complains about something that is going on at school, try to appease them. In other words, try to create a conflict-free school environment.
In the short run, this defensive response may prevent some conflicts and defuse others before they escalate. But, ultimately, it is not enough.

Building Conflict Into Education

If public education is to survive, it must serve a broad constituency. Although other educational options are always available for some people, the strength of the public school system is that it serves the overall needs of the community. But to accomplish this task in an ever more diverse and fragmented nation, public schools must attract a wider—not an ever narrower—spectrum of students. This challenge is one reason that conflicting perspectives need to be systematically built into education.
Another, profoundly interrelated reason to build in conflict is that, if properly designed, it provides students with a genuine experience of democracy in action. Education for citizenship in a democracy cannot happen in an artificially conflict-free environment. In a nation whose 21st-century population is projected to be increasingly diverse and contentious, dealing with conflicting values is a key component of citizenship. The core challenge of citizenship is learning to cope creatively with controversy and to make informed choices. A generation of students will learn these skills only if educators enable them to encounter situations that require using them.
Instead of systematically excluding conflict from schools, building in conflict selectively includes controversy in ways that enrich the educational experience. Instead of assuming that conflict undermines education, this approach recognizes that, when appropriately handled, conflict can enhance the learning process.
Recently, when two Republican members of Congress once again proposed a constitutional amendment to protect the right of children to pray in school, it was a reminder that some quarrels never die. Pro- and antiprayer forces will never go away. Neither side is likely to change its mind. Faced with countless divisive issues like this one, educators must decide: Should we try to resolve these issues in such a way that students are left out of the conflicts? Or is it sometimes better to introduce conflicts into the classroom—fairly, honestly, and, above all, educationally?
To cite two examples: If the community is divided over whether sex education should be exclusively abstinence-based or contraception-based, discuss the pros and cons of both approaches. Or, if a controversy erupts over whether a high school holiday music program can include "Silent Night," engage students in the design of the program.
This build-conflict-in strategy has some eloquent detractors who believe that it amounts to compromising with the enemy. Take, for example, the issue of creationism versus evolution. More than a century after the Scopes Trial supposedly settled this issue, millions of Americans still believe in the biblical account of creation. A significant portion of these creationists are angry that the public schools not only do not teach their version of the origins of human life but actually discredit it. They are not interested in paying taxes to support a school system that trashes their beliefs (a word they often use to express their feeling) in front of their children.
But as soon as one suggests that creationism be included in, say, a high school biology class, the other side steps forward utterly outraged. "How can you appease this fundamentalist point of view?" they ask angrily. "If you include their pet theory, then what will you include next? If the Ku Klux Klan demands inclusion of their theories about racial inferiority, will that too be added to the curriculum? Once you open the door to community input, it will never stop until the integrity of the public school system has been destroyed."
Faced with such diametrically opposed beliefs about curriculum, many public school educators find it impossible to satisfy the conflicting parties. In our experience, the only way to find the right approach is to build the conflict into the curriculum itself—turn the conflict into an opportunity for learning. Instead of weakening the school community, the conflict can be used to strengthen it.

Incorporating Conflict: Three Examples

Let's look at three conflicts to see how a school system might effectively build in conflict: creationism versus evolution, conservative opposition to controversial texts, and liberal complaints about school prayer.
Creationism versus evolution. Bring a small group of stakeholders in the conflict (fewer than 12) together for a series of conversations. Include not only procreationism and proevolution partisans but also others involved in the decision-making process (such as a biology teacher, a librarian, school board members, and a parent). Ask the group to design a curriculum that will satisfy the entire group—not a compromise, but a genuine creative resolution.
One community group of outspoken advocates from every conflicting view on this subject worked through its differences. The approach the group developed was far more exciting and pedagogically sound than anything the adversaries could have produced on their own. The group recognized that empowering students to sift through competing points of view, including not only Darwin's views but also those of his critics, would yield more motivated biology students and more informed and engaged citizens.
Controversial texts. As mentioned previously, a high school drama teacher in Tucson selected a play, The Shadow Box, to be performed by the students. This Pulitzer Prize-winning drama created a controversy that pitted teacher against administrator, parents against students, Right against Left. Some citizens felt that certain phrases in the play were inappropriate for high schoolers. But to others, the same phrases had no such implications. In the end, the teacher was fired for insubordination (or resigned, depending on whose version of events you believe).
As a result of the firing, the town polarized. On one side, several distinguished Hollywood actors and actresses, representing an organization called the Creative Coalition, performed a benefit reading of the play in Tucson's main theater to protest the firing. (Christopher Reeve, then most widely known for his starring role in the film Superman, played a controversial role, a terminally ill man who is visited by his former wife and his homosexual lover.) The mostly sympathetic audience considered the relationship to be an eloquent evocation of a universal challenge—facing death with dignity. But on the other side of town, conservative organizations and parents aligned themselves with the school administrators and declared this to be a blatant attempt to portray gay lifestyles and obscene language as morally acceptable.
Instead of further polarizing the school district, the conflict could have been built into the curriculum by allowing high school students to hear opinions on both sides and then debate or write essays presenting their own point of view. Listening to critics and defenders of the play would have inspired them to actually develop and use the citizenship skills that we talk so much about but so rarely have a chance to witness.
School prayer. When a high school principal in Mississippi allowed students to read Christian prayers over the school intercom, despite specific instructions from his supervisor that this was against the law, the case became a rallying point for Right and Left. National advocacy groups on both ends of the political spectrum either glorified or vilified this principal's action. But no one seems to have considered the possibility that the conflict should have been used to strengthen the students' educational experience, rather than just distract from it.
One idea for building this conflict into the curriculum is for school officials to call for a series of public hearings. Students, as well as other members of the community, would have been invited to hear speakers who have pioneered the resolution of cultural clashes in the public schools, such as Charles Haynes of The First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University. (Haynes, the center's Scholar-in-Residence, calls this "teaching the controversy.") Whether through after-school religious organizations, moments of silence, interfaith studies, or other constitutionally acceptable methods, this conflict could be a community-building experience for the school and the spark that ignites student learning.

Modeling Democracy

An integral part of education is learning that democratic communities are strong enough to contain their deepest differences. If we avoid discussing these differences in schools, out of the misguided notion that we are protecting children from being wounded in the culture wars, we are imparting values by default. We are telling young people that we don't trust them to deal with the diversity present in their own communities. We are also telling them that we adults do not know how to deal with conflict ourselves.
Deciding to build in appropriate conflicts is only the first step. The next step is to decide how the conflict should be explored—at what level, at what pace, by what method, and with which participants. Can a conflict be built directly into the curriculum? Should it be included in school assemblies or community events? Who decides which community participants will be involved? How are minority perspectives handled—by majority vote or by consensus? When should school officials follow community input, and when should they implement their own decisions?
When educators decide to build conflict in, they must confront these and other equally difficult questions. Of course, we don't need to wait for conflict to erupt to build it into education. We can directly incorporate it by teaching conflict resolution to teachers and students (as pioneered by the Resolving Conflict Creatively Program). We can indirectly include conflict by fostering the development of emotional intelligence and other skills related to sound citizenship (as advocated by the Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning based at Yale University).
Methods will vary, but the principle behind teaching democracy can remain constant: modeling in the school community the way democracy works. Tolerance, respect, a willingness to learn from one another—these are the values on which democratic nations thrive. They are the values that schools must teach and practice.
After all, if schools don't do so, who will?
End Notes

1 Stephen Bates, (1994), Battleground: One Mother's Crusade, the Religious Right and the Struggle for Our Schools (New York: Henry Holt).

2 An approach that builds conflict in must be age appropriate. The desire to protect young children from premature exposure to controversial subject matter should, of course, be respected. But not only are high school students capable of dealing with conflict and controversy—they also seek it. If you don't agree, just look at high schoolers' favorite TV shows, movies, and hit songs.

3 Contact Charles Haynes at Vanderbilt University, The Freedom Forum, 1207 - 18th Avenue, So., Nashville, TN 37212.

4 Contact Linda Lantieri at Resolving Conflict Creatively, 163 - 3rd Avenue, #103, New York, NY 10003.

5 Contact Linda Lantieri at Resolving Conflict Creatively, 163 - 3rd Avenue, #103, New York, NY 10003.

Mark Gerzon has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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