John Casey | University of Pennsylvania

As the child of a US military service member, I was used to moving. Because of my dad’s job, I went to kindergarten in Korea, elementary school in Hawaii, middle school in Italy, and graduated high school in Germany. There is an American school that accommodates students aged five to eighteen, on every US military installation. Funded by the Department of Defense, these schools are the only nationalized public education system in the United States; funding comes from the federal government rather than an individual state. As a result of this nationalization, the curriculum and educational quality of these schools remain consistent, regardless of where my family and I lived. At these schools, I enrolled in Advanced Placement classes, participated in extracurricular activities, and had the opportunity to spend my high school career in Europe, a privilege no student in the United States has. My experience in these Department of Defense schools prepared me for my time at the University of Pennsylvania, while instilling in me important values such as secularism, patriotism, and the importance of democracy.

By contrast, my sister attends a private Catholic school in Nashville. After I graduated from high school my dad retired from the United States Army, and my family moved to Tennessee. Unable to enroll in a Department of Defense school, my sister’s experience has been wildly different than mine. While she can still take AP classes and participate in extracurricular activities, the values and traditions that underpin her education differ dramatically from the ones that underpinned mine. Instead of secularism, her Catholic school incorporates religion in everyday life. While her school does not espouse patriotism as ardently as mine did, her school, like mine, does address the value of democracy.  

This difference in educational environment goes far beyond the curriculum. In fact, since my sister and I both took AP classes,the classroom material is quite similar. However, the ‘implied values’ of our respective educational environments differ. For example, while I stood and said the Pledge of Allegiance everyday before classes began, my sister and her peers recite the Lord’s Prayer instead. However, both my sister’s and my school espouse the value of democracy in curriculum and in practice. These seemingly minute values go a long way in shaping the cultural values and traditions of individuals, and by extension, their communities.

In 1947, George Kennan, an American foreign policy expert, wrote “forms of government are forged mainly in the fire of practice, not in the vacuum of theory. They respond to national character and national realities.” Writing about the Soviet Union, Kennan sought to illustrate the difficulties Soviet citizens would face if they were to transition from authoritarianism to democracy. Representative government is truly a hallmark of civilization, and civilization requires restraint of some basic human instincts. We write laws and codify punishments not simply as symbolic acts, but because they teach society’s demands and expectations. By example, parents teach their children the ways to interact, communicate, and engage with their communities. In the words of the rapper Melle Mel in The Message, “A child is born with no state of mind/ Blind to the ways of mankind.” Those ways of mankind need to be taught.

In much the same way, democracy and its corresponding tendencies must be learned. Representative government requires a nation be familiar and comfortable with practices like power sharing, decentralized authority, and civic engagement. To utilize Kennan’s words, when ‘national character and national realities’ overlap with core tenets of democracy, representative government can flower. Just as French citizens living during the reign of King Louis XIV in the eighteenth century would be unfamiliar with the concept of decentralized authority, Iraqis recovering from the rule of Saddam Hussein in 2003 would not be comfortable with active civic engagement. In both societies, it would be difficult for democracy to spawn immediately; representative government is a fragile creature. However education, with its ability to cultivate the traditions of a nation’s next generation, can play an outsize role in fostering democracy around the globe. To pursue democracy we must promote the values that facilitate democratic decision-making and power sharing. This means encouraging those tendencies through education.  

While there is no ‘democratic curriculum’ that will teach students the values and traditions of democracy in one day or one school year, teachers can facilitate communication within the classroom while instilling the values associated with sturdy democratic societies. According to Robert H. Beck, an American education expert, these techniques include student participation, critical thinking, and group work.

Instead of encouraging rote memorization of material, teachers should engage in active dialogue with their students, providing opportunities for critical thinking. In a democratic society, each citizen is expected to be the champion of his or her own ideology. We expect every citizen of voting age to candidly evaluate their values, expectations, and hopes to arrive at a decision that will inevitably impact the future shape of government. Each person’s situation is different, and the hopes, dreams, and desires of one will differ dramatically from the hopes, dreams, and desires of another. As a result, we expect each citizen to think for themselves. This ability to think critically must be taught. Just as children obediently believe in Santa Claus until they learn to think for themselves, citizens of tyranny must learn to think of their government critically, weighing their own expectations against the merits of candidates and policies. A strong democratic society hinges on the ability of each citizen to think for themselves, forming an exclusive voting bloc of one. Without the ability to weigh individual needs against governmental expectations, a society will devolve into a single voting bloc composed of every citizen: everyone thinking and making decisions the same way. Of course while citizens will always be partially influenced by their background, critical thinking allows for diverse opinions even in areas with seemingly monolithic beliefs: this diversity reflects individuality. To prevent mob rule, democracy demands critical thinking.

Another way schools can instill effective democratic values is through the promotion of group work. While many students can attest that group projects are frustrating, these assignments are just another case of democratic conditioning. The value of group work does not stem from their efficacy; individual work is efficient. Rather, group work excels at familiarizing students with the distinct ways their classmates process information, engage with their peers, and communicate their thoughts and opinions within a group dynamic. Essentially, group work provides students an intimate view at how their peers make decisions and contribute to a larger mission. This can be a frustrating process, especially when members of the group make decisions differently or value the assignment discordantly. In a truly representative government, people have different opinions and values, a phenomena James Madison dubbed ‘factions’ in Federalist 10. While these distinctions might foment frustration, students typically arrive at the conclusion that the success of the group project precludes the airing out of hostility. Each member of the group must actively work to adapt the group dynamic to facilitate maximal productivity; the success of the project (and the students’ GPA) requires it. In much the same way, members of democratic society must come to realize that their fellow countrymen possess differing ideals and values. In 2008, supporters of then-candidate Barack Obama had views, values, and ideas distinct from those of Republican nominee John McCain and his supporters. However after the election, these divided citizens were forced to set their differences aside and work to bring America back from the depths of the Great Recession. The continued success of the United States required it. These two scenarios share a key premise: people of differing values and traditions forced to set aside their distinctions to advance the goals of the larger mission. With group work, this mission was a successful final project. In a democratic society, this larger mission is the continuity of representative government itself. By forcing students to work together, teachers prepare their students to work an environment where people have distinct values and think differently. This ability to work together does not come naturally: group projects have the ability to frustrate even the most intellectually gifted student. This frustration stems from novelty. Since “the skills and values of democracy are  socially learned… not genetic,” the development of these skills in school will feel unnatural, even frustrating, at first. By forcing students out of their comfort zone and compelling them to work with students who differ from themselves, teachers do a great service to the democratic development of the country. Group work is a cornerstone practice in the development of diverse democratic thinking.

Obviously, there are a number of other values that make the ‘national character’ conducive to democracy. However, in an era of hyper partisanship in the United States, sectarian violence in the Middle East and Africa, and nationalistic populism in western Europe, the practices of critical thinking and group work, and the values they promote, are germane to the current crises democracy faces. Hopefully, teachers can instill the values of critical thinking in future generations. Maybe then, we would not have to worry about ethnic groups hating each other simply because they are different. Critical thinking would lead citizens to think for themselves, making judgements about “the other” individually rather than as a single bloc. Likewise, the values associated with group work could counter the xenophobia that has characterized the far-right populist movements in western Europe by teaching students how to work with those who are different than themselves. Across the world today, both emerging and established democracies face a crisis of conscious. However, instead of undermining our faith in this structure of government, these crises should encourage us to promote better democratic values in future generations. To instill these values, we must turn to educational institutions. Just as my sister’s Catholic school will instill in her different values than my Department of Defense instilled in me, schools that promote critical thinking and group work will make their graduates better democratic citizens. The benefits of this will take time to come to fruition, but once they do, the fruits are very sweet indeed.

A final anecdote illustrating the value of democratic education comes from Antonio Spilimbergo in an article entitled “Democracy and Foreign Education.” Outlining the propensity of foreign democratic leaders (like Vicente Fox of Mexico or Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel) to have received education in the United States, Spilimbergo makes a convincing case that the “number of foreign students, and especially the level of democracy in host countries, predict future changes in the level of democracy at home.” Essentially, Spilimbergo argues the level of democracy in the nations that host and educate a nation’s citizens impacts the future democratic levels of the home country. By pointing to empirical evidence, Spilimbergo argues the democratic level of host countries predicts the democratization of the home country. This might be the greatest proof that democratic education facilitates democracy. Even though my sister’s and my western education differed dramatically, her rooted in religion and mine centered on secularism, both institutions actively worked to make their graduates better democratic citizens. While my school day started with a pledge and hers with a prayer, what followed in both were classes encouraging us to think critically and work together. When foreign students attend these schools, learn these skills, and go home, they promote these democratic ideals. Only under democratic leaders do democratic governments arise. Thus, in order to create a planet most conducive to democracy, we must foster democratic education worldwide. The values our schools instill predict the values our future generations hold. We should ensure those values include the democratic traditions of inclusion, cooperation, and critical thinking. Only then can we create an Earth that is better for future generations than it was for past generations.

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