Educating Citizens

A society that is free cannot educate its children in anything less than freedom. | Steven Harrison

Empowering the pursuit of happiness as each sees it is the primary purpose of education in a liberal democracy. But this mission presumes the vitality of democracy for it is only in such states that the precept that governmental authorities should treat citizens solely as ends and never as means has real prospect of taking root. Modern liberal democracies afford the broadest and most genuine choice of paths to happiness thus far realized in human history. A supporting mission of liberal education is therefore to help meet the requisites of both freedom and democracy by preparing young citizens for adult citizenship.

This is usually thought a matter of teaching civic responsibility, but it is much more than that. Liberal civic education is not merely a means to meet the needs of democracy; it should also be preparation for the exercise of the freedom democracy affords. According to Philip Phenix, “Liberal learning is not only a privilege of free persons and a right within a free society. It is also, thirdly, a source of freedom.”1

Our aim should be to help students attain the riper fruits of freedom and democracy as well as dispose them to meet the requirements.

As with all else we pursue, the motivational roots of freedom and democracy are found in the hearts of citizens. Neither our normative nor our utilitarian appeals have much chance of success if they do not resonate with the aspirations of students’ hearts. Of course, we must also cultivate their minds where the attitudes, understandings, and skills of freedom and democracy must be nurtured. Hearts determine the end we seek, but minds supply the means, and the ends of the heart are often garbled and diverted by the contradictory beliefs of the mind and defeated by its cognitive deficiencies in terms of knowledge, understanding, and skill. Freedom is an illusion unless the mind is free and able.

Before we can discern the best way to educate citizens, we must first be clear about the desired outcomes of civic education. To this end I offer what I believe are the cardinal civic virtues of liberal democracy.

Liberal Civic Virtues

All the preferred characteristics of democratic citizenship are predicated on respect for human dignity. The arguments for tolerance, the acceptance of equality, and commitment to such practical means of liberty as democracy, rule of law, and guaranteed rights either explicitly or implicitly begin with the precept. Preferably a citizen would believe in inherent human worth, but we cannot insist. Mandating belief obviously contradicts freedom. We can, however, expect a citizen to act according to the requirements of respect, for they are the fundamental requirements of freedom. And we should aim further to firming young citizens’ commitment to seeing the requisites of respect for human dignity met by their fellows and their government. As just argued, when such commitment arises from actual appreciation, we reap affective rewards as well as external protection. Fostering appreciation for others is the most promising means to nurture this foundational civic virtue.

The need for tolerance of others and their divergent views is a lesson taught by the daily news. Legal freedom loses its meaning when one must constantly defend it against resentment, hatred, petty social and political obstacles, threat, and, as is prevalent in some countries, violence. Democratic processes are defeated and the public good sacrificed when the possibility of compromise is precluded by intolerance. The reasoned deliberation and open communication required by democratic decision making falls victim to paranoid, demonizing rancor. In so many ways the prevalence of tolerance is a measure of the health of democracy. It is also a measure of the quality of relationships and affective wellbeing.

Liberal democracy is predicated on legal and political equality. Attempts to deny such equality make a mockery of democracy and have often threatened its health or prevented its realization. Acceptance of equality is therefore a core liberal virtue. The current generation of students in most democratic countries is probably more accepting of political and even social equality than previous generations. This may be due in part to efforts made in schools and in the media. Challenges are ever recurring, however, and students remain susceptible to appeals to prejudice that imply that some are or ought to be more equal than others. Shorn of the more primitive rhetoric of previous eras, such appeals remain both pervasive and seductive. The younger generation is more inoculated against crass appeals to racial and ethnic prejudice, but belittling and callous judgments based on presumed social merit, legal status, religious and ideological views, and sexual orientation are still prominently voiced and young people still echo them. They echo in my classroom.

We should therefore not relax our efforts to nurture acceptance of equality. Rather we should reinforce them by trying to engender not only greater understanding of the political and social advantages of equality, but the personal benefits as well. Acceptance of equality is important to personal empowerment, especially in regard to influencing—and even more importantly enjoying—other people. Accepting the equality of others lowers the cognitive barriers to accepting, relating to, engaging, and appreciating others. It removes the cognitive barriers to the full realization of the riches of relationship.

Compassion understood as wishing and being moved to serve the wellbeing of others is implied in most of the virtues of liberal democracy. Leaving aside the issue of the affective experience implied by the word, our empathy for others is a prime motivational source for respecting their dignity, tolerating their differences, and accepting their equality. What we might do to better anchor any of these virtues in the hearts of students would help anchor them all. But such anchoring requires revealing the affective benefits of these virtues, which I believe calls for a more amenable understanding of compassion.

Among the virtues of liberal democracy is commitment to its ideals. We should hope to buttress students’ commitment to freedom, democracy, and justice. I’m not talking about the brittle, unthinking commitment implanted by means of repetitive intoning of ideals without examining their meaning and implications—or worse, the blatant brainwashing techniques such as a daily pledge of allegiance—aimed at instilling blind patriotism that yet plague what passes for civic education in some prominent democracies. Genuine commitment able to withstand challenges and give clarity in the face of ambiguity and competing claims comes from a deep, clear-eyed understanding of the difference freedom, justice, and democracy make in your own life.

Students should arrive at commitment by having considered the dimensions, problems, and ambiguities of democratic ideals. They should understand why these ideals came to inspire such devotion, and why they continue to inspire allegiance in the face of competing ideals and the problems that arise because of our allegiance. It is crucial that students are led to understand the personal relevance of freedom, equality, and democracy through awareness of their daily manifestations in their lives. They should gain an experiential understanding of these ideals, and learn to weigh the benefits against the costs. Only then have we prepared young citizens for commitment based on free and informed choice that honors the spirit of democratic ideals in contrast to the nationalistic brainwashing that betrays this spirit.

Of course, we also seek to infuse students with a commitment to civic responsibility. Democracy depends on the active, willing participation of citizens to maintain the integrity of its processes and meet the needs of society. Voting, jury duty, military service, respect for law and the rights of others, and paying taxes are among the traditional responsibilities of citizens. Willingness to help in times of crisis and community need is a civic responsibility as well. The full expression of the virtue implies more than a willingness to perform duties seen as burdens, though; it calls for a positive valuing of shared purpose and participation in the enterprise of democracy. Such valuing is more likely to develop if they are made aware of the affective benefits of communal participation and service through experiencing these benefits.

It is also important for students to understand that civic responsibilities derive from freedom itself. They should be afforded a much clearer understanding of the relationship between freedom and responsibility, an understanding based not only on historical evidence, but also on their own experiences. They must repeatedly experience the fact that personal freedom requires accountability for the consequences of exercising free choice. But they should also learn that responsibility is a function of freedom, and should not be divorced from freedom. Coercion robs obligations of their moral character, as many philosophers have argued. It would not be amiss for students to learn to insist that responsibilities be attached to commensurate freedoms, because people in positions of authority tend to be either insufficiently aware of the relationship or are prone to forget it.

An attitude of efficacy is also a civic virtue. Civic engagement is fueled by the expectation that it can make a difference. It helps for students to know that the fruits of engagement are not limited to achieving a specific aim—for example getting someone elected or getting a bill passed—but also what they learn from it, the message of accountability it sends to those in positions of power, and the example of democratic spirit it provides fellow citizens. I tell my students there is nothing I can teach them in class that comes close to what the frustrations of real-world engagement in some cause will teach them, even a relatively small cause like championing a student demand in the face of administrative opposition at the college. Such frustrations will hone skills that will come in handy for the rest of their lives. And if they stick with it, they will have wins among their losses. Experience of efficacy is the sine qua non for developing an attitude of efficacy.

A crucial virtue of liberal citizenship is skepticism in regard to power. Beyond a certain degree of order, there is an inverse relationship between freedom and power, and it has ever been understood that freedom must be constantly defended against the abiding temptation of those in positions of authority to abuse their power. I am not speaking of a judgment of persons here. I am speaking of awareness of an almost universal human foible. A judgment of the worth of others is not implied in the refusal to accept the validity or wisdom of what authorities would have us believe or do. If such acceptance were inherent to appreciating their worth, such appreciation would preclude our freedom and likely our material wellbeing. We are all prone to folly and artifice; power just amplifies its effects. Liberal citizenship requires us to resist the sway and discern the wiles of those in power for the sake of freedom, democracy, human rights, and the general welfare. Though the state is necessary to our protection, our need for protection from our protectors is dire as well.

In a democracy, citizens should never adopt an attitude of subservience to those in authority, should never simply trust that those who wield power know the interests of citizens better than the citizens themselves, and never presume those endowed with authority will give precedence to the interests of the People over their personal interests in the fruits of power. “Respect” as in recognition of a person’s right to decide is due those in positions of authority only to the degree it is necessary for order and addressing common needs. Respect so understood is an obligation to one’s fellow citizens rather than an obligation to those with authoritative positions in government. A wielder of authority has the same claim to respect for their dignity as a human being as everyone else; their office does not afford a greater claim in a society where government is the servant rather than the master of the People.

I belabor the point because there seems to be a great deal of confusion in the minds of citizens of liberal democracies on their responsibility for skepticism, and because so much of what passes for civic education glosses over this vital virtue of democratic citizenship. Democracy is indeed subversive from the standpoint of those entrusted with authority, but democratic authority is granted for the good of the citizens, not their leaders, and neither leaders nor citizens can allow this fact to be forgotten without peril to their freedom and much else they cherish.

The virtue of skepticism regarding authority also serves personal empowerment. Learning how to effectively deal with the myriad forms of authority in society, knowing how to avoid undue sway, is one of the most crucial skills to master on the path to success in many social endeavors. The virtue of skepticism whereby a citizen willingly cooperates with authority for the common good but resists abuse is better suited to the sort of personal integrity that wins respect and trust. And it is requisite to the citizen who would be master of his or her own destiny.

The virtue of skepticism leads to consideration of the cognitive virtues of liberal citizenship as it is obviously allied with the cognitive skill and liberal virtue of critical thinking. Critical thinking is critical in the sense that it requires an initial skepticism toward claims in keeping with the requirements of informed and reasoned independent thinking. It subjects such claims to the rigors of reason: the considered examination of the evidence for a claim, the consistency of its logic, and its relative plausibility and desirability in light of alternative possibilities and claims.

Robert Ennis defines critical thinking more simply as “reasonable, rational thinking that helps us decide what to believe and do.”2 Whether narrowly or loosely defined, critical thinking is inherent to discerning choice. This is obviously a civic virtue when it comes to choosing candidates on a ballot or choosing a party or cause to support. But the discerning choice of religion, career, or lifestyle also has civic implications as well as it captures the essence of the exercise of freedom. We ought to consider the discerning exercise of freedom a civic virtue in its own right.

Developing critical thinking in students also has a defensive aim. In this regard Matthew Lipman observes that, “Insofar as the question of knowledge and belief is concerned, I would say that the role of critical thinking is defensive: to protect us from being coerced or brainwashed into believing what others want us to believe without our having an opportunity to inquire for ourselves.”3 Fortunately, efforts to develop the attitudes and skills of critical thinking have not been lacking in liberal education, though these efforts have proven far less consistent, sustained, and serious than advocates had hoped.4 To my mind, they fall far short of what is necessary to immunize young citizens from the sway of demagogy.

We should more consequently aspire to the virtue of free and open minds. Independence from external claims and demands does not suffice to the realization of freedom. Awareness and reduction of the walls and filters that already exist in one’s mind is necessary as well. Certain and unexamined knowledge and beliefs are the walls and locked doors of the mind. Free minds are free to follow wherever thought and the logic of inquiry may lead them without fearing to transgress the cognitive perimeters of authoritative assertions of fact and appropriate belief. Students should therefore be encouraged to recognize these perimeters and be taught how to transgress them without fear. Open minds are open to the consideration of other perspectives that remove these perimeters or at least render them more porous. As we shall see in the next chapter, cultivating the habit of philosophical inquiry is well suited to freeing and opening minds.

Discerning political choice and effective political engagement require a foundation of civic knowledge and understanding, of course. Students should be well grounded in the what of their political systems—what a former colleague at the Delaware Department of Education calls “factoids”—and it is essential that they also understand these systems in terms of why and how. Understanding implies knowledge of purpose and cause and effect relationships. One might think that, whatever other failings contemporary civic education may exhibit, surely the provision of knowledge and understanding of students’ own political system is not among them. After all, there are subjects and courses devoted to national history and government. And civic knowledge is measured by some accountability tests. But as I have learned to my dismay and regret in my own classes, and as is consistently evidenced by numerous questionnaires, the presumption of a firm foundation of civic knowledge and understanding is woefully mistaken.

Though it is the grist of the mill of discerning political choice and effective political engagement—indeed of the adequate performance of civic duties—civic knowledge and understanding is not enough of a priority in the education systems of the democracies with which I am familiar to move the educational powers that be to take it seriously. There is indeed a great deal of rhetoric and token effort, but the lamentable outcomes do not seem to inspire much interest in a shift in educational priorities.

It is not just the practical matter of the health of democracy at stake here; it is the contributions of civic education to personal empowerment as well. The free exercise of choice is not just a right, it is a skill that must be nurtured and developed. I place the developed skills of freedom among the virtues of liberal citizenship. Much of the foregoing either predicates or entails these skills.

Both political and social efficacy also call for the skills of democracy. These are the skills necessary to collective decision making, public advocacy, staying aware of current political and social issues and developments, effective participation in political parties and civic groups, etc. Such skills facilitate classroom and organizational deliberations. They grease the wheels of social intercourse in innumerable ways. In addressing the reasons for increased interest in engaging students in discussions of controversial issues, Harry Brighouse contends “One is that it is more widely recognized than it once was that citizens have a responsibility not merely to press their own interests, but to deliberate in a more impartial and well-informed manner about issues at stake in public life.”5 Democratic skills also serve personal empowerment by enhancing the effectiveness of a person’s social engagement with family, work, and community.

It is widely recognized that awareness and understanding of one’s own social and political system no longer suffices, though this is often seen more as a matter of economic than civic efficacy. Citizenship remains nation-based, of course, and its responsibilities do not extend beyond borders in the traditional understanding of the word. We the People, after all, refers to a distinct nation that excludes the rest of humanity. Citizenship is therefore associated with nationalism with all its attendant ills and amply demonstrated dangers. We would do well to stress the interconnection and interdependence of peoples. After all, the world in which our students live, work, entertain themselves, and consume is a world in which borders no longer contain the forces that condition their pursuit of happiness. Globalization is a reality despite the pretense of national leaders that our common fate lies in their hands. We would be woefully amiss were we to make no effort to prepare our students for this reality.

An awareness of the global forces that increasingly ignore borders, a recognition that our welfare is connected with those of people around the world, an appreciation of the humanity and shared needs of all peoples, and an understanding of how civic virtues and responsibilities are human virtues and responsibilities upon which the fate of humanity as a whole may depend are aspects of global citizenship. Global awareness is a modern civic virtue. A student possessed of such awareness is both more empowered and more desirable as an employee, as we are repeatedly reminded in the contemporary discourse on educational reform. As the world in which we live is the world of which we are aware, a student with heightened global awareness would also live in a larger, richer world of possibility and aesthetic appreciation. And such a student would have fewer cognitive barriers to relationships with people all over the world as technology has reduced the physical barriers to travel and communication.

The preceding list of virtues does not exhaust all we might aim for in the preparation of our young for adult citizenship, but it suffices for identifying some of the more glaring needs of contemporary civic education and points us toward ways to better prepare and empower our youth for their role as citizens of liberal democracies.

Cultivating Liberal Civic Virtues

I previously suggested some approaches to more effectively nurture the seeds of respect for human dignity in the hearts of children. Greater awareness of the affective fruits of appreciation for others would foster the virtues of tolerance, acceptance of equality, and compassion. My focus here is the other civic virtues we might build on this affective foundation. The base material, if you will, of the remaining attitudinal and cognitive virtues of liberal citizenship is civic knowledge and understanding. I recommend that such knowledge and understanding should be given a higher priority than it currently enjoys. In keeping with a trend in education, though, I would emphasize understanding. The “factoids” of history and government are necessary to understanding, of course, but we can do far more to infuse the facts with meaning by having students seek answers to the questions of why and how.

The question why in regard to social behavior requires us to consider the fundamentals of the human condition and our shared aspirations. Questions regarding human behavior that begin with why invite the consideration of human nature and the wellsprings of the human heart. As it relates to civics, the query is more precisely formulated in the classic question Why do we need community? and the more modern question Why do we consent to be ruled? These questions lead into fertile territory for imagination, insight, and perspective. Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and a host of less famous philosophers have all explained the purposes of communities and governance in terms grade school students can understand. These purposes can be imaginatively explored in literature; The Lord of the Flies was once frequently assigned with this end in mind. The Giver is used to introduce some troubling aspects of community and governance. There are even games based on meeting the needs of imaginary societies.

I and other educators use the device of simulations in which students assume roles in imaginary scenarios. I have asked students to imagine they are post-apocalyptic survivors faced with collectively deciding how to meet the needs of survival without the aid of established society and government. They have to collectively decide how to meet economic and security needs and fashion structures and processes of governance.

Real-life illustrations of the need for government and its dangers are easily found in recent and current news. Examples also abound in students’ own lives. They are daily faced with the tensions between freedom and authority in their families, schools, and other venues of interaction with adults. It is here that the abstractions of civic life are animated with the experiences and feelings of students. There are many ways to imaginatively and affectively engage students in exploring the why that affords a much deeper understanding and appreciation of the what and how of political systems.

The questions Why freedom? Why democracy? and Why is democracy better than the alternatives? invite the exploration that leads to deeper understanding and appreciation of the advantages of freedom and rule by, for, and of the People. To my mind, such understanding and appreciation should be considered a core aim of civic education. It is fertile soil for cultivating all the virtues of mature commitment. It affords the commitment of conviction rather than unreflective obedience and parroting. It fosters awareness of the problems and abuses of freedom as well as its promise. And exploring the why of democracy necessarily involves repeated reference to examples of the problem of power—the persistent temptation to abuse power—that is the main reason for the rise of democracy. It would encourage skepticism in regard to power that would serve students well in negotiating the social terrain of their own lives.

A deep understanding of freedom would heighten students’ awareness of the context of their lives, the constraints and opportunities they might otherwise not perceive. An appreciation of freedom would offer affective benefits, for it is the essence of enjoying freedom. Students should engage the questions Why freedom? and Why democracy? throughout their years in school, ever broadening the focus of inquiry as it delves deeper into the common aspirations of the human heart.

The method of posing open-ended questions for communal inquiry directly engages critical thinking as well as the skills necessary for such inquiry.6 As long as the questions are understood to have a number of plausible answers, such questioning avoids the inhibiting effects of authoritative assertions of knowledge. Done well, it would help counteract some of the dispiriting effects of schooling. As Lipman says, “Before long, children become aware that schooling is enervating and dispiriting rather than animating or intellectually provocative.”7 How civics is taught influences the values learned. Palmer observes that,

Students may take a course on democratic values that is full of solid information. But if the teacher does little more than dictate that information and then demand that students memorize and parrot it on tests, they are not learning democratic values. Instead, they are learning to survive as subjects of an autocracy: keep your head down, your mouth shut, and repeat the party line whether or not you understand it or believe it.8

The spirited pursuit of answers to questions that teachers intentionally avoid giving can enliven classrooms. That has been my experience and, as we shall see in the next chapter, it is the experience of many others as well. The quest to answer open-ended questions highlights relevant information and infuses it with meaning. Students find knowledge that helps them solve a problem more interesting than disassociated facts. Such knowledge has more apparent utility than helping students get a better grade on the next test. It is a means to an end they might find intellectually and affectively engaging. I have found it is often the stimulation of communal inquiry itself that motivates the search for answers. Whatever the motive, the communal search for answers to open-ended questions strengthens problem solving skills as well as the skills of freedom. In seeking answers, students increase their awareness of choices and learn how to reach independent, well-considered, and informed conclusions of their own. It fosters free and open minds.

Exploring questions such as What does “the People” mean? How do the citizens of a democratic country manage to make collective decisions? What is the relationship between the People and the government in a democracy? What does “represent” mean? Why do we elect representatives rather than have wise people choose them for us? What do we expect from elected representatives? Why is respect for authority necessary? Why is it conditional? lead to a deepening understanding of why the structures and processes of democracy are what they are. It shows them as devices designed to solve practical problems rather than as mere given facts of government and politics.

A host of other questions should guide students toward a robust and sophisticated understanding of freedom. One might presume that such an understanding is generally considered crucial to the education of free citizens in free societies, but the evidence does not support this presumption. I frequently ask students if they spent much time exploring the concept of freedom in any of their pre-college schooling. Only a rare few remember spending any time at all exploring the concept itself. I have had the opportunity to ask a number of teachers engaged in civic education at various grade levels if they spent much time exploring the concept of freedom. They are usually perplexed at first, but with a little coaching some relate they obliquely address the concept with the examples of history—the War of Independence and slavery, for example—and an occasional discussion of rights. The exploration of freedom is not absent in schools, but I have yet to find it given anything close to the emphasis a robust and effective civic education reasonably demands.

There are likely a number of reasons for this. A robust understanding of freedom probably does not seem as apparently useful as other aims of education, which may explain why the matter is not given much thought. Another reason is the way we teach. The traditional emphasis on knowledge rather than understanding still prevails. Knowledge is authoritatively transmitted rather than offered as grist for the mill of open-ended questions. The students ask questions, the teacher provides answers. Also, the question why is an essentially philosophical question, and philosophical inquiry is not a common—and is even more rarely a formal—pursuit in modern schools.

But still one would expect more than a few isolated voices expressing concern that there is no deep exploration of freedom afforded the future free citizens of free societies. There is a great deal of asserting the value of freedom and its fundamental importance as a national and humanistic ideal, of course, but the deep exploration that leads to the understanding and appreciation necessary for mature conviction is rare. In the words of Harry Brighouse,

While we are aiming to produce good citizenship, we are also aiming to do so legitimately. That means citizenship educators are required to instil, at the appropriate age, habits of sceptical enquiry into their students; inclinations to subject all values and principles, including those on which the state is founded, to rational scrutiny. They should avoid deploying misleading myths in the service of citizenship education.9

It has occurred to me that conviction based on a genuine understanding of freedom and democracy might appear somewhat problematic for those in positions of authority—from teachers to elected officials—especially if it entails a heightened awareness of the need for skepticism in regard to authority. But I do not want to emphasize such suspicions. I wish, rather, to emphasize the personal and social benefits of conviction based on deep consideration of the dimensions, problems, and advantages of freedom and democracy as well as an honest consideration of the alternatives. Such conviction is not guaranteed, of course, because free and serious consideration exposes students to plausible arguments for preferring otherwise. And such conviction would not be based on the simplistic understandings that characterize the platitudes and manipulative appeals of common political discourse.

Yet I am quite confident that most students guided through a multi-year process of critical and comparative analysis, deep philosophical reflection, and heightened awareness born of experience involved in a serious exploration of freedom and democracy would arrive at an appreciation far deeper than the repetition of platitudes and nationalist sentiments and slogans could ever hope to yield. Conviction born of thorough critical investigation is a far more robust and reliable inspiration for civic responsibility than programmed conviction by means of non-reflective processes of socialization that appeal to children’s deep-seated need to belong but bypass their reasoned consideration. The former promises stronger motive, clearer guidance, and greater breadth of vision.

Knowing why one believes as one does affords resilience in the face of challenges and protection from undue sway. And the processes leading to conviction based on understanding exercise some core skills of freedom: investigation, critical analysis, and discerning choice. Of course, the skills of freedom cannot be learned and honed in the classroom alone; they must be practiced in real-life situations.

The Experiential Dimension

If there is an educational assertion beyond reasonable dispute, it is that experience is the best teacher. All the wise advice we try to pass on as parents counts for little until our children experience the consequences of ignoring it. One touch of a hot stove is more effective than a thousand admonitions. All the skills necessary to navigate the complex social terrain of life are acquired and honed through having to use them to realize one’s desires. The knowledge enforced with the emotional impact of success or failure in real-life situations endures while most of the conceptual knowledge taught in classrooms is forgotten. And experience is the corrective to the inevitable holes and flaws of received knowledge.

A child does not learn the responsibilities and skills of freedom if he or she is not allowed to experience freedom. Children learn such responsibility through the gradual extension of the boundaries of autonomy within which they are allowed to make their own decisions and are not buffered from the consequences of their choices. That such boundaries must be judiciously placed to prevent real harm is obvious, but the autonomy within them must be real if they are to learn the lessons experience has to teach.

For example, circles of autonomy can be created by allowing a child or teenager to spend a set portion of their money as they wish, to determine their own free-time activities, or to decorate their space or room as they see fit. They may be given an equal vote in deciding such matters as the destination for a family outing. Autonomy is always limited by considerations of safety and the interests of others, but otherwise parents must allow their children to decide contrary to what they think wise within the circles of autonomy. Paternalism must be curtailed for the pedagogical magic of experience to work.

The principle applies to civic education as well, of course. Students must have circumscribed areas of autonomy where they are free to make meaningful collective decisions. As Nel Nodding advises, “schools should be organized democratically—as places where the best forms of associated living are practiced. Schools are, then, minisocieties in which children learn through practice how to promote their own growth, that of others, and that of the whole society.”10 Schools usually provide some measure of civics-relevant experience. A rare few private schools are actually dedicated to student freedom and democratic governance.11 Most have some form of student government in the United States. Student committees and clubs are usually afforded at least a modicum of autonomy. A few primary and secondary teachers make provision for collective decision making in their classes, and the practice is more prevalent in college. At the college level, community and civic engagement is encouraged or even required.

Yet my experiences as a student and a professor, my experiences as advisor to a number of student organizations, the experiences of my children, my discussions with students regarding their educational experiences, my discussions with student life staff who claim broad knowledge of practices at other institutions, my discussions with primary and secondary teachers, my discussions with colleagues in higher education from other institutions, and what I have read concerning the matter have consistently reinforced my view that something is vitally missing in the experiential dimension of civic education. From what I can gather, it seldom allows for any real autonomy and therefore little genuinely meaningful exercise of democratic skills.

The freedom to make meaningful decisions is almost invariably restricted by close paternalistic control, often manipulated to serve the purposes of those in positions of authority, and not infrequently quashed by arbitrary suppression without even a pretense of due process. I have often had occasion to witness or hear accounts of the pretense of seeking input from students that is for the most part ignored and at times angrily rejected. Perhaps even the pretense might seem comparatively enlightened, but consider what it teaches students. Students learn from the school environment that authoritarian governance is the norm and general preference. All too often, they are subjected to arbitrary, petty tyranny with little recourse from which they no doubt draw the conclusion that such behavior is a prerogative of authority that the ruled are obliged to abide.

From what I have been able to determine, most students graduate and don the rights and responsibilities of adult citizenship with little actual experience of political efficacy, the responsibilities that adhere to the exercise of freedom, and the democratic processes that produce meaningful and binding collective decisions. Most student governments in secondary schools have faculty or administrative advisors who exercise censure or veto over student challenges to school policy, for example. I suspect few school administrations fail to react adversely to open student protest. Strict censorship of protest is endemic to secondary schools and, rather perplexing in light of the tradition of student protest at institutions of higher education, is exercised at many colleges and universities, the “finishing schools of democracy,” as well.

The purview of student government is usually limited to school events and student clubs with some management of budget, though their decisions are ever subject to authoritarian intervention. That the democratic forms of student participation are mostly symbolic without much democratic substance tells students what their adult educators really think about democracy and the importance of civic education. John Taylor Gatto hits a raw nerve when he says,

The lesson of my teaching life is that both the theory and the structure of mass education are fatally flawed; they cannot work to support the democratic logic of our national idea because they are unfaithful to the democratic principle. … Mass education cannot work to produce a fair society because its daily practice is practice in rigged competition, suppression, and intimidation.12

Many people agree with Gatto that this characterizes the practice of public education. Almost everyone I talk to about it at any length has tales to tell. These circumstances do indeed teach practical lessons about the social realities students will face as adults. Most will work in private dictatorships in order to make a living. But the lessons are largely about the authoritarian and paternalistic aspects of social reality and very little about genuine freedom and democracy. Students are steeped in the lessons of authoritarian rule; few have experienced much else in their personal lives. Unless this is balanced with real experience of freedom and meaningful democracy, we are not seriously preparing them to be free citizens with the desire and skill to maintain free societies.

Of course, the autonomy of students is less circumscribed at most universities and many colleges, but my unsystematic research reveals that the experience of genuine democratic independence is curtailed everywhere within the reach of my inquiry.

An expert in academic law who is well-versed in the practices of American colleges and universities told me that appointing a student life administrator to be the advisor to student government is the most common practice. This was the case for the past eight years at my college until both the students and faculty protested the practice. As any observer of bureaucracy knows, people entrusted with even a modicum of bureaucratic authority tend to seek to suppress challenge when possible, extend turf and prerogative, and place self interests above the mission of the organization they serve. The tendency is so prevalent it is called an iron law of bureaucracy. An independent student voice, especially if expressed in public action, can be an acute and frequent source of embarrassment for top administrators. Low-level student life administrators have good cause to worry that the ire of their superiors will fall on them should they refrain from using their authority as SGA advisor to spare their bosses such embarrassment. I can cite a long list of examples from my college.

I have pondered why so few seem to see all this as a blatant betrayal of the civic mission of our schools. Why is it not apparent that young citizens must progressively experience genuine freedom and democracy if we would deepen their understanding and hone their skills of freedom and democracy? But then, as a keen observer of human proclivities, I am not really surprised at the pervasive disregard of the pedagogical value of student autonomy in affairs appropriate to their self governance. It is the same propensity found in government bureaucracies.

That citizens can and should resist what they consider incursions on their interests and liberties by agencies of government is a given in liberal democracy. But it is unlikely that citizens so inclined learned the skills of resistance in school. In an interview with former U.S. Senator Bob Graham of Florida, David Glenn reports “Mr. Graham says that too many Americans have no idea how to organize their neighbors to affect public policy. Even the students he encountered a few years ago during a visiting position at Harvard University, he says, lacked basic knowledge about how to leverage public power.”13 The fact few students are ever afforded hands-on experience with leveraging power of any kind might account for this.

Students are presumably the citizens educational institutions exist to serve, though this fact does not seem to carry much weight in educational practice. Students are at the bottom of the chain of command of school bureaucracies not only in practice but in theory as well. Schools are not democracies and students are not formally accorded even the theoretical right to question mandates from on high. However necessary this may appear in terms of safety and the orderly conduct of pedagogy, to refuse all venues of student resistance to the policies and practices imposed on them emphatically impoverishes their preparation for adult citizenship in free societies.

For the sake of such preparation, students should be afforded democratic venues for genuine input into the making of policy, a plausible prospect of effecting a change in policy, and the means of public protest of measures they find repugnant. They should be taught the means of democratically legitimate, constructive, and effective engagement in the governance of their lives and be afforded the experience necessary to attain the requisite skills. They should be taught that respectful, constructive resistance to what they consider abuse of authority is not only legitimate, but is also a healthy expression of democratic virtue. And they should occasionally experience the efficacy of their efforts to encourage the development of an attitude of democratic efficacy.

If students actually possessed the attitudes and skills of democratic efficacy, the problems of authoritarian overreach would be held in check. But the evidence strongly indicates that students in general do not possess them. Hence it comes as a new realization to even college students when they hear that administrative intrusion into student government and activities is not foreordained by the natural order of school governance. They have been conditioned by prevailing attitudes and practices to believe it is. They have never experienced actual independence from authoritarian intervention and those in positions of authority see no good reason to allow them such experience. The Sixties are indeed dead.

Such attitudes are among the considerable obstacles to changing our educational ways in regard to civic education. At first blush, such a change does not seem particularly difficult to effect. We need only take the forms and means that already exist more seriously. We need but better define the boundaries of existing circles of autonomy and allow more genuine freedom and thereby more meaningful democratic participation. But we would confront not only administrative resistance and student resignation; we would confront the relative lack of recognition of the value of the virtues of liberal citizenship.

Behind the façade of professed preference for democracy a great many people consider it inconvenient and rather subversive in practice. Until concern rises to a sufficient level of potent insistence to overcome the bureaucratic obstacles, we are unlikely to get beyond the rhetoric and pretence that traditionally plague efforts at reform. Still, there is much to gain and little to lose by trying. To this end I offer a more explicit rendition of the direction I believe we should take in regard to the experiential dimension of civic education.

I propose a general rule: the more genuine autonomy we allow and encourage, the better. The more student autonomy we can responsibly honor, the more likely they will learn the lessons of responsibility and gain the skills of dealing with real adult problems. In those areas involving their own governance, genuine autonomy within the boundaries of legitimate school needs and responsibilities is central to promoting the virtues of citizenship and the personal empowerment they afford. Though areas of student autonomy must be bound by necessary rules, rules that primarily serve the convenience of those in authority or, worse, their emotional investment in control, should be challenged and revoked. Paternalistic policies in which we rob students of personal choices and responsibilities in order to protect them from the consequences of their choices are similarly to be reconsidered. We are not truly doing them a favor, are not promoting our mission of empowerment, by robbing them of the lessons of consequences. Beyond the limits of protection from significant harm, paternalism is poison to the aims of civic education.

Administrators, faculty, and students should be perennially reminded that the core function of student government is to represent the interests of students, and that the exercise of this responsibility requires an independent voice as well as independent choice. They are not junior members of the administration. Within the areas of clear student responsibility such as student activities and organizations, student government should be accorded as much autonomy as legally responsible. Student media should be allowed to report real news, for example, even when it is inconvenient to the powers that be, whether school officials or officers of student government. Administrators and teachers should be reminded as well that attempts to manipulate and suppress the legitimate functions of student government and student activities would be viewed as a betrayal of the school’s civic mission as well as a betrayal of the best interests of the students. For this to provide much motivation, of course, there would have to be more than a few lonely voices holding them accountable.

There has been discussion of bringing more democracy into the classroom, though experimentation in this regard seems mostly confined to a few subjects and a handful of teachers at any institution. I do not know how much pedagogical value these efforts presage, but I am convinced that some of the less structured methods of communal inquiry into open-ended questions have great promise for nurturing most of the virtues of liberal citizenship. I agree with Jack Meacham when he says “Specific content on civic engagement and diversity does make a difference. But how we incorporate this content—by modeling the democratic process of discussion, debate, and the search for more informed judgments—is the key to empowering our students to be better citizens in our pluralist American democracy.”14

Since I crossed the line of radical advocacy in proposing that empowering the pursuit of happiness is the main purpos of education, I do not fear to further propose the radical step of better modeling democratic virtues in the democratic governance of educational institutions. I believe the health of the institutions themselves would be served, but, more importantly, the civic mission of these institutions would be better served by students seeing those preaching the virtues of liberal citizenship actually walking their talk.

Of course, the current emphasis on civic engagement in the larger community is necessary as well. There are limits to the experience campus life can afford. The roots of civic virtue must grow outside the hothouse climate of academe if they are to be any use to society at large and to the personal aspirations of students beyond graduation. I but add my voice to much that has already been proposed or is occurring in this regard. I also applaud the measures designed to foster a better sense of global citizenship. I especially believe study abroad while in college should be highly encouraged. I know from experience that there is no substitute for travelling and studying abroad to gain an understanding and appreciation of the world beyond the borders of one’s country. For me it was a lesson in the commonality of human hearts.

I discussed the affective benefits of appreciation, acceptance, and wishing well in Educating Angels. Nurturing these attitudes are therefore personally empowering in regard to the pursuit of happiness. There will be many occasions when students’ commitment to liberal democratic ideals freely and judiciously arrived at will inform their personal aspirations. The cognitive skills they exercise in reaching an understanding of the relative value of the ideals will inform their social engagements and help free and open their minds. They will feel a deeper sense of sharing a worthy purpose with their fellows, which is an affective reward in itself. And their enhanced awareness of the uses and abuses of freedom, democracy, and justice will better inform their choices.

An attitude of efficacy is crucial to civic engagement, and the experience of efficacy is crucial to the attitude. This is among the compelling reasons that students need to experience genuine freedom and meaningful democracy. Civic knowledge will often serve students in life, and the honed skills of freedom and democracy will find their uses in all manner of social endeavors, substantially increasing the prospect of success. In all these ways and more, a more consequent and enlightened civic education will personally empower students as it contributes to the health and vitality of liberal democracy.


1. Philip H. Phenix, (originally published in 1967) “Liberal learning and the Practice of Freedom,” retrieved May 26, 2009 from title=2533
2. Quoted in Matthew Lipman, Thinking in Education, (Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2003) p. 37
3. Ibid, p. 47
4. Ibid, p. 45
5. Harry Brighouse, “The Role of Philosophical Thinking in Teaching Controversial Issues” in Michael Hand and Carrie Winstanley, eds., Philosophy in Schools, (New York: Continuum, 2009) p. 62.
6. The word “communal” is inspired by the “community of inquiry” methods advocated by Lipman and others.
7. Matthew Lipman, Thinking in Education, p. 13.
8. Parker J. Palmer, Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit, Jossey-Bass, Kindle edition, 2011, Acquired August 24, 2011 from, Location 2743.
9. Harry Brighouse, On Education, Taylor & Francis, Kindle edition, 2007, acquired June 8, 2008 from Location 1783.
10. Nel Noddings, Philosophy of Education (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2007) p. 39.
11. An example of various efforts at “freedom schools” is The New School in Newark, Delaware where students pretty much spend their time doing what interests them. See Edward L. Kenney, “New School gives students freedom to explore, think” in The Delaware News Journal, April 30, 2008, p. A1.
12. John Taylor Gatto, Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (Gabriole Island, B.C., Canada: New Society Publishers, 1992) p. 69.
13. David Glenn, “Students Are Poor Citizens, and a Former U.S. Senator Pushes Colleges to Turn That Around” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, August 5, 2009, acquired August 6, 2009:
14. Jack Meacham, “Teaching Diversity and Democracy across the Disciplines: Who, What, and How” in Diversity & Democracy, vol. 12, no. 3, Fall 2009, p. 3.

About Tony Armstrong

Professor of political science at Wesley College, Dover, Delaware. Author of Educating Angels: Teaching for the Pursuit of Happiness
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