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Schools Need a Dose of Democracy

Classrooms launch good citizens

As we celebrate and reflect upon another year “back to school” and brace ourselves for the upcoming election season, we are reminded of George Washington’s words in his 1797 farewell address: “… as the structure of a government gives force to public opinion, it is essential that public opinion be enlightened.” Ours is a much different world, but Washington’s logic is just as sound today as it was then. The government we have reflects the state of public enlightenment.

Now we reap what we have sown: a presidential election characterized by ugly name-calling and undisguised appeals to ignorance and bigotry featuring two unpopular candidates. Youth most likely to be most affected by the outcome are also the most turned off. Everywhere there is talk of democracy’s demise if the young folks don’t vote. But democracy is not just voting. Democracy is the process by which citizens work together to make the world a better place. 

Schools introduce students to what democracy is and how it works. This is more than knowing the names of presidents and the three branches of government, or memorizing the Bill of Rights. We must create classrooms in which students experience democratic practices, where teachers model democratic authority — fair, transparent, accessible, persuasive and negotiable. We need classrooms to be places where all students are equally celebrated as members of a learning community.

Our children need opportunities to think — to consider the state of the world and understand the processes by which government influences the economy, the environment, social policy, the law and ultimately war or peace, and justice or injustice. Students need to engage in hands-on projects to produce a real public good — to experience the process of working together to benefit their community — and reflect on their efforts. This is how students will become enlightened and active citizens.

This year, as we send our youth off to school, along with pencils, notebooks and glue sticks, let’s include some tools for democracy: 

• VISION. Let’s invite young people to imagine a world as good as it can be, to share their visions and discuss the various ideas as to desirability and feasibility.

• INCLUSION. Currently, differences of opinion set students into different camps whose only interaction is bullying, which schools struggle to prevent. Students need to learn how to debate differences and to disagree without being disagreeable.

• SKILLS FOR DEMOCRATIC CITIZENRY. School can be a place where we learn to listen carefully to each other, to defend proposals with logic and evidence, to negotiate differences and respect the rights of those whose ideas differ from our own.

Bringing democracy to classrooms is difficult, but not impossible. In our careers, we have witnessed students in all grades working together to produce a public good — making their world better. Right here in Eugene, teachers at River Road and Edison have helped fifth grade students make the Bill of Rights lively and relevant. 

Each of us can support those efforts, encourage students, teachers and community members to bring democracy not just to the classroom, but to youth sports and even student government. We can:

• Bring education issues to the attention of neighbors, friends and family.

• Discuss democracy in education on social media.

• Attend a school board meeting and make a public comment about what you think education should be.

• Advocate for democracy by running for office on school boards, city council and county boards, and support others that do.

• Join a grassroots group like CAPE (Community Alliance for Public Education).

Democracy is people. People in action. Let’s all remember this as we read up on issues, talk with each other and do our part as informed and enlightened citizens.