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Learning (and teaching) democracy: The key to solving America’s democratic crisis

No one is born with an innate knowledge of American democracy; we only come to know what citizenship and freedom mean in context. 

No one is born knowing what comprises the process of voter registration, how to engage with congressional representatives and where to research critical policies. That knowledge is shaped by experience. Long lines at the polls, gerrymandering which dilutes the power of votes and inaccessible politicians teach disillusionment, frustration and apathy.

If civic engagement is something that must be learned, then we must teach it the right way. They say an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It will be far harder to un-teach civic disengagement, withdrawal and apathy. 

Teaching our children to be democratic citizens will require consistent, concerted and coordinated effort by the government, schools, communities and organizations spanning multiple sectors. Here are a few places we should start. 

First, we must re-envision civic engagement as a necessary skill for the next generation. Civic engagement is about more than just the branches of government; the civics courses which many states require tend to be fact-based, teaching students about being a citizen rather than how to be a citizen.

The Annenberg Institute identifies six proven practices to improve civic education: high-quality classroom instruction, discussion of current events and controversial issues, service learning, extracurricular activities, participation in school government and simulating democratic processes (such as voting, trials, legislative deliberation and diplomacy). Note that only two of these six occur in a traditional classroom setting. The answer to our civics crisis lies not in civics exams alone, but in encouraging students to learn about civics through experiencing it. As John Dewey puts it, “until the emphasis changes to the conditions which make it necessary for the child to take an active share in the personal building up of his own problems and to participate in methods of solving them (even at the expense of experimentation and error), mind is not really freed” and democracy suffers as a result. 

Next, we must prioritize social emotional learning and critical thinking in classrooms and incorporate opportunities to practice active citizenship across multiple subjects. According to CivXNow, “civics must teach students to do what Americans are arguably worst at doing right now: holding productive discussions of current issues on which people disagree.” Learning to cooperate, discuss civilly, communicate effectively and manage one’s emotions are not only critical to success in life, but success as a U.S. citizen. In fact, these skills are crucial to facilitating social cohesion, a cornerstone of a successful nation and a key purpose of education “at the heart of each nation’s education system.” As Heyneman and Todoric-Bebic argue, “it is possible to judge the performance of an education system as much on the basis of its contribution to social cohesion as on its attainment of learning objectives.” 

These skills must not be confined to civics courses. Science, math, history, literature … all subjects prime our future citizens. Healthy debate in classrooms may allow students to share different interpretations of literature, and students may learn history through comparing and contrasting different accounts and perspectives. Science can teach critical questioning and collaboration, while math can teach persistence and problem-solving. The more children learn to voice and consider different perspectives and use this acquired knowledge to influence their communities, broadly defined, the closer we will be to attaining a healthy democracy. 

Finally, we must amplify a diversity of voices in the classrooms. Learning environments should be a simulation of a democracy which reflects principles of equality and justice of voice where students can actively practice civic engagement. This means that courses have an obligation to highlight prominent people of influence who are of various races, ethnicities and genders. Again, this responsibility is not confined merely to politics; historians, scientists and economists alike bear this responsibility in teaching our next generation. Science courses should teach Rosalind Franklin alongside Watson and Crick, as literature courses should teach Toni Morrison alongside Charles Dickens. Democracy is predicated on equality of voice, and teachers must actually model giving voice to all equally in the classroom in choosing the content through which our next generation encounters our world. 

Distinguished scholar, teacher and author Carl A. Grant argues that the purpose of education lies in cultivating flourishing lives through multicultural, democratic, social justice education. To Grant, society is strengthened by installing in students the courage to question, challenge and act upon American democracy, a system that “can be made to work for you or against you” and pursue a truth inclusive of histories, realities and experiences of marginalized communities. As Grant persuasively advocates, practicing democracy through education and taking social action are crucial to advancing a flourishing society.  

How can we teach democracy correctly the first time? By offering children an active civic education that expands beyond civics courses from an early age. Every opportunity we offer students within and outside the classroom has the potential to shape democratic citizens. The future of U.S. democracy lies, in large part, in the strength and ability of our education system. 

Lauren Klein graduated from Notre Dame in 2021 with a major in Biological Sciences and minors in the Hesburgh Program in Public Service and Education, Schooling, and Society. She is a member of ND’s Write to Vote chapter.

W2V is the Notre Dame chapter of the national Write to Vote Project, a non-partisan, pro-democracy initiative. Its goal is to support democracy, encourage civic engagement and advance voting rights in the U.S. and around the world. You can contact NDW2V at ndw2v@nd.edu.

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