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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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News

Klau Center granted institute status

The Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights has been elevated to an institute following a large donation from Rick and Molly Klau, according to a University press release Wednesday. The Klau Institute falls within the Keough School of Global Affairs and offers a curriculum in which students explore critical issues through the lens of Catholic social tradition, according to its website.

As a result of its elevation to the institute level, the institute will increase its capacity to educate students and assume “greater responsibility for national and international engagement,” according to the release.

The release emphasized that the center’s recent initiatives, such as the Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary lecture series, will be supplemented and supported by the new donations.

Scott Appleby, the Marilyn Keough dean of the Keough School, expressed his gratitude to the Klaus for their gift.

“Protecting, advancing and enforcing human rights and civil rights are central to the pursuit of justice for all people, to Catholic social teaching and to the mission of Notre Dame,” Appleby said in the release. “The Klau Institute for Civil and Human Rights, which will educate countless generations of Notre Dame students and help train civil rights and human rights lawyers and advocates, is a gift to the University and to the world.”

The Klau family endowed the institute in 2018 with a $10 million gift. Former University President Fr. Theodore Hesburgh founded the institute in 1973 with the mission of advancing the “God-given dignity of all human persons,” according to the website.

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Viewpoint

Claiming an Education

The year 2022 marks 50 years of undergraduate women enrollment at Notre Dame (although female students such as religious sisters have earned degrees at the university before this time). While it’s something worth commemorating, at the same time, it’s an occurrence that warrants great reflection. On one hand, the inclusion of women in the Notre Dame curriculum made large strides in encouraging women’s right to education. But at the same time, 50 years wasn’t that long ago and have we truly made coed universities a place of equal opportunity?

The poet Adrienne Rich gave a speech at Douglass College in 1977 titled “Claiming an Education” which inspired the title and essence of this column. In the speech, she formulates a lot of her argument around an ethical and intellectual contract formed between student and teacher. Students cannot afford to think of receiving an education, but rather, claiming it as their own. A true student cannot take the leftovers or “predigested books and ideas,” but must challenge oneself and seek criticism, not avoiding conflict nor confrontation. 

The differentiation between claiming an education and merely receiving one is all the difference in Rich’s commencement address. The distinction is not semantic nor trivial but can be the difference between feeling at home in a university and being an imposter.

However, claiming an education requires activation energy on behalf of all female students. It doesn’t mean accepting what’s provided, swallowing empty platitudes and pretending that merely an acceptance into university is enough to placate one’s dreams and ambitions. Rich specifically states that it means “rejecting attitudes of ‘take-it-easy,’ ‘why-be-so-serious,’ ‘why-worry-you’ll-probably-get-married-anyway.’”

In addition, claiming an education isn’t a singular act conducted on a woman’s behalf. Instead, the contract is a pledge of “mutual seriousness about women, about language, ideas, methods and values,” which extends to all people. Today, children and women are continuously denied access to education, whether it be coercion into marriage, a lack of investment in the minds of women through gender bias, poverty, and many other pervasive issues. While Notre Dame celebrates our 50 years of women, worldwide, 129 million girls are out of school.

Mutual seriousness for women’s education is a growing battle. Even women who have access to education may not be treated with the same pardons and considerations as their counterparts. As I read Chanel Miller’s powerful memoir “Know My Name” this summer, I was moved by the author’s trials in keeping her head above water. Through external pressures, she attempted to maintain an air of normality and safety, while she treaded harsh calamity beneath the surface. She was forced to defend her choice of clothing attire, dance moves and her relationship with her boyfriend before the defendant, a member of the Stanford swim team, was forced to deal with the consequences of his actions to commit sexual assault. 

The cover of one of the editions of her memoir is representative of Kintsugi, a Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by gluing the fragments and filling the faulty parts with gold. The goal is to not merely hide the defects of the pottery, but rather, to show that even in its brokenness, it is beautiful. In fact, it is in its highlight of its brokenness that makes it more unique, stronger and more whole. 

When I was contemplating what to write about in commemoration of the celebration of 50 years of coeducation at Notre Dame, I didn’t want to focus on the negative aspects of the continual journey to equal education. I truly love Notre Dame and the amount of progress that has been made globally to encourage equal access to education.

However, I was mesmerized by the art of Kintsugi, and the notion that by restructuring brokenness, something stronger and more beautiful is created. By encouraging transparency and dialogue about the past, I believe we create space for more women and students in the future to claim an education. 

When I consider the commemoration of 50 years of coeducation at Notre Dame, I think not only the victories, but the fortitude of those — present and past — who continuously provide all students the environment to grow their intellectual curiosities and capabilities. The only way celebrate growth is to recognize the trials and the starting pieces of upward movement. It is when these pieces come together, each fragment strengthening one another, in which unification and progress can truly occur.

Elizabeth Prater is a Junior at Notre Dame double majoring in marketing and program of liberal studies (great books). She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics & literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the fiddle, hiking in the PNW, going to concerts with friends and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out eprater@nd.edu or @elizabethlianap on Twitter.

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Viewpoint

On the banning of books

Virginia court case brought against Barnes & Noble attempted to restrict the sale of Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer” and Sarah Maas’ “A Court of Mist and Fury.” Local legislators argued based on a poorly-worded Virginia law that the books would be “obscene” for readers under the age of 18. The case was recently dismissed. This comes at a time of much political discussion centered around which books are appropriate to read in the classroom. 

Equally disturbing is the removal of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a novel famous for highlighting oppression and injustice, from a few Texas and Kansas public schools for “review.” “The Handmaid’s Tale” is an influential work that is extremely well-written. It’s relevant today and will continue to be. Removing this book is an affront to a proper education. The book is so well-known and influential that it is hard to believe school officials are unaware of its content. What is there to review that they wouldn’t already know of?  

Restricting access to books is an obstacle to a well-informed public. Having healthy debates and access to information are crucial aspects of any democracy. Reading books about difficult subjects, like racism, leads to discussion of those subjects, especially in the classroom.  

On this, the author Laurie Halse Anderson said: “’By attacking these books, by attacking the authors, by attacking the subject matter, what they are doing is removing the possibility for conversation. You are laying the groundwork for increasing bullying, disrespect, violence and attacks.’”

Historically, many books of great literary merit have been challenged in the United States, including J.D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” and James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” “Ulysses” was burned in serialized form in the United States. The road to getting it published in the U.S. was long and arduous due to its “obscene” content. In England, the book was mass burned before it was legally banned. Yet, it is also regarded as a literary masterpiece. “The Catcher in the Rye” was challenged and banned in multiple US classrooms, mostly for profanity, despite its status as one of the greatest works in the American literary canon. It’s difficult to argue nowadays with the sheer amount of praise and literary analysis both works have received that access to them should be restricted or banned, as people have tried in the past. 

In trying to ban books like “Gender Queer” for its “obscene” content, a similar mistake is made. Books of great literary merit, which are a joy to read and foster intellectual discussion, could be wholly removed from the classroom. This decreases the quality of literary education. Going further by restricting access to books at booksellers like Barnes & Noble is devastating and begs the question: What is worth more, quality education or censoring books certain readers may find “obscene?” 

Deborah Caldwell Stone, the American Library Association’s director of office for intellectual freedom, sums it up perfectly: “If you focus on five passages, you’ve got obscenity. If you broaden your view and read the work as a whole, you’ve got Toni Morrison’s ‘Beloved.’”

It’s so important to have a diverse selection of books to read because the real world is just as diverse. Regardless of whether a book is set in a fantasy world or is pure nonfiction, there are many life lessons to be gained from books. They are a resource for people of all ages to learn more about the world, oftentimes from the point of view of characters they can relate to rather than simply learning information from a textbook. This connection draws the reader into what they’re learning about. For example, “Gender Queer,” a memoir of Kobabe’s life, explores sexuality and gender identity. “Beloved,” another book that has historically been challenged, highlights the pain and devastation of slavery. These books can educate readers about serious material. Trying to censor these books, through removing them from classrooms or otherwise, does not erase the books’ subjects from reality. Students will eventually have to confront these topics. 

Specifically in classrooms, there exists an argument that certain material isn’t age-appropriate for students. There are certainly books that would not be appropriate for elementary school students and as such aren’t taught to them; the issue is trying to remove books from high school curriculums. For example, in a campaign ad for governor of Virginia Glenn Youngkin, a mother declares that she would like “Beloved” to be optional instead of part of her son’s required high school curriculum, as a result of its “explicit content.” Some content in “Beloved” is difficult for very young children to read, but this book is widely recommended for the high school-age reader and for good reason. Censoring this book does not mean that its historical content disappears — the issues the novel confronts must be addressed eventually. Teachers can help students understand the difficult topics in these books and productively learn from them. Students will become more informed and better equipped to discuss difficult issues, an important life skill.   

To ban a book from a school, a library or a bookseller is to cut off the public’s access to information and quality literature. Books are important for the development of the mind. Censoring books is not okay. We cannot ignore real world problems by trying to silence books that discuss them.

Caitlin Brannigan is a sophomore from New Jersey studying psychology and theology. She will forever defend her favorite young adult novels and is overjoyed to have a platform to rant. She can be reached for comment at cbrannig@nd.edu or @CaitlinBrannig on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Caitlin Brannigan

Contact Caitlin at cbrannig@nd.edu