Teaching democratic values

In response to the wave of student protests this fall about racial discrimination and other issues on America’s campuses, some propose speech codes and other measures to turn campuses into safe spaces.  Others react with disgust. “This isn’t the behavior of people who are capable of weighing opposing ideas,” writes Glenn Reynolds in USA Today after protesters disrupted a free speech forum at Yale. “Spoiled children shouldn’t vote.”  Reynolds proposes raising the voting age to 25.

What critics and supporters of students have in common in our therapeutic age is little respect for students’ own agency, their potential to work through differences. Twenty five years of experience with a youth civic education initiative called Public Achievement have taught me an opposite lesson: young people are hungry for opportunities to learn the skills and concepts to handle conflicts and make constructive change.

{mosads}I began Public Achievement (PA) in 1990 to teach young people the kind of politics and view of democracy as a way of life which I had experienced as a college student in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In the language of historian Charles Payne in I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, Public Achievement takes the movement’s “organizing” approach, investing in relationship building and development of public skills, rather than the “mass mobilizing” approach most common in today’s social change efforts. In Public Achievement, teams of young people work on issues of their choice in real world settings. They meet through the year, coached by adults, who help them develop achievable goals, learn to navigate their local environment, and develop everyday political skills and concepts.

St. Bernard’s Elementary School in St. Paul in the 1990s became the laboratory through leadership of then principal Dennis Donovan, who wanted his students to gain the sense of empowerment he had experienced in a church-based community organization. Donovan teamed up with James Farr, a political scientist at the University of Minnesota, who brought his college students to coach each week at the school. They worked with the children on many issues.

In one case, they labored for several years to build a playground.  In order to succeed, they had to turn around neighborhood opinion — neighbors originally thought that a playground might be a magnet for gangs. They got the parish council on their side, negotiated zoning changes with city officials, and raised $60,000 from local businesses. To accomplish these feats, they learned how to interview people, write letters, give speeches, call people they didn’t know. They deliberated, created alliances, raised money, mapped power, did research. They also learned concepts like power, public life, interests, and politics.

In Public Achievement we call this a “citizen politics” of everyday problem solving and public work.  Citizen politics is based on the idea of democracy as a way of life which citizens build together, not simply elections. Young people are citizens today, not citizens in preparation.

Public Achievement has spread to several hundred communities and schools in the United States and as well as Poland, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Gaza and the West Bank, Israel, Japan and elsewhere.  We have found it possible to adapt PA’s citizen politics to campus environments of many kinds, from classrooms to residence halls.  

Elisabeth Bott, one of my students, took a class with Donovan on citizen politics. Donovan is now organizer for Public Achievement on the staff of the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College. Elisabeth wrote an essay about her experiences.

“Dennis Donovan invited us to have a conversation on gun control and gun violence,” she writes. “It was intense.  I had significantly different views than some of my classmates, but throughout the semester, we had created an environment where conflicting ideas were valued and where challenging each other’s ideas was welcome. We were respectful, but bold.  It was uncomfortable but I loved it. I learned more about my own opinions and opposing views from the debate.” She concludes with a generational manifesto. “I want every student to have similar opportunities so they can grow and gain confidence in themselves, just like I did.  Being comfortable is overrated and being liked is overvalued.  My favorite professors have been ones who didn’t coddle me or try to make me like them, but ones who challenged me, believed in me, and gave me the space to be bold.”  

We need more teachers like Donovan. And we need to remember President Truman’s Commission on Higher Education in 1947. The Commission proposed that the most important purpose of higher education is to teach the values and practices of the democratic way of life.

Boyte is editor of Democracy’s Education: Public Work, Citizenship, and the Future of Colleges and Universities (Vanderbilt University Press, 2015).


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