I’m not the spa vacation type—I can’t get through a 30-minute massage without mentally creating a to-do list. But spending the past several days in a workshop on the democratic purposes of education was, for me, just as relaxing an invigorating as others claim a spa retreat can be.
Discussions started where you would expect, considering the foundational historical and civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions needed for responsible, active citizenship. Much to my delight, those discussions expanded to include wonder, humility, virtue, craftsmanship, voice, and compromise. We spent time thinking about using Greek myths to question the relative worthiness of courageous acts, exploring humanity’s drive for freedom as depicted in works of art from around the world, and devising simple ways to incentivize student participation in community service. For large chunks of each day, we tuned out the rest of the world and focused on each other’s ideas.
We also focused on ideas from the past. I am especially grateful for this because it filled a large hole in my knowledge of civically minded education: Eleanor Roosevelt’s speech on April 30, 1930, titled Good Citizenship: The Purpose of an Education. Her speech is well worth reading; hopefully these highlights will draw you into the full piece:
What is the purpose of education? This question agitates scholars, teachers, statesmen, every group, in fact, of thoughtful men and women. The conventional answer is the acquisition of knowledge, the reading of books, and the learning of facts. Perhaps because there are so many books and the branches of knowledge in which we can learn facts are so multitudinous today, we begin to hear more frequently that the function of education is to give children a desire to learn and to teach them how to use their minds and where to go to acquire facts when their curiosity is aroused. Even more all-embracing than this is the statement made not long ago, before a group of English headmasters, by the Archbishop of York, that “the true purpose of education is to produce citizens.”
If this is the goal—and in a democracy it would seem at least an important part of the ultimate achievement—then we must examine our educational system from a new point of view….
Theodore Roosevelt was teaching by precept and example that men owed something at all times, whether in peace or in war, for the privilege of citizenship and that the burden rested equally on rich and poor. He was saying that, no matter what conditions existed, the blame lay no more heavily on the politician and his machine controlling city, State, or nation, than on the shoulders of the average citizen who concerned himself so little with his government that he allowed men to stay in power in spite of his dissatisfaction because he was too indifferent to exert himself to get better men in office.
Indifference on the part of many Americans, rich and poor, is still a large problem. So is a lack of sense of efficacy. Logical arguments have been made by both economists and weary single mothers about the futility of voting. For those of us who value voice and participation, perhaps our best arguments for civic activism rest on responsibility. And perhaps our educational focus should be on both the duties of citizenship and on showing how leadership and governance work. With such knowledge, more of us could engage in creative problem solving, which could be energizing enough to lessen indifference and increase efficacy.
Eleanor Roosevelt began with the basics of such an education, then revealed the civic value of the whole schooling enterprise:
In our schools are now given courses in civics, government, economics, current events. Very few children are as ignorant as I was. But there still remains a vast amount to be done before we accomplish our first objective—informed and intelligent citizens, and, secondly, bring about the realization that we are all responsible for the trend of thought and the action of our times.
How shall we arrive at these objectives? We think of course of history as a first means of information. Not the history which is a mere recital of facts, dates, wars, and kings, but a study of the life and growth of other nations, in which we follow the general moral, intellectual, and economic development through the ages, noting what brought about the rise and fall of nations and what were the lasting contributions of peoples now passed away to the development of the human family and the world as a whole.
Then we come down to our own history, observing the characteristics and the backgrounds of the people who founded our nation and those who have come to us since; the circumstances of pioneer life and the rapid industrial development. We trace the reasons for present-day attitudes of mind and for the establishment of customs and points of view which make up the rather elusive and yet unmistakable thing known as the “American spirit.” We study the men in our history who have really made a constructive contribution, and those who have held us back, in order that we may know what qualities of mind and heart formed the characters which have left a mark on their time….
I would have our children visit national shrines, know why we love and respect certain men of the past. I would have them see how government departments are run and what are their duties, how courts function, what juries are, what a legislative body is and what it does. I would have them learn how we conduct our relationships with the rest of the world and what are our contacts with other nations. The child seeing and understanding these things will begin to envisage the varied pattern of the life of a great nation such as ours and how his own life and environment fit into the pattern and where his own usefulness may lie.
Contrast Roosevelt’s vision with our typical approach to elementary social studies. If the early years are spent on families, neighborhoods, communities, states, regions, and then the nation, how will we have time to get to the far more interesting and important knowledge and character-building studies she recommends? As most schools implement the Common Core standards, bringing far more informational text into the elementary grades, perhaps this is the moment to rethink what our young students are capable of learning. Ancient civilizations, America’s founding, the very concepts of representational government and the freedom for direct, nonviolent action—these things are within the reach of young children if we construct our units carefully.
Roosevelt sees opportunities to teach responsible citizenship throughout the school day:
It is not, however, only in the courses bearing directly on history and government that citizenship can be taught. The child taking Latin and mathematics is also learning invaluable lessons in citizenship. The power of concentration and accuracy which these studies develop will later mean a man or woman able to understand and analyze a difficult situation. For example, arithmetic is necessary to a later understanding of economic questions….
Mathematics and humanity are strangely intertwined, and an ability to understand both is essential to well-balanced decisions in questions of this kind. From the point of view of character-building, the harder these subjects are to master the greater will be the sense of self-mastery and perseverance developed.
The other school contacts—social activities and athletics—develop team play, cooperation, and thought and consideration for others. These are all essentials in good citizenship….
Learning to be a good citizen is learning to live to the maximum of one’s abilities and opportunities, and every subject should be taught every child with this in view.
“Every subject should be taught to every child.” While other lines have more poetry, this one is my favorite. In schools that seize the early grades as an opportunity to introduce students to the beauty and wonder of our world in scientific, artistic, historical, and literary ways, a strong foundation is built for children maximizing their abilities, finding their strengths (and working on their weaknesses), and opening up new opportunities by seeing what others have done.
Of course, to be effective, this needs to happen in all schools—most especially the schools that our least advantaged children attend. As Roosevelt said:
As the great majority of our children are being educated in public schools, it is all-important that the standards of citizenship should be of the best. Whether we send our children to private school or public school we should take a constant interest in all educational institutions and remember that on the public school largely depends the success or the failure of our great experiment in government “by the people, for the people.”
Our collective success does indeed rest largely on our public schools. Yet our collective reaction to that fact is usually to blame our schools for our shared failures. So, even though it sounds corny, here’s a plea for my fellow citizens in the school reform movement: Ask not what our public schools can do for you—ask what you can do for (not to!) our public schools.