Public Issues Forums of Centre County | Approach 2: Improving democracy requires responsible citizenry

If you ask parents, “What kind of people do we want our children to become?” the importance of educating for active and responsible citizenship glows like neon.

Parents give replies such as, “are able to function well in society,” “who value each other,” “are responsible and dependable,” “who respectfully agree or disagree” and “who will engage in solving our toughest issues.”

Educating for citizenship involves working to respect our unity and diversity in public life.

With the tough issues facing schools and students today, we should value and seek the processes of engagement rather than isolation.

Focusing on democratic citizenry would dramatically reframe the conversation in most schools from individualistic values and efficiency (i.e., an individual’s score on a test) toward relational and interdependent values and skills.

Recognizing the interdependence of self and others is part of being alive and aware in the world.

Similarly, educating for responsible and active citizenry involves fostering the ability to consider how one’s actions might impact the good of a community. This capacity to shift from one perspective to another applies in the asking and answering of questions such as, “Why are there homeless people in our small Pennsylvania valley?” and “What are the circumstances that create poverty?”

However, there are pitfalls in educating for active and democratic citizenship.

Deliberating with other people on how to define and address issues, considering other opinions and perspective and taking collective, constructive action all take time.

Moreover, distinguishing fact from opinion, weighing the pros and cons of issues and critically analyzing sources — especially those on the Internet — is messy and unclear work.

Making decisions based solely on individual benefit would be more efficient, but what was the original purpose of the U.S. public school system? Indeed, the public school was created for the maintenance of the structures, processes and values needed to perpetuate our country’s unique ideal of democracy.

Educating for democratic citizenry is not only about mastering facts or holding mock elections; it is about creating the conditions in which young people can engage in civic experiences.

It has been said that democracy cannot run on its own and that schooling is the means by which democratic citizenry is passed down and learned. Without an engaged, responsible and active citizenry, there can be no democracy.

Despite all the time and struggle, it might just be worth it.