Education for Democracy

From 2005, Unionism and Democracy, sponsored by the Albert Shanker Institute in cooperation with the AFT International Affairs Department (edited). Given the fight for democracy today—given the assault on universal suffrage, on workers’ rights, on a free media, and an independent judiciary—it is worth revisiting this piece.

Within the AFT’s motto—“Education for Democracy, Democracy in Education”—are several important ideas. One is that the common good is served by the creation, through a public education system, of an informed and knowledgeable citizenry. That is why post-colonial Americans first agreed to pay for the education of other people’s children. Second is the idea that, beyond the democratic content of such an education, the public school system—as a common place for educating all children equally—transmits and promotes a democratic sensibility and culture. And third is the idea that if education is for democracy, then education system should be democratic itself and that free teachers unions can play a unique role promoting democracy, not only in the classroom but in the workplace. Teachers and other educational employees should, therefore, be fully empowered through the unions of their choice and that they control.

Having in mind the union’s credo, in 1987, the AFT responded to inadequate teaching about democracy in the schools—and the poor state of understanding of the students about basic ideas, historical facts, and the values of democracy. It co-founded the Education for Democracy Project and issued a “Statement of Principles" signed by more than 150 prominent citizens from diverse political perspectives, calling for a radical change in the American approach to teaching about democracy. Starting from the premise that “democracy is the worthiest form of human governance ever conceived” and that democracy’s survival depends upon transmitting to each new generation of the political vision of liberty and equality that unites us as Americans.” The signers called for steps to strengthen the teaching of democracy as a major unifying theme. The draft was principally drafted by Paul Gagnon, made an important contribution to the discussion about how civics and democracy education should be taught. It started a debate. The project also inspired the creation of the AFT's Education for Democracy/International Project which has worked with fledgling teacher union organizations in Eastern Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, and the Middle East, to help promote civic education and its important as part of the work of free teachers’ unions.

The Albert Shanker Institute also issued another “Education for Democracy: Statement of Principles” in 2003, also signed by a diverse array of 145 signatories. Like the first statement, it also addressed the problems of democracy education in schools. Certainly, students need to have studied world history to discover what life has been and is like in most non-democratic countries—and that there is a world out there where the assault on human rights and human dignity is commonplace, where political rights only exist in the imagination. That is the story of a vast swath of human history which is still missing from most of our textbooks.

In the book, The Language Police (2007), Diane Ravitch explores how pressure from the political Right and Left have led publishers to censor themselves, using “bias sensitivity” guidelines that have textbooks of life and controversy. As a result, teachers are hard-pressed to find a textbook that reveals the life under tyranny. (Read Diane Ravitch’s “ Thin Gruel: How the Language Police Drain the Life and Content from Our Texts,” and “Banned Words, Images, and Topics: A Glossary That Runs from the Offensive to the Trivial” from American Educator.)

The intense pressure from the Right in the last several years to limit the teaching of honest history and limit the representation of all people in lessons, standards and textbooks. A citizenry poorly educated in the meaning and struggles of democracy will not know the essential role that unions have played in democratizing the American economy—or in changing American politics and society, much less the critical role of mass organized institutions play in ensuring the continuation of democracy itself. Certainly, students will not be aware of the broader contributions of unions to democratic advances, such as the American Civil Rights Movement, the end of the Cold War, or the end to apartheid. Unions have been gaining ground, due to mass organizing drives, in part to their role, importance and contributions to society.

The problem remains that teaching about democracy, while essential, is difficult. And in truth, no generation has done it particularly well. The research in the field of civics education, while voluminous and interdisciplinary, is generally less than rigorous. What exists tends to reinforce the criticisms about curriculum that is uninteresting and empty of content. The research is also very limited when it comes to identifying effective methods about teaching about democracy, and barely getting beyond existing state standards.

Indeed, there are hopeful signs—signs that public educators can build upon, if provided with the with the opportunity, time and tools that they need. Which is why the Albert Shanker Institute created many lessons on the Share My Lesson platform, named Educating for Democratic Citizenship. There are concrete suggestions for the improvement of U.S. history and civics lessons. “ Action civics is a particular approach to civics education that focuses on eliciting student voice, developing and arguing a position or perspective, and engaging with relevant real-world issues. Youth who participate in civic education programs are more likely to participate in civic actions as adults and influence their families to participate as well. [See here.]” Nevertheless, we believe that enough is known to offer some insight to those who are committed to produce a new generation of democrats.