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.

Democracy Threatened

Guest author J. Brian Atwood, former National Democratic Institute President and U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator, discusses how education is the key to preserving democratic values in an era of conspiracy theories and polarized political combat in the Philippines, the United States, and around the world.

The election of Ferdinand Marcos’s son "BongBong” in the Philippines and the revelations of the January 6 Committee in the United States, were the focus of a recent panel at the Albert Shanker Institute in Washington DC.

I was joined by two dynamic union leaders, President Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and Annie Geron, General Secretary of the Philippines Public Services Labor Independent Confederation, in a discussion of democracy’s challenges and a call to action to preserve democratic institutions in both countries.

Labor unions were in the forefront of the wave of democratic change in the 1980s and 90s; they continue to see their mission as defending human and democratic rights, not only for their own members, but for society as a whole. Unions played a central role in that era in the battle to overthrow communism and autocratic governments.

Will Inflation Break the News? A Press Freedom Question

NATIONAL PRESS FREEDOM DAY

Next Tuesday, May 3, is National Press Freedom Day. I thought of that, and what a free press should mean, when I read Will Inflation Break the News? by David Dayen in the American Prospect. In this piece Mr. Dayen points out that, while inflation is causing people to cancel their subscriptions to streaming services, there is a more disturbing story behind The Great Cancellation, as it has (of course) been called. Over time, as more and more professional news publications find themselves behind a paywall, we’ve made access to our free press more exclusive and more vulnerable to the same economic factors that cause us to rethink paying for Disney+. More paywalls being constructed around professional journalism means more constricted access to that celebrated free press we cherish. At first glance, as Mr. Dayen points out, professional journalists can move to Substack to create their own revenue streams that support them to stay in the profession they love. Like the inflation question, does gigifying a free press save it? Is more high-quality journalism behind a paywall representative of a free press, especially as growing social media sites welcome unregulated and sometimes dangerous ideas?

As you read David Dayen’s piece below, reposted here with permission of The American Prospect, ask yourself what a free press means to you and should mean to all of us. He offers solutions at the end, ideas to save a truly free press. He tempers it by admitting he may be biased as a career journalist himself. I don’t share his bias. I am a classroom teacher by training. In my teacher leadership career I have felt the sting of feeling mis-quoted, the ire at not being called for a response, and even the embarrassment of not being relevant to a story I felt was central to my work. Notwithstanding my vainest moments with the press, I agree that a thriving free press is vital to a thriving democracy. Both deserve our efforts to save them.

Mary Cathryn Ricker

Russian Teachers Fight Against Putin's War And For Democracy

The Albert Shanker Institute is honored to welcome Jeffrey C. Isaac, the James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Blooomington, to the Shanker Blog. Professor Isaac offers needed perspective on what the activism of Russian teacher Ms. Irina Milyutina should mean to American educators.

I was struck by Ms. Milyutina’s statement, “I’m doing it because my heart tells me to. I stand for justice, for peace and good relations with other countries, for progress…“ “My heart tells me to” represents the universality of educators who have historically chosen to stand up in the center of the struggle. Yes, educators are often backed up intellectually by data, surveys, strike votes, or evidence, and hearts tell educators based on the experiences the heart has recorded in the profoundly privileged space of teaching and learning. The actions that Ms. Milyutina’s heart has produced should challenge all educators to listen to their hearts and match her strength in our own activism for her and Ukraine’s school communities. That is exactly where Professor Isaac’s piece leaves us, to connect the challenge of Ms. Milyutina’s activism with our own and do something. Beyond finding NGOs to donate to, changing social media profiles, and educating ourselves, educators are in a powerful position to educate others. Let’s show Ms Milyutina we hear her heart. This piece was originally published on March 6, 2022 on Democracy in Dark Times. - Mary Cathryn Ricker

Democracy has to be born anew every generation, and education is its midwife. -John Dewey (1916)

Education is a dangerous thing for authoritarian leaders and regimes, for it nurtures free-thinking individuals capable of asking questions and seeking their own answers. For this reason, teachers have long been on the front line of the struggle for democracy.

In the U.S., teachers are facing a well-orchestrated political campaign by the far-right to limit the teaching of certain subjects and perspectives in public schools, all in the name of a “patriotism” that is manifestly hostile to a multi-ethnic and multi-racial democracy and a well-educated citizenry.

Right now Russian teachers are facing an even more nefarious and powerful campaign by Vladimir Putin to restrict education and attack academic freedom in the name of his brutal war of aggression in Ukraine.

We're Not Slowing Down: The Labor Movement Must Keep Up The Fight For Voting Rights

Our guest author today is Elizabeth "Liz" Shuler, President of the AFL-CIO and a member of the Shanker Institute Board of Directors.

It was deeply disappointing that just days after our nation paid homage to the great civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on his birthday, the same senators who praised his name struck down critical legislation that would have strengthened our election systems and ensured every American has the fundamental right to vote.

Even though this was not the outcome we wanted, it is imperative that America’s labor movement does not give up this fight. There is nothing more fundamental to our democracy than the right to vote, and we will remember those senators who chose to stand on the wrong side of history.

On behalf of the AFL-CIO’s 12.5 million union members who fight for the rights of all working people, including the 1.7 million educators, paraprofessionals and school personnel in the American Federation of Teachers, we are going to continue to stand for voting rights and speak out against racial discrimination and voter suppression.

Because we simply cannot afford to ignore what is unfolding across this country at breakneck speed. On January 6, 2021, empowered by President Trump’s green light to overturn the will of the people, an extremist mob tried and failed to violently overturn a free and fair election. We witnessed one of the greatest assaults on our democracy since the Civil War. And even though the insurrectionists failed in that attempt, extremist efforts to subvert our election process did not end on Jan. 6.

Fighting For Disability Rights Is Fighting For Democracy

Our guest author today is Randi Weingarten, president of the Albert Shanker Institute and the American Federation of Teachers.

We are witnessing the most ominous threats to our democracy in our lifetimes—from the January 6 insurrection and attempt to overturn the results of the presidential election, to the slew of voter suppression laws recently passed by Republican-controlled state legislatures, to the anti-democracy forces working to interfere with vote counting and even manipulate the outcome of elections. Another threat to democracy receives scant attention despite its substantial impact—the disenfranchisement of voters with disabilities. One in four people in America lives with a disability, and many face steep obstacles that make it difficult or impossible to vote.

Our responsibility as citizens is not just to vote; it is to demand Access and accessibility so that everyone who is eligible can vote and every vote is counted. That means fighting against voter suppression laws that disproportionately target racial minorities, older Americans, veterans, and low-income voters. And it includes demanding that people with disabilities have the unfettered ability to vote. The fight for voting rights is one that should include everyone. When we help each other vote, we are helping our democracy thrive.

Teaching The Constitution As A Living Compact

In honor of Constitution Day (September 17th), this blog series invites teachers and leaders in the field of civics and democracy education to address the question: Why is it important to teach the Constitution? Our final guest author in this series is Randi Weingarten, president of the Albert Shanker Institute and the American Federation of Teachers. Other posts in this series can be found here.

At a time when the future of American democracy hangs in the balance, how should we teach the U.S. Constitution?

The Preamble to the Constitution, where the framers laid out its purposes, provides us with six words that help answer this question. The Constitution was intended, its authors wrote, “to form a more perfect union.” With this phrase, the framers made it clear that they did not conceive of the Constitution or the republic it established as a finished product, perfect and complete for all time, but as a work in progress, in need of continuous renewal and “re-founding.” By the design of the founders, the Constitution is a living compact, changing and evolving with “we the people” who authorize it and give it legitimacy anew with each successive generation of Americans.

Federal Policy And Tribal Sovereignty

In honor of Constitution Day (September 17th), this blog series invites teachers and leaders in the field of civics and democracy education to address the question: Why is it important to teach the Constitution? Our guest author today is Jordann Lankford-Forster. an educator and an IEFA instructional coach for Great Falls Public Schools in Great Falls, Montana. Jordann is A’aniiih and Anishinaabe, and her A’aniiih name is Bright Trail Woman. Other posts in this series can be found here.

American Indian Federal policy has historically played a significant role in tribal sovereignty. This is always a difficult subject to explain because it is so multifaceted. Prior to colonization, tribal sovereignty was exercised absolutely, with tribes interacting on a government-to-government basis, and under total self-sufficiency. Today, major contributing factors to achieving total sovereignty include location, access to resources, and relationship status with the Federal Government. It is important to remember that tribal sovereignty—or the ability to remain separate and independent—looks different for every tribe. As (the 574) tribes and individual American Indians navigate their future, the Constitution is continually referenced as a means to gain a strong foothold within the country that we now know as the United States of America. 

I teach in a small district in Great Falls, Montana. Our student population is 16.5 percent American Indian and 44 different tribes are represented within our school system. My district is considered “urban” because it is in a city rather than located on a reservation. In 1972 the Montana Constitution was revised to recognize the “distinct and unique cultural heritage of American Indians”  and to be “committed in its educational goals to the preservation of their cultural integrity.” And, as a district, we are continually trying to ensure we honor that. At times, it is difficult for my students because they do not always feel like they have a sense of identity within this country.

Why Teach The Constitution?

In honor of Constitution Day (September 17th), this blog series invites teachers and leaders in the field of civics and democracy education to address the question: Why is it important to teach the Constitution? Our guest author today is Zeph Capo, a public school science teacher, president of the Texas AFT, and member of the Shanker Institute Board of Directors. Other posts in this series can be found here.

Collective bargaining is the cornerstone on which we built the middle-class. As a labor leader, it is the best tool used by workers to earn a seat at the table as equals with their employer. It is also how we develop a contract outlining one another’s roles, rights, and responsibilities in the workplace. As an educator, I ask: How do we expect workers to understand the process and power of collective bargaining if they don’t understand the power and process of governance as outlined in our Constitution?

I believe teaching the Constitution is vital, because it is the premier collectively-bargained contract present in our lives. The rights, responsibilities, and regulations set forth in the Constitution serve as the bedrock on which we develop all other aspects of the agreements governing the many facets of our society.

Understanding The Complexities Of History

In honor of Constitution Day (September 17th), this blog series invites teachers and leaders in the field of civics and democracy education to address the question: Why is it important to teach the Constitution? Our first guest author is Stephen Lazar, is a National Board Certified Social Studies teacher, who is typically teaching students Social Studies and English at Harvest Collegiate High School in NYC, which he helped to start. This year, he is on sabbatical and a Ph.D. candidate in history at the CUNY Graduate Center and is one of the Shanker Institute Civics Fellows. Other posts in this series can be found here.

This is my first Constitution Day in some time where I will not be teaching high school students, since I am on sabbatical as I work towards a Ph.D. in history. When I am teaching history, there are two things I want students to understand more than anything else. First, history is complicated; things are rarely simply good or bad. Second, I want students to understand that that history is not merely a list of sequential facts. Instead, history is made up of competing interpretations. I regularly tell my students that historians, far more knowledgeable than we are, look at all the available evidence and come to different conclusions from each other. When I return to the classroom next fall, I plan to engage my students in one such disagreement in looking at the impact of the Constitution on people who were enslaved.

Increasingly over the past few years, my students have come with strong opinions on the Constitution’s relationship to the institution of slavery. This happens for a variety of reasons: engagement with the Black Lives Matter movement, watching Thirteenth on Netflix, and exposure to the growing public discourse that examines the history of racism in the United States. Whereas a decade ago, most of my students knew very little about the Constitution or had a relatively positive view of it, now a critical mass of my students strongly believe that the Constitution laid the foundation for a racist society because it was proslavery.