Undermining Democracy

Undermining Democracy

We’ve had a long run at something like a democratic society, one that has steadily expanded the definition of who’s “in.” We’ve done this with wisdom and luck—and because of the unrelenting pressure of “the people,” organized in one way or another. That accounts in part for my long-term optimism. Still, looking at history’s arc, democracy seems a fragile and almost unnatural idea. We can hardly argue that we’ve paid much attention to how it is passed from generation to generation. Mostly, we count on word of mouth and the happenstances of growing up. Now, we are in a century that will challenge the ideas underlying democracy as never before, and the odds on its survival seem about even—so long as we depend on word of mouth and happenstance.

Although we are a nation born out of ideology, Americans are not comfortable with ideologies. Nor are we adept at using schools as a means of teaching and supporting ideas (we prefer “just the facts, ma’am”). Ideology smacks of partisanship, so we fall back on patriotic clichés and rituals. We don’t trust ideas or intelligence. The test given to immigrants applying for citizenship asks more questions about the design of our flag than the character of our Constitution.

Forty years of experience in schools have shown me the amazing capacity for “abstract” learning and empathy within every child. This, in turn, leads me to believe that although democracy is not the natural state of the species, it is not unnatural either.

These twin capacities—open-minded intelligence and empathy—make the idea of democracy fragile but not utopian, feasible for the long haul if we don’t depend too much on luck but count instead on nourishing both minds and emotions.

As long as education remains a topic that practitioners and “intellectuals” rarely join in discussing, much less practitioners and ordinary citizens, it seems unlikely that we will use schools to pass on the democratic idea—or much else in the way of ideas. We never have used them very well to pass on plain practical smarts. What an extraordinary waste of an extraordinary period in the life of a human being! It is a time when kids are bursting with energy, intelligence, and capacity for learning—and we spend it boring the majority of them to death, systematically disengaging them from their native intelligence and compassion.

Teaching democracy, if we take it seriously, may be as hard as teaching modern science; at times it may be as counterintuitive. Figuring out how to do the one is much like figuring out how to do the other; it might even make sense to think of them together. Study after study reports the same worrisome news: the average citizen does not take the Constitution seriously and flatly disagrees with many of its key provisions—especially when it comes to the Bill of Rights. One recent study of high school students found that only 35 percent thought that people with ...

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