It doesn’t matter which side of the political divide we’re on, we can all agree we’re in an era of extreme political and social tribalism. We’re living in an age of hyper-partisanship and democracy is being tested.
The foundation of democracy is faith, not in a god, but in human nature. Democracy rises out of the conviction that human beings can achieve the intelligence and the moral character necessary to govern themselves. Democracy isn’t a natural arrangement. It’s a contrived system, often unruly, incapable of perfection, and continually endangered. But there’s no question that its success is determined by one thing, the intellectual and moral qualities of its citizens.
The rulers in a democracy, the people, must be trained for it. To this end, the United States became the first nation to create a school system open to all the people. “The people are the ultimate guardians of their own liberty”, Jefferson wrote. “The only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty is to educate and inform the whole mass of the people.”
We’ve lost sight of public education’s primary mission. We now see the schools’ first responsibility as economic engines– educating kids for admission to higher education or employment. Our current emphasis on STEM education, for instance, is motivated, not by a love of science, but by the love of high-paying jobs. Important as they may be, they ought to be our secondary aim.
Citizenship in the 21st Century requires sophisticated knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Educating for democracy should begin in all elementary schools with emphasis on the individual child and her social and emotional learning. This can begin with mindfulness training to reduce the toxic stress which impairs attention, emotion and mood regulation, sleep, and learning readiness.
It should proceed with character education programs which focus on pro-social skills essential to democratic living – cooperation, group problem-solving, and sophisticated communication skills such as identifying non-verbal signals, learning how to speak up and express needs as well as listen empathetically to the needs of others, appropriately handling annoying or bullying behavior. Above all, learning how to see the world as a partnership rather than an “I-other” competition.
On the secondary level, kids ought to learn how our brains work when it comes to forming beliefs. What makes us conservative or liberal? religious or non-religious? Do we simply imitate our parents or is there something else at play? Do we dispassionately look at the evidence of history or the natural world and decide to be a liberal believer or conservative agnostic? It may look that way, but cognitive scientists say otherwise. If it’s our brains that are telling us that we’re “right”, wouldn’t it be helpful to know what factors into that process?
Kids need to be trained to recognize the methods used by the hidden persuaders – those skilled at psychological and image-based seduction. They need to critically understand how the media function and toward what ends. They need to discover the dangers to clear thinking and decision-making inherent in purely ideological thinking and associations.
Every one of us is operating under the influence of biases. Most of us can see them in other people easier than we can in ourselves. Cognitive scientists have identified scores of them. How can citizens perform well without understanding what drives our (and others’) thinking? Are we trained to recognize logical fallacies? Are we skilled at argumentation?
All of this and we haven’t even broached the topics of history or the understanding of human nature found through the study of literature, art, and music. Nor have we talked about the universally ignored subject of ethics, the study of the formation of character, the very source of individual freedom.
Learning to be a good citizen and contribute to a good society doesn’t happen by accident. We need to make sure our schools are fully committed to citizenship. Is democracy worth all this? I think so.