Wednesday, November 4, 2015

No Child Left Thinking

This was written by Joel Westheimer who is the author of What Kind of Citizen? Westheimer tweets here.

This is an excerpt from Westheimer's book.

by Joel Westheimer

Imagine you were visiting a school in a totalitarian nation governed by a single-party dictatorship. Would the educational experiences be markedly different from the ones experienced by children in your local school? That may sound like a facetious question, but I do not intend it that way. It seems plausible that good lessons in multiplication,  chemistry, or a foreign language -- perhaps with some adjustments for cultural relevance and suitability -- would serve equally well in most parts of the world. So if you stepped into a school somewhere on the planet and politely asked to observe some of the lessons, would you be able to tell whether you were visiting a school in a democratic nation or a totalitarian one? Or, conversely, if students from a totalitarian nation were secretly transported to a school in your neighbourhood to continue their lessons with new teachers and a new curriculum, would they be able to tell the difference?

The children in your local school would probably learn how to read and write, just like students do in, say, North Korea or China. Students in your local schools might learn to add numbers, do fractions, and solve algebraic equations. But that's what students in Uzbekistan learn too. Maybe students in your local school learn how not to hit one another, to follow the rules, and not to break any laws. They might sing the national anthem and learn about steroids and the life cycle of the glowworm. Maybe they even put on plays, learn a musical instrument, and paint pictures. I know of schools in Eritrea and Belarus that do those things too.

My point is that citizens in nondemocratic countries governed by a single-party authoritarian regime, or even a military junta, learn a lot of the same things in school that our children learn. So what goals would be different for schools in a democratic society? For example, do students in democratic countries learn how to participate in public decision-making (the kind of participation that is required for democracy to function properly)? Are they taught to see themselves as individual actors who work in concert with others to create a better society? Are they taught the skills they need to think for themselves and to govern collectively?

Most of us would like to believe that they do. While a school in North Korea or China might be teaching students blind allegiance to their nation's leaders and deference to the social and political policies those leaders enact, we would expect that schools in the United States or Canada or Finland would teach students the skills and dispositions needed to evaluate for themselves the benefits and draw backs of particular policies and government practices. We would not be surprised to learn, for example, that North Korean children are taught to abide by an "official history" handed down by the single-party authoritarian regime. After all, a school curriculum that teaches one unified, unquestioned version of the "truth" is one of the hallmarks of totalitarian societies. Democratic citizens, however, should be committed to the principles and values that underlie democracy -- such as political participation, free speech, civil liberties, and equal opportunity. Schools might develop these commitments through lessons in the skills of analysis and exploration, free political expression, and independent thought.

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