Democracy today is undergoing some major challenges. In fact, in 2017 it faced its most serious crisis in decades with the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom, according to Freedom House.
And it’s reflected in our young people.
An analysis of the World Values Survey found that a “belief in core tenets of liberal democracy is in decline, especially among those born after 1980.” I want us to hold those ideas in our minds as we ask what we and the young people we teach need to do to support liberal democracy, to live full, rich, just lives, and to believe and participate in the inescapable network of mutuality that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
So what does education for democracy look like in 2018? Consider these 10 calls to action to shape your own approach in your classroom.
1. Cultivate Thinking:
Hannah Arendt calls for citizens to pause and think. Thinking is active, not passive. It requires engagement and dialogue—with ourselves and others. We need to practice thinking about our thinking and take that a step further by thinking out loud with other thinkers that represent the diversity of the society. We must also consider the use and abuse of language. Let’s struggle with the effort to say what we mean and mean what we say, to use evidence, to not fall back on a package of words because they go together without us even thinking about why.
2. Cultivate Multiperspectival Historical Awareness and Understanding
Particularly in divided societies with identity-based conflicts like our own, we have to develop a more nuanced understanding of the way that historical events shape and inform our identities—the way we see ourselves, the ways others see us, and the choices and opportunities available to us, including our life chances, our health, and education and safety. Multiperspectivity is not the same as multiple opinions about the past. There are historical truths that are not dependent upon perspective.
3. Cultivate Border Crossing
Crossing borders is an invitation to become aware of the communities you are in. To look in the mirror a bit and ask not just what and who are there but what and who are we missing. What would cross-communal engagement mean for you? Given the segregation of our lives, it will likely require effort, discomfort, and inconvenience. One thing to do as adults: cultivate a diverse professional learning community. This can reduce prejudice and promote positive intergroup relations but only if you meet as equals.
4. Cultivate Civic Mutuality
Recognize that the work of democracy is reciprocal. We are interdependent. When democracies become polarized or tribal, it’s dangerous. We as citizens need to push against that. We can only do that if we get to know each other and see democratic work as our collective work, not as partisan or group work.
5. Cultivate Ethical Judgment
This work is something like triggering our conscience. But citizens can’t be entirely trusted to always get things ethically right. Judgment, Arendt argued, was the bridge between thought and action. There are rights and wrongs. Thinking out loud, testing our ideas, respectfully disagreeing, gets us close to identifying them.
6. Cultivate Civic Literacy and Civic Practice
We need to know and understand the laws, rights, protections, and responsibilities we enjoy as citizens. We also need to engage in civic practice, actual experience of wrestling with a problem and working with others to find solutions and persisting when they don’t work out—at all or right away. Democratic community service could mean that what you do is relevant to the actual needs that face your community, your country and the world in light of the goals—and the skills, dispositions, behaviors, and knowledge—needed to uphold liberal democracy. Let’s consider community service in light of our divided societies, not in spite of them.
7. Cultivate an Understanding of the Processes of Social Repair and Reconstruction
Explore the ways societies have done this, including your own. We need to continue the process of repair even as we consider what we need to build together.
8. Cultivate Civic Trust
Democracies depend on trust. Trust in government and the media is at an all-time low. Trust has to be earned but we also need to recognize that we play a powerful role as educators in supporting trust and eroding it. We should be critical ourselves to help our students be critical and to demand transparency and accountability. But we also have to distinguish between skepticism and cynicism. We have to guard against nihilism and we have to learn about our institutions and protect them. Choose one, make it yours.
9. Cultivate Global Literacy
The less we know and understand the world around us, the more vulnerable we are to myths and misinformation—things like xenophobia based on the imagined role of immigrants. And there is the increasing erosion—in the US and other countries—of the post WWII architecture of norms, values, rights, protections, and institutions. We must renew our commitments to the belief that identity-based hatred is wrong, that past genocides should be remembered, and that genocide overall should be prevented. This does not mean holding onto a broken system or not rethinking it. It means asking us to be thoughtful about these alliances, norms, institutions, and commitments, including to memory and history, before we participate, including passively, in their destruction.
10. Cultivate Hope
The hope I am talking about is informed and does not turn away from the realities of our past or present. One way to cultivate hope is by illuminating the work of upstanders. This includes examples of individuals, organizations, communities, countries, and the international community getting it right. It means providing young people with examples of people who look like them, sound like them, pray like them. And people who don’t. Who they don’t expect to do the right things.
Use our lesson, "Keeping Watch on Democracy," to help students analyze benchmarks developed by political scientists to measure the health of democracy in the United States.