Education and Democratic Citizenship

Education should encourage us to ask critical question

August 23, 2013

Teachers and students return to school anticipating the discovery of new ideas and the creation of new relationships. Empty gradebooks and notebooks promise transformation. But what should we hope for, as we send our kids back to school?

I heard at least one speech this week that emphasized that education is a way to make money. We celebrate the cash value of staying in school and going on to college. But emphasizing the money is a fairly superficial way to sell school to kids and their parents.

The focus on money ignores a key lesson of a good education, which is that money is not the most important thing in life. Sure, some money is needed for a decent life. But a good education should encourage us to ask critical questions about what we value. How much money is enough? How should resources be distributed? What’s an honorable way to make a living? And what’s the value of a culture that worships the almighty dollar?

Another idea about the value of education focuses on teaching kids to use tools and master the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. Mastery of those skills is essential for people who live in a culture that requires basic literacy and numeracy. Computer technology skills are also becoming essential for life in our culture.

But it’s not enough to teach kids how to use tools. We also have to encourage them to think about what those tools should be used for. Ethical tool use begins with understanding the difference between the tool and its uses. A hammer can build. But it can also destroy. Words and ideas can uplift and empower. But they can also fuel violence and hate.

Our culture is often confused about tools. We fetishize our tools, imbuing them with mysterious power, allowing them to control us and the way we think. The emphasis on computers and online technology is a sign of this problem. Technology is not a panacea. It can be misused and backfire. Reading on computer screens is often more superficial than reading on the printed page. Computers make it easier to cheat and plagiarize. And electronic communication often lacks the depth and care of face-to-face conversations.

A good education helps us sort out the difference between those things that have value in themselves (love, beauty, truth, other people, etc.) and those things that do not (money, tools, computers, etc.). A good education helps us understand the relative value of different technologies and methods of communication. A good education empowers us to use these technologies for appropriate ends.

This process of understanding, assessing and prioritizing values is centrally important for citizens in a democracy. Democratic government is another tool that must be judiciously employed. Democracy can be abused by unscrupulous politicians who take advantage of a gullible citizenry. Democracy becomes dangerous when citizens are unethical and uncritical.

Human beings are not born knowing how to govern themselves. We are dependent for much of our childhoods. Our passions and instincts often rule over us, leaving us unable to properly govern ourselves. We are easily seduced and distracted. It takes long practice to learn how to pay attention, get your work done and do the right thing. A good education teaches us how to free our minds and control our behaviors so that we might govern ourselves.

Democratic citizens must learn to question authority, evaluate conventional wisdom, discuss values and deliberate about ideas. Citizens need to understand their rights. They also need to develop the wisdom and virtue so that they might exercise their rights responsibly.

Human beings are not born understanding ethics or politics. Most children do have an innate capacity for truth-telling, compassion and love. But children can also be selfish, close-minded and mean. They can bully others and show undue respect for authority and power. Ethical judgment and democratic values must be taught.

Every fall we entrust our educators with the awesome job of cultivating the next generation. I wish them luck on this difficult and crucial task. We hope that our kids end up with fruitful careers and that they learn to read, write and compute. But mostly I hope that they learn to be critical and virtuous democratic citizens.

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