Why Citizenship?

Ask someone – anyone – why we send children to school.  Chances are pretty good the answer you hear will be framed in economic terms:  so they can get a good job and get ahead.  So they can get into a good college (then get a good job and get ahead).  So they might have happy, productive lives, fulfill the American Dream, and wind up a little better off than their parents.

These are good and worthy goals.  But a view of education that is framed in dollars and cents reduces education to the purely personal and private.  There is a public dimension to education that we seem to have lost sight of along the way.   We send kids to school not just to become employees, but citizens.

What happened to this essential, public dimension of schooling?  Civic education, was something close to the founding principle of American education.  Our earliest thinkers about education weren’t thinking about college and career readiness.  They understood well that democracy, historically speaking, was something of a long shot.  There’s a famous story about Benjamin Franklin leaving the Constitutional Convention in 1787.  A woman asked him what kind of government he and the other delegates had decided on.  “A republic, madam—if you can keep it,” Franklin replied.  As Franklin knew, republics have a nasty habit of falling apart.  Of being overwhelmed by factions.  Citizens who can be relied upon to understand and peacefully exercise their rights and responsibilities—to keep the republic—are indispensable to a democracy.

And where were those citizens, those “republican machines,” in Benjamin Rush’s phrase, to be created if not in schools?

In losing sight of this mission, of letting it atrophy, we risk losing sight of something essential, even ennobling, about education.  School used to be the place where we learned to become a community.  Where we learned how to conduct ourselves in the world and what was expected of us.  It was where we learned to become Americans.

I’m prepared to argue that schools, more than anything else, still shape the kind of citizens we have.  The question is whether we want them to do so through happenstance, or by thinking through carefully the knowledge, skills and dispositions our children will need to nurture and maintain our democracy in the 21st century.

That’s what this blog will largely be about: civic education.  The business of preparing students to keep this republic.  There will be time (there is always time) to argue about the best way to prepare children for citizenship.  But let’s start with an acknowledgement that our schools have a public purpose to serve.  Let’s acknowledge we have let this vital function drift out of focus, and resolve to do something about it.

So yes, let us have college and career readiness.  Let us prime the pump of national competitiveness with ever more STEM graduates.  But let’s also remind ourselves that we who work in schools have the grandest possible public service to render: shepherding the next generation of citizens and preparing them for a lifetime of active, engaged citizenship.

Not a bad reason to get out of bed in the morning, is it?