By Giselle O. Martin-Kniep
For many years now, we have minimized and even ignored civic education in our schools. Now we are paying the price for that ignorance. We are surrounded by the polarized and intolerant discourse of our political representatives and the media. While this is the current state of our nation, it does not need to define its future. We, as educators, know what it takes to engage our students in critical thinking and civic discourse. Today’s students could become the leaders who represent the nation we want to live in and the democratic values we hold dear.
It is not sufficient to merely teach students about how the institutions of government work, about our rights and responsibilities as citizens, or about how laws become laws. We need to develop the capacity to express our views and values with conviction as well as to question and respond to others with an open mind. Our students need to be able to separate values from positions and converge around the values that unite us. Doing this requires that we search for the values and interests we hold and share rather than assume that our position is right and needs to be defended.
To be empowered as citizens, we need to ponder questions like the following and help our students do the same:
- What does it mean to be an active, effective citizen in American society?
- How do I understand the ways that I, as a citizen, can participate in shaping what happens in the government locally, at the state, nationally, and internationally?
- How can I affect change in my schools and my community?
- How do my biases affect my decisions?
- What are the ethical ramifications of what I am doing?
- How is what I am doing influencing others?
- How much do I truly know about the circumstances that I am trying to effect?
- What good and what bad can come from the decisions I make?
- How can I uncover what is true in the news? How can I discern bias and perspective in texts and sources?
- How can I reconcile my values with those of others?
Many educators tend to avoid some of these questions because they feel ill equipped to manage the dissonance that emotionally charged conversations can create. We, as educators, can grow the dispositions in our students and ourselves that lend to greater understanding and empathy. If we do so we are more likely to find our way into these courageous conversations and do the difficult work that moves us away from our polarities. Our students deserve better.
Dr. Giselle Martin-Kniep is the Founder and President of Learner-Centered Initiatives, Ltd. She is an educator and facilitator of adult learning who believes that sustainable improvement is an aspiration worth pursuing. You can learn more about her work at www.lciltd.org.