Civic Dispositions and School Culture

The conflict between youth civic engagement and anti-democratic educational environments

I tried to find a way to start this without invoking the midterm election and all of the reports of “apathetic” voters. I promise I did.

But before you stop reading, this might not go where you think it’s going to.

I offer a challenge: pull up the mission statement of your local public high school or school district, or the one from which you graduated. Odds are you will find language in that mission statement regarding citizenship in some form, whether civic preparedness specifically or broader notions of global citizenship. Now ask yourself: what about my elementary and secondary schooling experience prepared me to be an informed and engaged citizen?

If you’re like me, the answer is not much. Or at least not enough.

At GC, we identify three elements to a robust action civics education that, when absent or lacking, contribute to the civic engagement gap (or the inequitable access to civic education and the resulting lack of civic engagement, especially in under-served communities deemed “civic deserts”). This civic engagement gap pervades American culture, and low voter turnout is the tip of the iceberg. Those three elements are civic knowledge, civic skills, and civic dispositions. I won’t discuss the first two because, while it is true that American students do not have enough opportunities to acquire civic knowledge and practice civic skills, and while it is true that even when American students do have those opportunities they are often inequitable in their accessibility, the notion of civic disposition is the most challenging to nail down. What is a civic disposition? How can teachers cultivate civic dispositions in students? How can they measure something so intangible?

They can’t in schools with cultures that are inherently anti-democratic.

There is a tension in American public schools between the values we declare in our mission statements and the practices we engage in every day, the ones we defend in the name of classroom management, behavior management, and the expectations of academic settings. Of course there are notable exceptions in the form of incredible educators and truly groundbreaking schools, but generally speaking, schools in the US favor students who are obedient and passive. Too many school cultures focus their energy on maintaining a student body that follows directions and walks quietly and orderly in the hallways, not one that asks questions and sees the school environment as something it can change and improve.

I want to be clear — schools deal with impossible challenges. Teachers and administrators unfairly take the blame for so many societal ills that affect young people that are beyond their control. The anti-democratic practices described above are the result of being underfunded, under-supported, over-worked, and overwhelmed with the work that falls to them.

My point is that giving students the power to address the same systemic challenges that keep teachers and administrators up at night might actually be the answer.

I have heard teachers acknowledge the merits of democratic classrooms and democratic school culture, and then immediately pivot to say, “But I’m a new teacher…” or, “But my students can’t handle…” They then claim that they want to work on classroom management first, and once those foundational routines and expectations have been established, they can make time for things like democratic practices at school.

This is a false choice. Classroom management is most effective and most appropriate when rooted in democratic values. Students invest in their school experiences when they have a say in how they learn and how they can shape their school community. Students who are invested don’t need to have their behavior managed.

Having a civic disposition means knowing you have a voice and using it; it means taking a risk to make the kind of change you want to see in your community. If we don’t start in our schools by teaching students how to make themselves heard, how to build consensus, how to lobby decision makers, and most importantly that we want to hear from them, why would we ever expect students to understand the value of their citizenship when they leave the school community? Voting is easy (at least in theory, but that’s a different blog post altogether) and it shouldn’t take any more effort than running a simple errand. But why should someone make time for it if she doesn’t understand at the core of her being, in her most deep-seated sense of self, that her perspective matters?

Until schools prioritize fostering cultures that encourage young people to change their immediate reality, we’ll continue to see the “apathy” of voters in America. As Meira Levinson, professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, reminds us, we in education are in the business of asking students to practice skills, whether it’s learning to read, mastering a persuasive essay, tackling a geometry proof, or even playing baseball; somehow, though, we have created a system that doesn’t ask them to practice the skills associated with being active, systems-oriented citizens. Furthermore, we ask them to grow up in school environments that don’t show them the value of their civic participation. We don’t cultivate the dispositions that actually make those skills relevant and actionable.

Elevating student voice and agency in schools with democratic cultures and practices is the key to eliminating the civic engagement gap. At GC, we coach our students to look beyond the manifestations of the issues they want to work towards solving to the root causes of those issues. When it comes to low voter turnout, what we have been calling “apathy” isn’t the result of laziness or lack of vote-worthy candidates or news cycle fatigue; these are all just manifestations of the larger problem. If we can change the environments where our children and young people spend the majority of their time, where they develop at least a decent portion of their sense of self and sense of purpose, to prioritize the values touted in school mission statements around the country, voter apathy will become a phenomenon of the past.