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February 6, 2003

Teaching democracy: Book stresses need to educate for citizenship

While parents, teachers and school administrators are busy worrying about students’ declining reading and math scores on standardized tests, a UW researcher fears another basic educational tenet may have slipped off the radar screen.

A good democratic education, according to Walter Parker’s just published book, Teaching Democracy: Unity and Diversity in Public Life, is imperative both for individuals and for the health of American society. Parker will be talking about the book during a symposium on the UW campus from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 13.

“The kind of democratic education we need access to today is one that helps us understand exactly how it is that cultural diversity and political unity can exist side by side,” he said.

And that’s an education that most students aren’t getting, according to Parker, a professor in the College of Education. The symposium, “Teaching in a Changing World: Diversity, Citizenship, and Dialogue” will also feature two of Parker’s colleagues in the college, James Banks and Geneva Gay.

Banks, the director of the UW’s Center for Multicultural Education and a past president of the American Educational Research Association, will speak on culturally diverse societies. Multicultural societies, Banks says, are faced with the problem of constructing nation-states that reflect and incorporate the diversity of its citizens and yet have an overarching set of shared values, ideals, and goals. He says such nations must help their students develop complex and thoughtful identifications with their cultural communities, nation-state and the global community.

Banks is the editor of the Multicultural Education Series by Teachers College Press. Parker’s book is the latest in the series.

Gay will share her research into culturally appropriate and relevant approaches to teaching. She says that culture strongly influences the attitudes, values and behaviors that students and teachers bring to the educational environment and therefore culture has to be a major determinant of how the problems of underachievement are solved.

“It’s critically important to share the stage with these colleagues,” Parker said. “Geneva’s work on culturally responsive teaching and Jim’s work on globalization and democratic citizenship so perfectly set the stage for looking at the problems and promise of dialogue.”

Parker says most students, whether they are from the most affluent neighborhoods or the poorest, are missing out on an adequate democratic education. They are learning too little about democracy, and they are participating too little in democracy. Democratic education is important to both groups for different reasons.

Students from affluent backgrounds will wield the most power as adults. A good democratic education increases the likelihood that they will use that power wisely and work to close the gap between democratic ideals and realities.

Students from historically oppressed groups need a good democratic education, too, so that they can participate fully in democratic life and work to improve it. Typically, Parker says, it is the excluded members of society who are democracy’s vanguard, pushing it toward its ideals.

“The framers of the U.S. Constitution may have been the birth parents of American democracy, but those who were excluded, both then and now, have been its adoptive, nurturing parents,” he said. “Just look at the civil rights and woman suffrage movements.”

Parker’s recipe for a good education involves coming together to work on shared problems.

“I think the core, not the sole piece, but the core piece of a good democratic education, is the provision of many opportunities to deliberate public problems together,” he said. “So just being together in a diverse congregation of people is necessary, but not sufficient. What you need to be doing is solving the problems that inevitably arise because of the congregation — you need rules, you need norms.”

And school is the perfect place for this sort of interaction, Parker says, because it’s the first exposure to a public space for most children. For that reason, teachers need to be ready to foster a deliberative environment in their classrooms and throughout the school.

“You can’t have a democracy without democrats,” Parker said. “Educators are in a really great position to provide that deliberative education that our students and our society needs.”