The Harvard EdCast

The Role of Education in Democracy

Episode Summary

Many people question the state of democracy in America. This is especially true of young people, who no longer share the same interest in democracy as the generations before them. Harvard's Danielle Allen has long studied what citizens need in order to succeed in democracy and how our social studies and civics education can impact this. In this episode, Allen discusses how we got where we are today, the unique role of education, and what it takes to reinvest in education for democracy.

Episode Transcription

Jill Anderson:  I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast. Harvard's Danielle Allen knows young people aren't as invested in democracy like the generations before them. Today, fewer than 30% under age 40 even consider it important to live in a democracy. Allen is a political theorist who's long studied what citizens need in order for democracy to succeed.


Education plays a big part in how we think about democracy, yet America's classrooms haven't always emphasized these subjects. With the presidential election just weeks away, I wanted to understand how education can preserve democracy and whether tensions rising in America signal a change underway.


Danielle Allen: In another moment of crisis in the country, The Cold War, the country really turned to science and technology to meet the moment. So there's the period during World War II, the Manhattan Project, for example, which really brought universities into the project of supporting national security with the pursuit of the atom bomb. That was a point in time, it was really the beginning of decades long investment in STEM education. That was important.


We needed to do that, but at the same time, over that same 50 year period, we have really disinvested in civic education and social studies. You can see that now in the comparison that we currently spend $54 per year per kid of federal dollars on STEM education and only 5 cents per year per kid on civics. So we have really ceased to lay the foundation in K through 12 for young people to understand democracy, be motivated to participate in it, to have the skills and tools they need to participate effectively and as a result, enjoy participation.


Jill Anderson:  We're also living in a time when teaching history is being really politicized and I'm wondering how you think we can effectively teach history and democracy to young people.


Danielle Allen: I've been really privileged over the last 15 months or so to be a part of a cross-institutional network under the banners and they call it the Educating for American Democracy Project and my center Harvard, the ethics centers participating. Jane Kamensky, who directs the Schlesinger Library for Women as a PI Tufts, Arizona state university and this group has pulled together a network of hundreds of scholars across the country with the goal of developing a blueprint, a roadmap for the integration of history and civics education K through 12.


The reason I'm going through all of that is because at an early point in our work, directly thinking about the issue you just raised or polarization of our national history and polarization of education around civics, we decided that we were going to do two things on our roadmap.


One was to really structure it around inquiry to really focus on the kinds of questions that should be asked over the span of K through 12 more so than on the answers and also that we would really focus on design challenges. That instead of seeing the disagreement about how to narrate our nation's history as a kind of end of the conversation, we would see it as the beginning of a conversation. So for instance, one of the design challenges we put to educators is that we have to find a way to tell an integrated version of US history that is simultaneously honest about the crimes and wrongs of the past, but without falling into cynicism and also appreciative in appropriate ways of the founding era without tipping into gamification.

So what we try to do is to say, "This is a design challenge. We don't know exactly what the answer is to meriting a history in this way that integrates clear-eyed view of the problems as well as a clear-eyed view of the goods and the potentialities, but we believe it can be done and we believe that this big country with so many committed educators is a place where we can experiment our way into solutions."


Jill Anderson:  Right. One of the things I think is interesting as you look at the polls and voter turnout, and you often see young people not being as engaged, but when you look at some of the protests that have been happening around the country, it seems to be largely younger people. Is that a shift happening in our democracy where young people are maybe becoming more engaged?


Danielle Allen: It's certainly the case that young people are showing engagement through their participation in social movements and protests. In that regard, the moment is a lot like the 1960s with similar levels of engagement from young people. The question is whether or not young people who engage in the democracy tool of a social movement or of a protest can also understand themselves to have access to the tool of using political institutions. So social movements are an important part of the democracy toolkit, but they're just a part.


So it's really a question of whether or not young people see value in political institutions too, and can knit these things together. To some extent, I think that actually we really need to do work to redesign, even for example, our electoral system. So when we look around and we see that lots of people are disaffected or alienated or feel disempowered, that doesn't just mean that they're sort of haven't got enough education or don't have the right perspective.


It also means that our institutions aren't delivering what they promise. They're not responsive. They don't generally empower ordinary people and they very often don't deliver sort of equal representation. So in that regard, everybody, all citizens, civic participants have a job to do to think about redesigning our institutions so that they achieve those things.


On that front. I was again, fortunate to participate with a huge network of people through the American Academy Of Arts And Sciences, a commission on the future of the of practice of democratic citizenship and we released a report in June the 31 recommendations, a chunk of which are about redesigning our electoral system to deliver that responsive, empowering form of government that also provides equal representation.


Jill Anderson:  Do you think something like this pandemic could be a tipping point because so much has moved online and I'm wondering how you think that might change civic action in education?


Danielle Allen: Well, the pandemic without any question is a huge exogenous shock, as we would say in social sciences, that it's a transformative event. Period. The magnitude is so significant. I think we're a very long way from being able to see and understand all of its impacts and consequences. For me personally, one of the things it has driven home is the weaknesses in our practices of governance. These weaknesses are partly institutional and partly cultural.

Our polarization is one of the significant causes of our failure to come to grips with the current crisis. So I think for lots of people, the pandemic is really bringing our vulnerabilities to the surface. Also, for example, the disparate impacts across racial and ethnic groups of the disease and the underlying disparities in health equity has really come to the fore to visibility. So I think a lot of people are really focused in a more intensive way than in the past on addressing those problems.


I always sort of have a lot of confidence in the kind of creative energies of human beings when they really sort of see and face problems. So I believe that the moment does give us an opportunity to transform our conception of what we want for our society, what it means to name the public good, what it means to invest in the public good and my hope is that we'll be able to pull energy around a concept of the public good with us in the coming years.


Jill Anderson:  We have this huge election coming up and the pandemic has somewhat overshadowed the election a little bit. I look at parents and their children and wonder are there things that parents could be doing at home to help raise their children to be more engaged and value democracy?


Danielle Allen: Well, I think there are a number of things. I mean, I actually think it matters to bring democratic practices of reason giving for example, into the life of a family. That can be very hard. Family structures are often and for very good reason, very hierarchical. So within the sort of context of hierarchical family structures, how can parents foster reason giving, hear their children's reasons for things, help their children understand what it means to engage in the back and forth around reasons, help them understand what it means for one person to lose out in one decision-making moment, but then to win out in another moment and nonetheless, even though we sort of exchange sacrifices for one another over the course of collective decision-making, our commitment to our social bond is so strong that that makes that sort of exchange of burdens tolerable. So I think there are lots of lessons inside a family that can feed into help the understanding of democratic practice.


Jill Anderson:  One last final question would be if you have any thoughts or advice to share with the teachers out there who are working hard, and many of them working remotely to try to teach lessons about the upcoming election and all the things happening in the world.


Danielle Allen: So teachers really always have a hard job, and it's so hard now between the remote learning and the intensity of the external environment, the political questions and the debates and so forth. I think it's really important to remember that different students will bring different kinds of perspectives and exposures with them into the classroom. So I think when a teacher is trying to engage a hard topic, whether it's a hard element of history or a controversial issue in our contemporary debates, it's really important to start by bringing to the surface what's already in students' minds.


So maybe you use a Google doc, maybe you use a chat function, but when a topic comes up before sort of launching into the instructional content or the real digesting of the issue, just go ahead and let the students record the first thing that comes to mind for them when they hear the relevant issue and let them record the emotion that they connect to that issue. I think it's really important that teachers be able to see what the starting points are, both analytically and emotionally that students have for engaging with these [inaudible 00:10:35] issues.


Jill Anderson:  Well, I want to thank you so much for taking the time and talking and sharing your thoughts today.


Danielle Allen: Thank you, Jill. Appreciate your interest.


Jill Anderson:  Danielle Allen is the director of the Edmond J. Safra Center For Ethics at Harvard. She's a professor at the Harvard graduate school of education and faculty of arts and sciences. She leads the Democratic Knowledge Project, which focuses on how to strengthen and build that knowledge that democratic citizens need to operate their democracy. I'm Jill Anderson. This is the Harvard EdCast produced by the Harvard graduate school of education. Thanks for listening.