Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Educating for Democracy: Preparing for The Office of Citizen

Walter Feinberg

Educating for Democracy provides a vision for preparing students to become active, competent citizens able to assume the responsibilities of democratic participation. This vision is guided by the idea that “the most important office in a democracy is citizen.”[1] I argue that citizenship education should provide students with the dispositions and skills needed to exercise that office judiciously and responsibly as both patriot who care about democracy, and custodian who care for democracy. These two aspects of caring call for curriculum-wide reform—from the arts and humanities to science and math. The outcome of this reform is a new kind of patriot, one who serves as a custodian of democracy, such that commitment and competence, heart and mind, love and intellect are brought together for the sake of democratic practice and moral renewal. While nations, as both instruments and proximal objects of care, have an important role to play in this renewal, the ultimate aim is the care and cultivation of a democratic culture.

Recent books on democratic educational reform separate the civic side of education from the academic side. Some focus on science, technology, engineering, and math instruction (STEM), arguing that these hold the key to equal opportunity and good jobs. But equal opportunity and good jobs alone do not a democracy make. Other books focus on civics, defined as a basic understanding of the workings of political institutions. But democracy is more than politics and requires more than knowledge of political practices and institutions. The separation of civics from STEM courses insinuates that civic competence can be divorsed from technical competence. I argue otherwise: the character of technical competence has much to do with the quality of civic competence, and conversely, the character of civic competence has much to do with the quality of technical competence.

I use the term new as a modifier of patriot to counter the kind of exclusionary patriotic expression that followed the World Trade Center bombing on September 11, 2001, and is most recently voiced in the xenophobic rhetoric used to deride those refugees seeking safety and asylum. The new patriotism draws on shared feelings and resources to promote a mutual quest for a common good, but it also emphasizes the intellectual side of patriotism, an enlightened civic consciousness. It is to be distinguished from nationalism, where the interests of one’s own country are advanced exclusively, and where the aim is to establish dominance over others. The new patriotism is not concerned with dominating but rather with enhancing the quality of cultural, political, and planetary life, and with the role democracy can serve in doing so.

Drawing on my own experience I show that democratic culture evolves as a result of new knowledge, innovative technology, visions of emerging possibilities, and awareness of fresh challenges and innovative opportunities.  From this I argue that education must prepare rising citizens to both recognize these changes and, where possible, to learn how to shape them according to democratic ideals. Doing this requires not just a single social studies course, or more STEM subjects. It also requires a reconsideration of the curriculum from Kindergarten to college and a renewal of all subject matter from the arts and humanities to mathematics and science, a renewal that is explicitly guided by the aim of preparing students for the office of democratic citizen.  The different chapters develop this theme and its implications for different subjects.

[1] Barak Obama, speech given at McCormick Place, Chicago, January 18, 2017.

About The Author

Walter Feinberg

Walter Feinberg is Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois, USA. He is a recipient of The Lifetime Achievement Award from the Dewey Society and is known for his work on de...

View profile >

Latest Comments

Have your say!