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The Journal Gazette

  • Terri Jo Swim

  • Donald (Joe) Ohlinger

Sunday, February 10, 2019 1:00 am

Democracy demands critical thought

Terri Jo Swim and Donald (Joe) Ohlinger

President Mitch Daniels recently criticized students at Purdue University for their civics illiteracy and called for a graduation test. This highlights a perennial concern: to what extent the next generation of Americans will embody democratic, civic values.

While we think this deserves some serious thought, calling for a 10-minute, multiple-choice exam to solve the issue doesn't evoke the meaningful learning that civics literacy demands, nor does it engender rigor and accountability.

We agree that some college students struggle in some topics. While this is a challenge faced by all educators, it is certainly less concerning than students' desire only to read or think about “what will be on the test,” or their negative reactions when asked to think critically.

This is not a criticism of students; it is a statement of outcomes of the preschool to grade 12 curriculum and school policies stemming from the “reforms” started in the mid 2000s by then-Gov. Daniels.

These educational changes were not the result of a public, democratic conversation about the purpose of schools and the content of curriculum. Rather, schooling is being shaped by proponents of market fundamentalism.

Yet, should education, particularly civics literacy, be solely about job preparation? John Dewey argued that the first purpose of schools within a democratic society is to cultivate a critically aware, active citizenry who participate in that very society. He suggested that democracy exists within relationships starting with students' relationship to knowledge itself. Do students obediently follow an externally mandated curriculum and have their learning and identities reduced to a score? Or, do students learn to actively question the world around them and cultivate a sense of empathy, efficacy and agency?

Democracy is apparent in a curriculum that addresses issues facing our society: race, the gap between the rich and poor, multiculturalism and immigration, war, and climate change.

Schools are evaluated and held accountable for the outcomes of standardized tests. Our dependence and acceptance of the supremacy of data and the constant measurement and oversight it demands are out of sync with what civic engagement means – grappling with a rich confusion of ideas, engaging in debate and valuing diverse perspectives with the goal of social transformation. Democracies are not compatible with certainty, short-term results, top-down control or passive constituents seeking a final right answer. Understanding and living the democratic ideal is the birthright of every generation to struggle with and define.

Schools need to engage students in democratic citizenship for meaningful, lasting learning because we, like President Daniels, want citizens who support democratic ideals now and in the future.

Terri Jo Swim is professor and associate dean of the College of Education and Public Policy at Purdue University Fort Wayne; Donald (Joe) Ohlinger is visiting professor in social studies education at PFW.