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Educating Democratic Citizens in Troubled Times: Qualitative Studies of Current Efforts

reviewed by Kathleen Knight-Abowitz - June 23, 2009

coverTitle: Educating Democratic Citizens in Troubled Times: Qualitative Studies of Current Efforts
Author(s): Janet S. Bixby and Judith L. Pace (eds.)
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791476405, Pages: 298, Year: 2008
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The title of this book immediately drew my attention and interest in two ways. As a teacher and scholar long interested in citizenship and democratic education, I was grateful to see that other scholars had noticed a significant absence in the civic education literature; the notable lack of good, descriptive qualitative research studies on civic education as it is enacted in real school and community settings. But another aspect of the title evoked curiosity: what, exactly, are the “troubled times” that frame this particular volume? And how might the research in the volume contribute towards our addressing said troubles? The first of these questions can be straightforwardly answered, but the second is more complex.  

Research on civic education in U.S. schools and citizenship education more broadly has been strongly quantitative in nature, relying heavily on National Assessment of Educational Progress measures and the International Association for Evaluation of Educational Achievement data. These studies have, for some time, pointed to the troubles that face civic educators. One of the most problematic of these, and one frequently taken up by the authors in this volume, is the gap in civic knowledge between the best-prepared and the worst-prepared students, a gap which not only falls predictably along racial-ethnic and social class lines, but which “foreshadows continued or worsening political inequality in decades to come” (Gibson & Levine, 2003, p. 19). This pervasive finding converges with a number of other troubling contexts and conditions facing democratic education advocates, including the press for standardized testing in K-12 schools, the decreasing levels of political interest and engagement among youth, and the citizenship challenges facing immigrants in many U.S. communities. The editors write that “the war on terror; the federal press for school accountability; concerns about civic knowledge, interest, and engagement among youth; and disenfranchisement of marginalized groups” all point to “the need to focus on education for democratic citizenship” (p. 5).

To contribute to such a focus, the editors of this volume collected qualitative studies on formal school or community based programs that provide citizenship education for contemporary youth. Some of these programs were well established both institutionally and financially, but just as many were episodic participatory research designs or programs funded by soft money. A few others were longer-term attempts to change the structure and culture of civic education in schools. These studies were chosen because they demonstrate particular enactments and meanings of citizenship, and more engaged and progressive pedagogical approaches to civic education. The overarching question of the volume is “how are today’s young citizens, upon whom the future of our democracy depends, being educated to understand these issues, make informed decisions, and contribute to building a more just society?” (p. 1). The book is not quite captured in that question, however; the chapters in the volume as a whole are far more concerned with showing us the “best practices” and innovations in the field, and how these innovations could be used to change the mostly uninspiring status quo of civic education. This volume’s orientation is focused, appropriately enough, much more towards the future than the problematic present of civic and citizenship education.

The volume first attempts to remedy some of the pervasive troubles facing civic education by its very organization. Composed of three sections, the book is divided into three very important “spheres” where citizenship education takes place: Inside Classrooms, Inside Schools at Large, and In the Communities. This comprehensive examination immediately makes a claim that the work of learning citizenship occurs in many contexts, and some of the richest engagements in this volume are in settings outside of the constraints of school mandates and structures. The work and outcomes of community based youth organizations oriented towards civic and political life in communities, in the book’s last section, present fascinating accounts of how adults in communities can, absent the time and testing limitations in schools, create vibrant opportunities for students to learn the civic practices of public life. Only the addition of a section on “In the home” could have added to the comprehensive nature of the book’s scope, since there is a dearth of research on this most primary site of citizenship learning. Still, the book’s comprehensive scope is a great strength and contribution to broadening the rather narrow scope of the field.

The field of civic education as it currently exists in most U.S. secondary schools is glimpsed in several of the chapters, including the second by editor Judith Pace. A qualitative study of three northern California high schools, this study shows the range of pedagogical approaches used by government teachers, from “by the book” and “expert” approaches to more discussion-based, hands-on, and coaching models of civic learning (p. 49). The author also describes a school club that, in attempting to gain permission to stage a lunch-time rally in protest of the Iraqi war, faced consistent bureaucratic resistance and push-back from principal and school board. Only when these students hired a lawyer and began a lawsuit did they finally get permission from school officials to hold a peaceful assembly in their own school lunch room. This case, the author suggests, shows us “how schools suppress political engagement even as they hold the obligation to educate democratic citizens” (p. 53). (It also shows us, I would argue, the millennial generation’s leanings towards conformity to rules and procedure, as students seek permission to protest within the confines of a system that all too often actively discourages genuine political expression.) Political engagement is a narrowly prescribed category of learning in most schools, and Pace’s chapter bears this out.

The creative and innovative possibilities come alive in the chapters that document experimentation in the field. Project 540, aimed at empowering students to become more involved in the governance of their own schools, is discussed in chapter six by Richard Battistoni, a founder of the program. The project involved over 100,000 youth becoming trained and energized to “participate directly in a democratic process of deliberation and action in their high school … [in order to] confront the evidence suggesting that schools were inappropriate platforms for youth civic education and involvement” (p. 132).

Another study, based in the commendable campaign in California to enact the findings and recommendations of The Civic Mission of Schools report (Gibson & Levine, 2003), turns up unsurprising but important findings. This study, by Ellen Middaugh and Joseph Kahne, “seeks to better understand the common features and social contextual differences of youth civic development,” and examined how factors such as racial, ethnic, and social class diversity affect youths’ views on politics and democracy. The schools in this study were part of the Educating for Democracy initiative in California, where 12 schools participating in the initiative agreed to implement at least one of the six recommendations identified in the Civic Mission of Schools (Gibson & Levine, 2006) report (p. 161).  Middaugh and Kahne selected five of the 12 – those focusing on implementing the community service and the discussion-based classroom pedagogy recommendations – for their study of how socio-cultural contexts affected youths’ understanding of and interest in politics, and for the most part, their findings are substantiated by previous findings of the ways in which youth civic involvement varies according to racial-ethnic and class identities. While the majority of all students found the community service aspects of their civic education to be satisfying, poor and ethnic minority students were more apt to be skeptical of government and its ability to work in the interests of all citizens. While most students of all types were disinterested in politics generally, there were variations on this theme by social class. Students from affluent communities saw little need to be involved in community problem-solving, while students from poorer areas could clearly identify needs but saw government as inattentive to or ineffective at addressing the needs.

These findings, and many others documented in this interesting volume, will not surprise those familiar with the citizenship and civic education literature. But these findings are not well understood by too many social studies educators and the larger educational public, and it would be my hope that these would be the intended audiences for this book. These findings are perhaps least understood by policy-makers, and a challenge for the field continues to be finding ways to use studies such as these for the advocacy work on civic education at all levels of educational policy construction. While there are not many big revelations in this volume, it contributes to the civic education project by revealing in rich detail both how the status quo of civic education is diminishing our democratic future, and how best practices and innovation at multiple levels and contexts are helping to nourish and enrich our civic education practices.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 23, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15674, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 4:33:58 AM

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About the Author
  • Kathleen Knight-Abowitz
    Miami University, Oxford, Ohio
    E-mail Author
    KATHLEEN KNIGHT ABOWITZ is a Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. She teaches social foundations and philosophy of education courses to undergraduate and graduate students, and her scholarship explores meanings of community, public life, citizenship and the evolving role of the “public” in public education. Her publications have appeared in Teachers College Record, Educational Theory, Review of Educational Research, Educational Studies and the Journal of Teacher Education.
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