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Democracy at a Crossroads: Reconceptualizing Socio-Political Issues in Schools and Society

reviewed by Paul Parkison - June 29, 2020

coverTitle: Democracy at a Crossroads: Reconceptualizing Socio-Political Issues in Schools and Society
Author(s): Gregory L. Samuels & Amy J. Samuels
Publisher: Information Age Publishing, Charlotte
ISBN: 1641137177, Pages: 262, Year: 2019
Search for book at Amazon.com

It is vital to the health and future of our democracy that our schools prepare students for a lifetime of knowledgeable, engaged, and active citizenship. Our ability to create and sustain a robust democracy depends on our ability to achieve this goal. The narrowing of the curriculum that has occurred over the past several decades has had a devastating effect on schools’ ability to provide high quality civic education to all students. If democracy is to continue to be a central tenet of our social and political relations with each other, then it needs to be more than a set of rhetorical slogans and political codes used by the powerful to achieve the quiescence of the disenfranchised and marginalized. Our young people need the opportunity to develop the skills necessary to play an informed and articulate role within our democracy.

United States Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts emphasized the importance of education for democracy:

“Civic education, like all education, is a continuing enterprise and conversation. Each generation has an obligation to pass on to the next, not only a fully functioning government responsive to the needs of the people, but the tools to understand and improve it.” (Roberts, 2019, p. 4)

There are many ways in which civics education needs to be improved, but at the most basic level, the problem is a pedagogical one; in order for teachers to teach the knowledge and skills needed to effectively participate in a democracy, and in order for students to learn them, they must practice shared problem-solving and decision-making about important events and issues that affect our shared experiences and lives.

Gregory L. Samuels and Amy J. Samuels present an edited volume that is both timely and informative. Democracy at a Crossroads: Reconceptualizing Socio-Political Issues in Schools and Society brings together a collection of research by an international group of scholars that addresses the troubled context in which civics education for democracy is being developed and implemented. In this collection, the research from the 2018 Social Science Education Consortium International, convened in Florence, Italy with the theme “Democracy at a Crossroads: Examining the Past and Facing the Future,” has been curated. Each of the 12 chapters investigates the impact of the current educational context on democracy and civics education.

The authors consider the broad range of socio-political factors influencing the role and function of education in the development and persistence of democracy. Laura Handler and Tracy Rock begin this framing of the current circumstance with a critical analysis of the local impact of school choice policies. The shift from conceptions of education as a common, public good to a commodity is deconstructed within the context of Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. Handler and Tracy effectively discuss the loss of schools as “central hubs of engagement and opportunity” (p. 13) when education becomes a commodity. Teacher accountability is added to the policy mix that re-enforces the commodification of education as test scores become the currency of the market. Joshua Carey provides a moving case study of social studies teachers’ challenge when the valued curriculum is the testable curriculum.

Commodification and standardization of civics education are further considered from the perspective of students. Content, varied pedagogy, and curriculum development are deconstructed in an effort to demonstrate the manner in which democracy has become a stagnant concept to be learned rather than a dynamic process to be lived. Nickie Coomer, Robin Jackson, and Tammera Moore highlight the power and importance of encouraging students’ critical engagement and resistance in the classroom. As their study demonstrates, there is transformative democratic power in “actively inviting students to engage in the types of critique and resistance necessary for a progressive society to continue the struggle toward democracy.” (p. 124). Michael Bartone offers the C3 (College, Career, and Civic life) framework developed by the National Council for the Social Studies as a pragmatic, purposeful, and generative approach that has promise for preparing students for democracy.

Socio-political context is emphasized throughout the text. Crisis and trauma in educational settings provides opportunity to analyze strategies that can be beneficial to education for democracy. Brandon Haas considers the intersection of “emotional citizenship” and civic engagement by analyzing Holocaust case studies to surface empathy and care as catalysts for deeper, more democratic learning and action. Sara Demoiny and Stewart Waters present a case study of the tensions of collective memory through an analysis of German monuments and counter-monuments as curriculum. In the current context, the U.S. has much to learn from the German experience. Jacob Bennett presents a deeply personal and reflective autoethnography investigating the impact of teacher stance (color-blind, multicultural, and critical color-conscious) on instruction and student experience.

Samuels and Samuels have pulled together a collection that challenges social studies and civics educators to engage with the power politics that is the curriculum and pedagogy of our schools and classrooms. The narratives presented highlight the essential objective of bringing democracy to our schools in more than just rhetoric and code. Submerged within the themes collected in this text is a critical examination of the mechanisms that work to sustain the acquiescence of large portions of the population. The focus placed on the virtues, values, and principles of democracy, while necessary to continuing the dialogue around civic education, leaves the oppressive instrumentalism of the school and classroom institutions free of critique. Just below the surface of the studies and exemplars of democracy’s crossroads remains the functional hegemony of power relationships.

Democracy’s crossroads has to do with more than the socio-political issues that emerge within the school context. There is a tipping point within democracy and our ability to fully embody democratic socio-political relationships and the issues that motivate them. Through school, power works to develop and maintain the acquiescence of the powerless. Together, patterns of power and powerlessness can keep issues from arising, grievances from being voiced, and interests from being recognized. Each chapter highlights a critical emerging issue within schools and classrooms. Each chapter provides an analysis of how the issue impacts and challenges democracy. What is missing is a critique of the mechanisms utilized to conceal and suppress lived democracy within schools and classrooms. What issues are not allowed to emerge? What virtues, values, and principles have been surfaced as ideals? What is hidden behind their rhetorical usage?

Recognition by educators of the socio-political implications of their profession is crucial. Educators must recognize the role they play in the facilitation and continuation of democracy and the impact of their orientation toward cultural reproduction, social integration, or personal awareness. Political engagement rests upon the assumption that educators recognize and value their role as inherently political. Democracy continues to be an aspiration. Democracy is not something waiting to be reached. Democracy is in the work of democracy itself as we create ways to promote and embody human dignity, equity, justice, and collective action.

Samuels and Samuels have contributed significantly to the analysis of democracy within our schools and classrooms as content and aspirational process. The issues that emerge to demonstrate the socio-political inequalities that plague contemporary civic education as well as pointing to the aspiration of an engaged and articulate citizenry are framed in a manner to give educators a foundation from which to work toward transformation of the system. Empowering educators to leverage issues and experiences of human dignity, equity, and justice to classrooms and schools is critical. Creating public spaces of self-determined action and reflection upon those actions is the educator’s responsibility in a democracy. Democracy at a Crossroads: Reconceptualizing Socio-Political Issues in Schools and Society moves this dialogue and mission forward in a substantial, concrete way. Our critical next step is to reveal the power and powerlessness supported by educational systems. Bringing about consciousness within our objectification and our actions in the world is where democracy comes to life.


Roberts, J. (2019). 2019 Year-end report on the federal judiciary. Washington, DC: Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts on behalf of the Federal Judiciary.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 29, 2020
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23347, Date Accessed: 7/11/2020 5:37:11 PM

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About the Author
  • Paul Parkison
    University of North Florida
    E-mail Author
    PAUL PARKISON, Ed.D., is professor and chair in the Department of Teaching, Learning, and Curriculum at the University of North Florida. His most recent publications have focused on justice and liberation in teacher education and the potential of deliberative discourse around academic standards. He is currently co-authoring an investigation of the assessment industrial complex and its impact on schooling and education.
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