by Kristal Haynes, Ph.D. student in Developmental Psychology

Most would agree that our schools have a place in shaping and engaging youth in being active members of society.  The question is, how would such an education look in our current public school system?  During the panel held on Thursday, March 17th on the role of public education in civic engagement, this blurry vision of how schools would go about developing democratic ideals in children and youth was discussed, argued, dismissed, embraced and generally unpackaged.  Despite the different perspectives offered, the unifying thread that tied the perspectives together was that schools can and should be a place where students both learn about society and actively engage in transforming it.

Many of the panelists praised the benefits of having schools acknowledge the fact that they are not neutral institutions void of values or political positions.  They enact their values all of the time, in both implicit and explicit ways.  The learning opportunity lies in students being encouraged to analyze and constructively criticize this institution in which they spend countless hours of their formative years.  Dr. Jennifer Astuto highlighted the fact that learning democratic principles that both encourage engagement, cognitive and social development can begin in the earliest years of schooling.  Schools need to re-dedicate time for both structured and open play, where students learn to pretend, imagine and work together to build meaningful situations through which they can develop perspective-taking and problem-solving skills.  An audience member somewhat echoed this point and also lamented the decidedly un-democratic nature of our current school system, where students are lectured at and policed instead of being given equal opportunity to shape the rules and policies that are used to control and manage them and their peers.

Another discussion of interest centered on highlighting the importance of civic engagement and activism in all topic areas in education.  Dr. Roderick Watts discussed the very real possibility of infusing everything from math and science to history with opportunities for students to be given tools for critiquing the neighborhoods in which they live.  He gave the example of math students contrasting the number of pots holes lining the streets of their own neighborhood versus the adjacent neighborhood, which happened to have a higher concentration of wealth.  The students then graphed the number of pot holes in these two neighborhoods and had the chance to decide for themselves whether or not this was a matter of (in)justice or if there was another explanation for this phenomenon.  All of the panelists supported the notion that principles of civic engagement should span the entire school day and not be concentrated to one semester or one class period of study.

As the panel began to draw to a close, the audience murmured with a sense of excitement (and even anger) about the meaning of schooling in America.  Dr. Deborah Vietze (Professor of Psychology at the Graduate Center) noted that schools were supposed to be the great equalizer in American society – and clearly this leveling project has not achieved its goal.  If that is the case, then the need for students to be given tools to engage in society should be employed in full force.  However, it cannot simply end with students engaging in society, as noted by Dr. Anna Stetsenko (Professor of Psychology at the Graduate Center), but we must look at the ways in which youth work to transform society.  We have the opportunity to provide them with the skills to be able to critically analyze how that transformative process should occur.

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