Social Education 57(1) pps. 23-26
©1993 National Council for the Social Studies

Discovering a Democratic Tradition and Educating for Public Politics

Lynden J. Leppard
The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference are exercised only in making a choice. He [sic] who does anything because it is the custom makes no choice. He gains no practice either in discerning or in desiring what is best. The mental and moral, like the muscular, powers are improved only by being used.
-John Stuart Mill

A Common Cause, a Common Problem
Social studies teachers believe that teaching about democracy, politics, and citizenship is important. Students must know about the depth and spirit of political philosophy and human endeavor that have generated today's society and cultures.

The community expects teachers to prepare students to be rational decision makers, active citizens, productive participants in the economy, and caring and responsible partners and parents. Social studies teachers accept their share of this responsibility and school communities invariably support and define their aims according to vision statements articulated by and through a variety of plans and programs.

No vision statement or school plan lacks mention of the roles and responsibilities of individuals in a democratic society. Learning objectives at all levels of schooling include the rights and responsibilities of citizens. Teaching and learning about democracy, work, and relationships are a commonly held priority for all individuals and groups responsible for curriculum development and delivery.

Generally, these aspirations have resulted in the teaching of particular kinds of knowledge about democracy. Most commonly, syllabi and courses about government and politics focus on the history and machinery of representative government. Descriptive definitions of politics as the behavior of elected officials, interest groups, and bureaucracy provide the foundations for most democracy curricula. This content, although important, is an insufficient part of what is vital and relevant about democracy, politics, and the role of citizens.

Growing general dissatisfaction with the way politics works, represented in part by popular statements of alienation and frustration by citizens who feel excluded from politics, is providing stimulus for deliberation about a new way of defining and doing politics.

A New (or Is It New?) Way Ahead
This "new" way is not new in the sense that it was recently invented. Rather, the climate of dissatisfaction with current politics has meant the reemergence of appreciation for traditional and significant ways in which people engage in politics.

This new-old way of doing politics is the typical turning of a wheel as we look elsewhere for better ways of doing things-another example of basing forward movement on old truths. It will not, and should not, replace what we teach about politics now, but the politics of public choices adds vital and vitalizing elements to the nature of democracy in the late twentieth century. The politics described here speaks directly to the alienated and the frustrated. It offers to individuals tools of practical use designed around a traditional political wisdom largely forgotten or ignored in contemporary politics.

This body of old-new knowledge, concepts, and skills fills a gap in our curriculum-a gap keenly sensed by those who feel politically powerless and disenfranchised.

The philosophical position presented here is not only relevant to the practical needs of today's citizens, it is firmly based on mainstream views and practices winding back through Thomas Jefferson and John Stuart Mill to Pericles. It is a legitimate, missing body of knowledge whose time has come again.

Politics As Usual; How We See Politics
People generally see politics as the business of elected officials and the special interest groups who work with them. Politics has become the people and events reported in the media. As spectators, we observe, with varying degrees of interest, the negotiations and lobbying of powerful organizations and the public work of parliaments and councils. The lives of politicians often become entertainment, and the "infotainment" of debate is included in personal working definitions of politics.

Citizens find meaningful and satisfying involvement in politics difficult. Individuals can form or join interest groups or political parties, but many are not satisfied with the either-or solutions offered by these organizations' debates. People know that the significant problems we all face cannot be owned, defined, and solved by any narrow ideological interpretation of those problems.

Voting in elections and recording an either-or preference in opinion polls leave little opportunity for citizens to have a substantial say in deciding purposes, directions, and priorities. That does not mean that politics as usual does not value community support: it certainly places a premium on a particular type of citizen involvement. Leaders try to gain that support by educating the public on the merits of predetermined solutions or programs. They try to sell the public on a sound solution by pointing out how many experts have supported it and explaining the professional nature of the institutions that are charged with implementing the solution. Unfortunately, what the public often hears is "Let George do it!" Officials, professionals, and experts can do the job. The unintended consequence can be that citizens come to believe that they are not needed at all, that they are not competent to assist, or that financial support can substitute for any involvement they should have. This sort of politics is valued by some people-they feel connected to it and benefit from it.

A few months after a state election, for example, a business consortium proposed a new city development that would replace some old and significant buildings with modern structures. The government, keen on promoting new jobs early in its term, supported the proposal by expediting the application. Many city residents opposed what they felt was a short-sighted action that conflicted with the growing tourism potential of the city's old buildings. The representative of the venture argued on radio that, because the people had just elected the government they should "stay out of it now," "stop interfering in the legitimate role of government and let the elected representatives get on with it."

What Should Representative Democracy Look Like?
The scenario just described raises the issue of what representative democracy means and what people want politics to be. Some questions to consider:

These questions have particular relevance to teachers. The content they select and value and the teaching methodologies they use in classrooms strongly influence how students feel about politics and how they act politically. Modeling is an accepted and significant factor for teaching effectiveness. The health of the body politic will rely on the preventive medicine of teachers.

Public Politics: A Relevant Curriculum for Civic and Work Life
Much of the business of politics-as-usual is necessary and important. It is not wrong; it is just incomplete. Something is missing. The dominant definitions of politics are inadequate. Missing is the role the community-the public-must play in the politics of reform.

Our governments, schools, experts, professionals, and officials-even at their best-can never do certain things. Only the public can define the purposes of the community, choose the directions in which it should move, create common interests, build common ground for action, and generate the political will to act together.

Not surprisingly, people have strong negative reactions to the very word politics. People have come to know, through experience, a definition of politics that excludes them, and they do not see themselves, nor do they want to see themselves, as political.

Yet these same people may be deeply involved in political issues. They are political. They meet with their neighbors, for example, about zoning restrictions. And they take on responsibilities in their clubs.

Rather than change the perceptions and actions of the people who are involved in such political activity and who reject the business-as-usual definition of politics, the nature of public politics accepts their actions as a legitimate and effective action definition of politics, firmly grounded in a traditional and powerful philosophy.

The alienated and frustrated are not wrong. They express a negativity for which they might seek a positive answer. They are not the problem; their feelings and their political behaviors are the solution.

Politics does not begin with the election of officials and the passage of legislation. It begins with the choices that people make about the purposes and direction of their communities. Whether undertaken formally and consciously or informally, these policy choices shape the character of communities in a way nothing else does. Using the politics-as-usual approach to making choices, issues are framed according to positions. Issues are presented to the public with the arguments for in one column and the arguments against in the other. Facts are piled up in support of the various partisan arguments. The public knows all the facts about the issue-except what effect all of these expert solutions and legislative proposals will have on what is most valuable to them.

Politics Is Making Choices
Working to identify that which is most valuable is at the center of community and public politics. These choices are based on those deeper values that most people share. Social scientists call these "ultimate goals" or "terminal values." They include the value people place on family well-being, independence of choice, personal and national security, and equality of opportunity. People share deep motivations that are often revealed when people are asked to consider questions such as, What do I want most for our community? When people consider together this kind of question, they reveal a public agenda not captured even in the sum of all the positions of various groups of advocates.

Enriching the Curriculum with the Other U.S. Political Tradition
Recent national research by the Harwood Group (1991) shows that people in the United States absolutely refuse to give the name politics to the work they do with others to solve problems. Yet, citizen politics is very much politics. Politics is rooted in the word polis, which the ancient Greeks used for city. Politics has to do with those activities in a city necessary to ensuring a good common life.

This kind of politics, the sort that people participate in without calling it politics, has gained respectability in the origins of U.S. self-government. Long before we devised a representative republican system of national politics, we developed a way of governing ourselves. We had a country 150 years before we had the Constitution. We had a tradition of self-government somewhat different than the tradition of representative government that developed later. The story began in October 1633 in Dorchester, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. The people there needed to decide whether to protect the village green. There was no local government and the only formal gatherings happened in church. The people had to meet and talk about the problems. That incident created the first town meeting and that town meeting established a political tradition-a tradition of running the colony by town meetings or civic bodies politic. The decisions made at these meetings had no authority other than the power that came from the mutual promises people made to each other-in public-to work together.

Citizens and public bodies continued their influence throughout the revolutionary and constitutional eras. In time, the towns in Massachusetts and other colonies became a network for political action. This work became formal in 1772 when Samuel Adams established a committee of correspondence to create ties to other towns and explain the colonists' position to the world. This practice spread in fifteen months to all but two of the colonies; in this way, the tradition of town meetings grew stronger than ever.

The world is now more complicated and we need the sophisticated expertise of modern government and administration. One thing, however, has not changed-the fundamental belief that the people are the government, not the administrative day-by-day government, but certainly the government that makes the choices and decides the character of the nation. Only the public can create and define the public interest. Only the public can generate political will and only the public can transform private individuals into public citizens.

Thomas Jefferson's (1984) observation clarifies the responsibility and reality of citizenship when he describes a way of organizing town meetings:

The voice of the whole people would be thus fairly, fully, and peaceably expressed, discussed, and decided by the common reason of the society. If this avenue be shut to the call of sufferance, it will make itself heard through that of force, and we shall go or, as other nations are doing, in the endless circle of oppression, rebellion, reformation.

Teaching for the Common Reason of Society
Teachers know that common does not mean easily found, and most teachers hope their efforts will contribute to a reasoned and rational society. Students must learn to reason and make judgments. They must learn the difference between unfounded opinion and a justifiable judgment. Students, as citizens, must know that their personal views of the world must be tempered by an understanding of the broad public voice.

This vision is not easily achieved but there is real cause for optimism. A national study, Citizens and Politics: A View from Mainstreet America (Harwood Group 1991), found that the conventional view of people as generally apathetic and disinterested in the issues is wrong. U.S. citizens care about politics, but they feel impotent. They are angry about being excluded by big money and special interest groups. They want the media to treat politics differently, to describe contexts, and to assist them in understanding the underlying issues. Those feelings are real signs of hope for teachers who need community support to modify the curriculum and enrich their classroom processes.

The National Issues Forums in the Classroom and study circles have outlined the skills and understandings necessary for developing the common reason of society. They provide a classroom practicality for broad public action.

Social studies teachers will recognize most of the ingredients in these processes but the product has a unique flavor-imparted by new ways of understanding concepts and some special ways of mixing them.

Classroom Content and Skills of National Issues Forums in the Classroom and Study Circles
Content and skills are often the same thing in social studies; both happen at once. The ability to choose the appropriate tools to solve a problem, the skills of essay writing and debate, and the demonstration of tolerance and fair-mindedness are important parts of the curriculum. The processes of NIF and study circles encompass both the skills and part of the knowledge content of public politics. Politics is, after all, the way people live together.

Beliefs and philosophy are important but it is real actions and behaviors that represent day-to-day political reality. For example, the belief that freedom of speech is important would be worthless if people allowed widespread restrictions of political expression. Teachers who tell students that respect for the rights of others is vital in a democracy send an opposite and more powerful message if they refuse to listen to the point of view of a student in trouble. National Issues Forums in the Classroom offers the practical reality of democratic and participatory action in the classroom-actions that students can transfer to community and work life outside the classroom.

Content knowledge, however, is an important part of NIF in the Classroom. Not only is the rediscovered understanding of public politics an important body of knowledge, but the NIF issues books cover nationally significant issues. NIF in the Classroom is centered around an issue book that offers three or four choices for action on an issue identified across the nation as significant. Criminal Violence, Growing Up at Risk , and The Drug Crisis are a few of the issues books available. Study circles differ from forums in that they are not restricted to a single forum on the issue. Certain principles are common to both, however, and they each offer advantages to teachers.

Essential Characteristics of NIF in the Classroom
Making choices, hard choices, is the core of politics. Not making a choice is still an action; consequences will flow from the decision not to choose just as they will from a conscious choice.

We can base the choices we make about important issues on superficial personal opinions or on deliberate public judgments. It is the latter sort of choice work that NIF strives to foster; NIF in the Classroom models the value of working toward public judgments and identifying common ground for action.

To Make Choices We Need to Create Public Knowledge
Public knowledge is more than facts. Knowing many facts about any issue does not necessarily increase one's ability to identify the actual problem or one's capacity to identify choices for action. We cannot find facts plus knowledge in a textbook and no panel of experts can provide it. Rather, knowledge is discovered and created when people work together to understand the real issues and motivations beneath the surface of facts and events. Creating public knowledge and coming to public judgment requires three elements in addition to collecting strategic information:

Knowing connections and the whole. We must know about connections and interrelations. We must learn from one another about all components of an issue or a system. For example, in health care policy we must know what happens to doctors and hospitals and insurance companies and patients. We must know how the health care system works as an interdependent system.

  • Knowing others in order to know ourselves and where we are. We must learn from one another about all the components in an issue or a system. People see things differently and we must know what the facts mean to others who have perceptions and experiences different from our own. We cannot tell students about these connections. Recalling facts and the ability to state someone else's sense of a thing is not useful knowledge. Knowledge as understanding comes from rational deliberation, from engaging with others in a struggle to make sense of an idea. That intellectual struggle is a cycle of personal cognitive process expressed through conversation, reconsidered in the mind, and so on. The result is the development of one's own judgment and where it fits into the public will.

    NIF in the Classroom calls for going beyond seeing others as we see ourselves, as though we are all alike. In classroom discussions that mirror the adult community forums, the challenge is to appreciate how something would seem to other unique people without trying to become someone else. Participants see that a good choice of action depends not so much on how we see the issue, but on how the public sees the issue and where our view fits with that view.

    Our discretion is not fully informed until we have examined thoroughly the possible consequences of the options we are considering. Considering consequences means much more than collecting facts, and experts can do no more than inform our judgment with their subjective predictions. No one can tell the public what it values and what consequences it is prepared to support. What we are trying to comprehend, however, is not what we mean to each other psychologically or personally, but, rather, what is happening to us politically. We need to understand the nature of the problem facing us, how we can form a shared perspective, and how we can move to shared action.

    Deliberative, Choice-Making Classrooms
    These skills are not new to teachers, but familiarity with the ideas does not necessarily build deliberative classrooms. Deliberative classrooms model the choice work described above allowing students to engage in public and productive talk, like that described above, to transform shallow opinion into considered judgment. Such talk is real work. Talking is the action that creates fear or courage, prejudice or justice. Deliberative classrooms result in public judgment and common ground-essential features of a healthy civil society.

    Common ground is a shared frame of reference or sense of direction that grows out of shared realities and mutual comprehension. It is not found in facts and texts; it must be created. It is not total agreement but the recognition of actions we can all support.

    Social studies, as defined by National Council for the Social Studies, is a practical identification of this common ground. The definition adopted in July 1992 reads:

    Social studies is the integrated study of social sciences and humanities to promote civic competence.
    Within the school program, social studies provides coordinated, systematic study drawing upon such disciplines as anthropology, archeology, economics, geography, history, philosophy, political science, psychology, religion, and sociology, as well as appropriate content from the humanities, mathematics, and natural sciences. The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world. ("Definition" 1992)
    All classrooms can be examples of this notion of common ground. People must work together to solve problems. They may not have clear-cut choices available; people can see good and bad in each choice, including their favorite. The "majority rules" method of deciding action does not always work.

    Folks living together in a classroom will recognize the principles of NIF as some of what they do already. They may see what NIF represents as one way into an optimistic recognition that their actions design the future.

    "Definition and Mission Statement Will Be Presented to House of Delegates." The Social Studies Professional (September/ October 1992): 3.The Harwood Group. Citizens and Politics: A View from Main Street America. Dayton, Ohio: The Kettering Foundation, 1991._____. "Classrooms as Democracies." In National Issues Forums in the Classroom. Dayton, Ohio: The Kettering Foundation, 1991.Jefferson, Thomas. Writings. New York: Library of America, 1984.Leppard, Lynden J. "Assessment: A Window on Democracy." In National Issues Forums in the Classroom. Dayton, Ohio: The Kettering Foundation, 1992.Matthews, David. What Is Politics and Who Owns It? Dayton, Ohio: The Kettering Foundation, 1992.McAfee, Noelle, Robert McKenzie, David Matthews, and E. Peterson. Hard Choices. Dayton, Ohio: The Kettering Foundation, 1991.Paul, Richard. Critical Thinking: What Every Person Needs to Know in a Rapidly Changing World. Sonoma, Calif.: Sonoma State University Press, 1990.Yankelovich, Daniel. Coming to Public Judgment: Making Democracy Work in a Complex World. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1991.Lynden J. Leppard was a visiting Australian scholar at the Kettering Foundation during the summer of 1992. He has been a teacher of social studies and humanities and his current position is Principal Curriculum Officer for Social Education in the Tasmanian Department of Education and the Arts at 71 Letitia Street, North Hobart, Tasmania, Australia 7000.