Educating for Democracy | MIT Center for Civic Media

Educating for Democracy

Despite spending the last few years of my work in conversations around creative community engagement and participatory projects, the idea of “civic education” still conjured images of my high school government teacher, a white-haired man with a love of golf who teased me for being the lone liberal in a sea of farmers more than he taught me about government. It was a surprise then when my colleagues at the Harvard Ed. School (HGSE) pushed me toward civic education conversations like those convened by the Civic and Moral Education Initiative; it was an even bigger surprise when I began to find resonances in the new civics dialogue unfolding at HGSE and the conversations I’ve entered through the Introduction to Civic Media course.

Drawing from practices of civic engagement, critical pedagogy, civil discourse and service learning, civic education seeks to strengthen democracy. Helen Haste, HGSE faculty and co-convener of the Civic and Moral Education Initiative, identifies the goal of democracy as “providing the conditions for humans to flourish.” In her introductory course to civic education, she poses the pivotal question “What ethical systems provide the best criteria for human flourishing?”

While no single ethical system can be the “right” one, scholars and educators articulating, practicing and studying Civic Education today:

I. Start from the premise that democracy is necessarily deliberative
II. Articulate distinct concepts of citizenship behind goals of civic education
III. Analyze different forms of patriotism which inform trends in the U.S. education landscape today

I. Democracy and dialogue

Civil discourse is essential to democracy and a core element of civic education approaches. In his introduction to a study of John Dewey’s Democracy and Education, David Hansen explains Dewey’s assertion that for democracy to succeed inquiry is not merely an option for a select few of society, but rather is an obligation for all. In this way, education is necessary for democracy, which Dewey conceptualizes as an “associated mode of communicative living.” This notion of communicative living offers an excellent image for dialogic practices and civil discourse in education. Addressing questions of democracy and the public sphere roughly half a century after Dewey published Education and Democracy, Jürgen Habermas argued that “democracy requires communicative competence, the ability to deliberate by taking account of all perspectives on an issue with recognized intersubjectivity” (Haste, class lecture slides, February 2, 2016). The role of civil discourse is regarded as important by scholars throughout the civic education conversation, whether that takes the shape of mock debates in government class or engaging local community members in dialogue through service learning.

II. Kinds of Citizenship

In What Kind of Citizen, Joel Westheimer and Joseph Kahne ask what kind of citizen is needed to support effective democracy. Drawing on democratic theory and their findings from a two-year study of U.S. education programs that promote democracy, they develop three conceptions of the ‘good’ citizen: personally responsible, participatory, and justice oriented. While personal responsibility is a value that is held widely and often taken for granted as a definition of citizenship, the authors make the case that “There is nothing inherently democratic about personally responsible citizenship, and specifically undemocratic practices are sometimes associated with programs that rely exclusively on notions of personal responsibility.”(Westheimer & Kahne, 2004, p. 248)

The conflation of this ideologically conservative conception of citizenship with the broad notion of civic education is pernicious to the role education must play in strengthening democracy today. However, notions of citizenship as personally responsible in combination with the participatory and/or justice oriented approaches are essential to reclaiming the narrative of civic education as one that promotes participation and strengthens democracy. Such frameworks of citizenship necessarily employ civic discourse, critical thought, participation in civic life and the pursuit of justice.

III. Forms of Patriotism

In Once Upon A Time when Patriotism Was What You Did, Gloria Ladson-Billings looks at the dissonance between patriotic rhetoric during George W. Bush’s second term and the reality of grave inequality brought to light by hurricane Katrina. The slow response of federal aid and the racialized poverty exposed in the disaster “stripped away the veneer of equity and justice in which American society regularly cloaks itself” (Ladson-Billings, 2007, p. 19). Ladson-Billings explains her own contested relationship to the idea of patriotism as an African American who grew up in the 1950’s and 1960’s with the simple and potent notion that “It is hard to remain patriotic when confronted with a government that cannot be counted on in the face of a disaster”(Ladson-Billings, 2007, p. 19). The premise she drives home through the discourses of patriotism, democracy, and inequality that shroud the disaster of hurricane Katrina is that “patriotism is not what you say, it’s what you do.”

Ladson-Billing’s challenge of a narrow patriotism is visible in the rise of what Westheimer identifies as an “authoritarian patriotism” (Westheimer, 2007, p. 173) as a phenomenon that grew markedly in the aftermath of September 11th. Westheimer’s work traces educational policies, like mandates to create time in the school day for reciting the pledge of allegiance or social studies curriculum guidelines which assert the superiority of the U.S. form of government, to portray the role of authoritarian patriotism institutionalized in the education sphere today. Westheimer draws attention to the danger in allowing a narrow patriotism to replace dissent in political discourse and charts out how democratic patriotism employs dissent and critical awareness to ultimately reinforce “American principles of equality, justice, tolerance, and civil liberties, especially during national times of crisis.” (Westheimer, 2007, p. 174)

Takeaways and Challenges

Participatory and justice oriented frameworks of citizenship are essential to reclaiming the role education plays in democracy from the narrow authoritarian version of patriotism that threatens our public sphere today. The limited, if valuable, concept of citizenship as mere personal responsibility to obey the law and be a good neighbor is not inherently conducive to democracy. In fact, such a concept of citizenship would be equally desirable under a totalitarian regime. Participatory and justice-oriented approaches must go hand in hand with the personal responsibility notion of citizenship in civic education spaces.

Additionally, it’s worth noting the overlap between participatory and justice oriented civic education spaces and transformative media campaigns. The Out for Change report details the findings of a national participatory action research project involving diverse groups working with media to advocate LGBTQ issues. Two of the report’s key findings that transformative media campaigns are participatory and transformative align closely with the goals of civic education. It is no surprise then that education scholars have noted shared practices between Youth Participatory Action Research and civic education. The overlapping areas of youth activism, critical pedagogy, transformative work and participatory practices offers insight that should contribute to the civic media discourse.


Hansen, D. T. (2006). John Dewey and our educational prospect: A critical engagement with Dewey's Democracy and education. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Ladson-Billings, G.(2007). Once Upon A Time when Patriotism Was What You Did. In Westheimer, J. Pledging allegiance: The politics of patriotism in America's schools. New York: Teachers College Press.

The MIT Center for Civic Media, RAD, SAS, QUIP, INCITE!, GSANetwork, Freedom, Inc., Esperanza, and Black & Pink (February 2015). Out for Change: Towards Transformative Media Organizing. LGBTQ and Two-Spirit media work in the United States. Retrieved from

Westheimer, J., & Kahne, J. (2004). What Kind of Citizen? The Politics of Educating for Democracy. American Educational Research Journal,41(2), 237-269. doi:10.3102/00028312041002237