Monday, August 16, 2010



Fighting to Restore a Sense of Civic Duty in School Kids

Nancy Gannon is not an ideologue, an America hater, or an activist determined to recruit revolutionaries to her cause. She's just a high school principal.

She's a principal in one of the toughest places to be a principal: the New York City public school system. Yet, despite the enormous challenges of educating children in a city where only slightly more than half of all ninth graders graduate high school, Nancy's mission goes beyond securing as many diplomas as possible. She told me she wants to help prepare citizens who are equipped with "voice, power, and responsibility."

This is probably why the very first schoolwide activity Gannon oversaw as principal at the School for Democracy and Leadership was the registering of eligible students to vote, instilling in them the value of this most fundamental responsibility of American citizenship.

The Crown Heights-based school was motivated by "change" even before it became the motif of the 2008 presidential campaign. Although the focus of the teachers and staff at SDL is to prepare their students for college, they are also, in Gannon's words, "incredibly steeped in activism. We encourage the students to pick something in the world or the community they want to change and then act on it together."

Like the children of Hampton, Virginia, participating in Project Citizen as part of their civics curriculum, the students of SDL are encouraged to put their citizenship into action on a local level. They are required to complete a "change project" of their own choosing each year. These change projects have included writing a proposal for a school library where there was none, working with junior high school students on a project to teach safe-sex education, and building more community through joint poetry readings among the schools that share SDL's campus.


So I've written at great length about what's wrong with the American model for public education--in short, our system serves, in reality, to indoctrinate children into a culture of authority and obedience, rather than training our youth for participation in American democracy. But I've written very little about what ought to replace it. By and large, that's because I'm not a pedagogist. That is, I don't think I have to have a perfect solution to all our educational woes when there are thousands of experts out there who only need to be pointed in the right direction in order to flesh out a workable system for the creation of good small "d" democrats. And there are, in fact, a few pedagogists out there who are already deep into experimental phases for putting together such a system.

The School for Democracy and Leadership in New York appears to be one such experiment, and from what I've read, it looks to be successful across the board, in terms of graduation rates, college attendance, civic engagement, and critical thinking. Go check out the essay, and pay specific attention to the lame right-wing criticisms aimed at SDL. When you get into a real discussion of American schooling as it is currently philosophically constructed, it's hard not to ask, "Why are we doing it this way?"