AVOIDING SPECIFIC EXPECTATIONS AND COERCION

While we all bear the responsibility to support public schools, not all citizens must do the same things in order to fulfill these citizen responsibilities. Citizen engagement can happen at different levels or institutions, from the classroom to the courtroom. Variations of activity may result naturally from the various talents and interests of individuals, as well as out of different notions of citizenship.23 For example, deliberative democrats might work to establish spaces for deliberation and debate within schools, while liberal democrats might address the curriculum to ensure that it introduces multiple visions of the good life. Notably, some citizens might argue that they are invoking their role responsibilities by pressing for accountability. Indeed, this may be the case, as long as their vision of accountability is one balanced with responsibility and guided by legitimate criteria for the public good in a liberal democracy. In the words of philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, “It is easier to give examples of citizens who fail to live up to the norms of participation than to say in general what degree of participation is required. This is in part because there are so many different ways of participating in the life of the republic as citizens"24 This is not to allow room for evading responsibilities, but rather, in a democratic spirit, to offer more than one interpretation of how one fulfills responsibilities, while still recognizing that there are norms guiding good citizen participation.

Philosopher Ronald Dworkin carefully distinguishes the government encouraging responsibility from the government coercing conformity with what most people believe counts as responsible actions.25 Dworkin recognizes the inevitable influences of friends, civil society, and even government that may permissibly shape our decisions on responsible actions, while he warns against government going so far as to subordinate individual decisions by manipulating them into conforming with the vision of responsibility the government upholds. While I am not speaking from the perspective of government, but rather of publics largely acting in civil society, I nonetheless acknowledge this important distinction regarding coercion. I aim to lay out in these pages defensible options of responsible action and the habits that enable them, but I recognize that this list is not all-inclusive and should not be narrowly upheld as a checklist for the only ways to perform good, responsible acts. Rather, we should decide for ourselves, guided by the experiences and norms of good democratic living. And when we deem certain habits worthy of being taught to enable responsible actions in growing citizens, they must be taught alongside skills of critique and dissent that provide students the tools necessary to avoid being unduly coerced.26

It is also important to acknowledge real and perceived barriers to fulfilling one’s responsibilities, for there is a long history of unequal public engagement among different demographics of citizens that has been shaped by everything from intimidation by school authorities to work schedules that conflict with school activities.27 Notably,

Urban residents of color have always lacked the social power to effectively participate within the democratic process and build a justifiable education system. As a result, urban residents have consistently maintained a complex, yet distrustful, relationship with public schools: they understand the importance of state-run schools, but doubt larger civil society’s willingness to open up public deliberation, challenge capitalism and racism, and allow urban residents to contribute to a process of redesigning state-run schools.28

Though these challenges are quite significant and bear the weight of the past, we must first acknowledge and then attend to them using creativity, technology, and other means as we craft new ways of inclusively engaging in democracy in our schools. But we must also recognize the reality that citizens also face many demands on their time and attention, making frequent or sustained participation difficult even in the most accommodating and inviting of circumstances.

Additionally, the culture of accountability, which, I noted earlier, has forsaken political relationships for economic ones, may create a distance between each of us and distance between us and the state. This distance may inhibit us from acting or from feeling compelled to act. This is a difficult situation to overcome. It will require much explicit effort on the part of citizens and publics to raise consciousness about the potential problems of relinquishing support for public schools, and to foreground our efforts toward and their benefits for democracy so that others might see and be persuaded by them.29

In part, what is lost behind the focus on accountability couched within the larger rhetoric of educational crisis in America today is the corresponding role responsibility of citizens, whose individual and collective positions are seldom discussed as part of the crisis in our schools. Further overlooked is the diffusion of responsibility and the bystander effect.30 These occur when many people are collectively responsible for something (like public schools), thereby the responsibility of any given individual is diffused, or when the presence of a large number of others leads us to believe that someone else will take action when necessary, and so we do not need to. When we bear a role responsibility, however, we have both an individual and a collective obligation that should not be ignored, shirked, or risk being diffused. We have a forward-directed commitment to act to ensure the well-being of our fellow citizens and of public schools as a central institution of democracy. In light of the circumstances of accountability and the changing dynamics of citizenship and schooling I described earlier in this book, the current need to attend to our responsibilities is great.

 
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