Cultivating Habits in Schools

Habits are acquired in many different types of social settings, but their cultivation is often most overt in schools, where children watch, imitate, and interact with others as they learn about socially acceptable behaviors and societal traditions, through both direct teaching and the hidden curriculum. It is also under the guidance of teachers and through oversight of the inquiry process that children can best learn to use the relationship between thought and habit to improve themselves and their practice of democracy. Indeed, public schools provide an important linkage between home and society; they offer a space where a child can develop the habits of publicness that support democratic life and enable us to fulfill our role responsibilities as citizens.32

As noted earlier, Dewey pointed out that we have often assumed democracy will simply continue, perpetuated by far-off politicians and large government bureaucracy. We don’t think of it as something that involves us or our daily lives. To keep democracy and the schools that prepare for it healthy, we have to transform this way of thinking. We cannot passively assume that others will lead the way in making democracy work, nor can we ignore the fact that the implications of growing neoliberalism may be deleterious to democracy and schools. We have to see that democracy’s maintenance and improvement depend upon our active participation in building social knowledge, solving problems, supporting schools, and crafting a public good. And we have to recognize that quality education will not thrive without our own efforts.

We must recognize the need for a formative culture that supports the development of democratic habits through experiences and intelligent reflection on those experiences by its citizens.33 This should be a culture that extends well beyond school walls, a culture that is affirmed and evident in larger civil society. This intentional formative culture in schools should not only support the development of those habits, but also respond to them as they are created, paying attention to the interests, actions, and expressions of its young citizens.

For Dewey, experience is all-encompassing, involving the entire individual— mind, body, reason, thoughts, habits, and emotions—as well as the environment. Good experience “arouses curiosity, strengthens initiative, and sets up desires and purposes that are sufficiently intense to carry a person over dead places in the future"34 Good experiences lead to growth and provide continuity, while bad or uneducative experiences prevent growth, stifle interest in the world, produce bad attitudes, or fail to complement the individual’s changing world. The concept of growth illustrates how experiences can develop our physical, intellectual, and moral capacities, actualizing these capacities and helping them to inform one another so that they continue in a chain (though not necessarily linearly). The movement invoked by experience compounds upon itself, and is expressed as growth.

Dewey’s views on experience and growth have been criticized for not having a defined end goal and for being aligned with a politically Left agenda that sometimes operates paternalistically. In response to those criticisms, I side with pragmatist philosopher James Scott Johnston. He demonstrates the connection between habits, experience, growth, inquiry, and democracy, thereby providing criteria for growth while also allowing for openness and self-direction.35 Moreover, Johnston rightly argues that developing habits of inquiry is precisely the type of education (and, in my case here, citizenship education) that works against indoctrination or the imposition of a particular political agenda, given that inquiry, the inclination to ask questions, and a critical outlook make all views fodder for consideration. Johnston explains:

Dewey opposed any sort of education that would result in passivity, indoctrination, and dogma. These are foreclosed by Dewey’s insistence that education equals growth, and that growth ex hypothesi cannot be yoked to any fixed agenda or belief. It will do to highlight again the role that education plays in fostering growth. In so doing, the stage is set for the further argument that it is (in part) inquiry that is being developed in growth, and that education, inasmuch as it implies growth, equally implies inquiry. Further, as inquiry is social, the education of the child as an individual and a social being implies equally the development of inquiry. Developing inquiry is the development of the individual such that she can participate fruitfully as a democratic being in a democratic community. Education thus becomes a necessary constituent of growth, community, and democracy, by fostering the habits of inquiry, which (again) fosters the movement of growth to community, to democracy, and back again.36

We cultivate habits by providing environments and experiences that are conducive to their use and success. For Dewey,

The development within the young of the attitudes and dispositions necessary to the continuous and progressive life of a society cannot take place by direct conveyance of beliefs, emotions, and knowledge. It takes place through the intermediary of the environment ... It is truly educative in its effect in the degree in which an individual shares or participates in some conjoint activity. By doing his share in the associated activity, the individual appropriates the purpose which actuates it, becomes familiar with its methods and subject matters, acquires needed skill, and is saturated with its emotional spirit.37

Developing habits of democracy, then, would likely necessitate immersing individuals in practices of shared living where those habits serve their needs well. Often, this process is bolstered by the guidance of teachers and other leaders who help individuals to participate in inquiry about their world and to reflect on the role of their habits.

While the experiences that nurture and sustain democracy extend well beyond schools, I want to focus on schools explicitly. Schools provide an environment and social institution that help children acquire habits, and also offer spaces where intelligent inquiry about cultural norms and ways of life can shape and improve habits. They provide a space where teachers and students can work together to question, critique, and change norms, even as many are adopted. Schools can respond to the customs of a democratic society and incorporate those customs into their practices, even improving them in some cases. As they shape the habits of future generations, they shape future customs. Schools can provide a space that sustains public life by teaching how to be part of it, even as its contexts and approaches change.38 I turn in my final chapter to detailing specific habits of democracy teachable in schools that can help us achieve a richer form of democratic life and fulfill our role responsibilities as citizens.

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