Deliberation

Schools provide one of the few institutions where students can engage in extended discussions about important social issues and can be guided through the process of reaching decisions and implementing them. While we know that such deliberations are key to good democratic life, social studies classrooms, where such deliberation is most likely to occur, face increasing cuts in daily school time as emphasis is shifted to other tested subject areas.32 And even in the time that does remain, only about half of social studies teachers report regularly practicing skills of civil deliberation, and only a third report providing opportunities to reach decisions in small groups.33 Teaching deliberation is at risk in our schools, even though conditions may be ripe for doing so. While many stereotypes of youth portray them as uncaring and disconnected, research actually shows that many of them enjoy prolonged conversations about complex topics with social implications.34 Whereas many competing political groups tend to shout hard-and-fast propositions at one another, youth actually desire deliberation across differences.

Philosopher of education Harry Brighouse describes the habit of deliberation as a “disposition to engage in political participation in a spirit of respect and a willingness to engage in public reasoning"35 This respect entails concern for the rights and well-being of minorities, listening to others carefully, and engaging with others in largely civil ways.36 This public reasoning moves beyond merely asserting preferences through depositions or voting, to grappling with public problems—naming them, seeking multiple perspectives on them, considering their implications, and debating how best to address them. Philosopher NoThe McAfee explains, “Instead of seeing politics as bargaining about preferences, people see it as a difficult matter of deciding what kinds of communities they are making for themselves. Instead of merely preferring, deliberators choose3 Whereas some contemporary theorists inspired by Dewey’s work celebrate the choosing within deliberative democracy as a rule- guided way of reason-based communicating (especially those aligned with Jurgen Habermas), the habit of deliberation I am describing here is more akin to a spirit of deliberation than it is the laying out of a precise map for how to communicate, make decisions, and act upon them.

The habit of deliberation, then, reflects an inclination toward figuring out problems alongside others through dialogue. It propels citizens to seek input from others, especially people different from themselves, and to truly listen to them. However, Green again warns of

American culture’s tendency to substitute dismissal, ridicule, and even shouting down others’ ideas for democratic dialogue of the kind that would actually allow people to listen to and learn from one another. Our culture fosters these shared bad habits through political talk shows that too often turn into shouting matches, political ‘debates’ in which participants merely repeat ‘sound bites’ and insult one another instead of proposing serious public policies, real-life events and reality-based dramas in which firms and families rely on the courts and adversarial attorneys to resolve their differences instead of talking with one another, and a pervasive popular culture motif in music, television, and movies of treating a willingness to resort to physical violence as the meaning of strength and personal resolve.38

Additionally, many Americans choose to wall themselves off from those they perceive to be different from or a threat to themselves by withdrawing to rural retreats, living in gated suburban communities, confining themselves to locked urban apartments, or seeking ideological alignment in their virtual communities. They shy away from discussion and exchange with others, especially those who may hold different worldviews. These cultural conditions pose a sizeable challenge.

Listening, a habit which is integral to deliberation, must not be too selective. Rather, citizens must seek out and overtly welcome and include a wide array of perspectives on issues in a proactive and future-directed way—as a sort of responsibility to be informed oneself and to give due diligence to the views of others. The word “democracy” itself stems from this richer understanding of listening and deliberation, for it is the inclusion of everyone (demos) in the running of society (kratein).39 Achieving a healthy democracy requires openness toward different ideas—ideas that may change the way we live and think. Dewey adds, “To cooperate by giving differences a chance to show themselves because of the belief that the expression of difference is not only a right of the other persons but is a means of enriching one’s own life-experience, is inherent in the democratic personal way of life”40

Habits of deliberation, then, include an inclination to seek out alternative ideas and to try to envision the world from new perspectives, especially as one creates or engages publics around shared problems. Civic Studies leader Peter Levine reminds us that “the formation of identities, motivations, goals, and communities are aspects of politics; thus, talking and listening are politically important"41 We must take talking and listening, and the deliberation they contribute to, seriously in the development of good citizens. This is especially important insofar as talking and listening will shape how those future citizens will later fulfill their role responsibilities by deliberating over the purposes and assessments of public schools.

Additionally, Pappas further defines the open-mindedness underlying the habit of deliberation I am depicting: “Given the variety of forms openmindedness takes, and since it is not merely an intellectual trait, it is more appropriate to describe this virtue in terms of a general attitude, one Dewey describes as an attitude of hospitality toward the new. To be open is to be free from rigidity and fixity, but ‘it is something more active and positive than these words suggest. It is very different than empty-mindedness’ (LW 8:136). It is a receptivity and plasticity that comes from an active accessibility, from ‘alert curiosity and spontaneous outreaching for the new’ (LW 8:i36)"42 When we are open to new people, ideas, and experiences, we open ourselves to new ways of being, including reworking our own habits and reimagining ways of associated life with others.

In light ofthe present climate ofself-interestedness that is reshaping American schools and their purposes, the call to deliberation is especially important now. A noted champion of such deliberation, Amy Gutmann, explains, “The willingness to deliberate about mutually binding matters distinguishes democratic citizens from self-interested citizens, who argue merely to advance their own interests, and deferential citizens, who turn themselves into passive subjects by failing to argue, out of deference to political authority. Justice is far more likely to be served by democratic citizens who reason together in search of mutually justifiable decisions than it is by people who are uninterested in politics or interested in it only for the sake of power"43 The habit of using deliberation and its related habits of respectful listening, information seeking, and consensus building are central to developing active citizens who are public minded and who wish to sustain publicness within schools.

Deliberation is a hallmark of many of my recommended approaches to citizen responsibility toward public schools I outlined in chapter six and it can be engaged in schools in many ways, from formal study circles and citizen forums to more grassroots movements and organic discussions. Deliberation transforms conflicts, leads to action, and improves decision making in schools.44 Examples of deliberations working in these ways in schools have been chronicled by researchers.45 Deliberation not only forms publics for and within our schools, but also enables them to reach a consensus on important issues and craft the solutions necessary to address the shared concerns that help publics mature and strengthen. These more mature publics, then, can more clearly express their political will regarding the purposes and criteria for accountability that they hold for the schools, thereby achieving more legitimacy in school practices from the perspective of deliberation participants.

Studies of urban, minority-populated schools reveal some alarming patterns when it comes to communication and deliberation. Children are sometimes discouraged from talking about social issues, or even interacting with one another, often out of fear that fights or misbehavior may result, or out of a belief that such interaction would detract from tested subjects and individual students’ abilities to do well on mandated tests.46 In her study of such schools, Carole Hahn found that

three middle school teachers in different urban schools with largely African American populations commented that it was difficult to teach about democracy and speaking one’s opinion when the atmosphere of the school worked against that. They said that although they encourage their students to speak out, many of their colleagues told students to be quiet, listen, and take notes or work on assignments at their seats. Furthermore, the students had to be quiet in the halls and the lunchroom, where a “quiet lunch” policy was enforced. A teacher in another part of the country also expressed concern that when she taught in one urban school, “there was no sense of responsibility put on the kids other than to be in class and to be on time. What the administrators in our building were most concerned about was order, and the last thing they wanted was for kids to speak out on issues.”47

School practices like these may prevent their graduates from becoming active participants in democracy by failing to cultivate habits of deliberation, public reasoning for one’s views, and the ability to work well with others. Moreover, students do not have opportunities to learn how to listen well to their peers when they are not permitted to speak in the first place.

Under such conditions, it is more important than ever that teachers provide experiences that allow for the expression of student voice, demonstrate for students how to carefully listen to one another, and highlight the benefits gained from doing so. These might include facilitating group activities that cannot be successfully completed without the participation of all members or without carefully gathering information from people outside the group. These activities should not reflect ideal or naive deliberations, but rather should engage with the messy conditions of living, seeking out and providing space for protest and contestation of dominant views.48

Additionally, teachers might require students to reach a consensus on how best to handle a real social problem in the school, providing children the opportunity to influence policy or practice in the school and modeling how to do so through the gathering of ideas, the use of persuasive public reasoning, and the choosing of courses of action together. Finally, teachers should engage students in dialogue and in metacognitive discussions about how the dialogues work, highlighting fruitful exchanges, as well as moments of silencing or ignoring the input of certain students. The organization Deliberating in a Democracy (in the Americas) offers helpful tips, deliberation techniques, and lessons for teachers to use to craft high-quality deliberations in their classrooms.

 
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