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date: 23 February 2024

Democracy and Education in the United Statesfree

Democracy and Education in the United Statesfree

  • Kathy HyttenKathy HyttenUniversity of North Carolina at Greensboro


There is an integral and reciprocal relationship between democracy and education. Democracy is more than a political system or process, it is also a way of life that requires certain habits and dispositions of citizens, including the need to balance individual rights with commitments and responsibilities toward others. Currently, democracy is under threat, in part because of the shallow and reductive ways it has been taken up in practice. Understanding the historical relationship between democracy and education, particularly how democracy was positioned as part of the development of public schools, as well as current approaches to democratic schooling, can help to revitalize the democratic mission of education. Specifically, schools have an important civic role in cultivating in students the habits and dispositions of citizenship, including how to access information, determine the veracity of claims, think critically, research problems, ask questions, collaborate with others, communicate ideas, and act to improve the world. Curriculum, pedagogy, and organizational structures are unique in democratic schools. Developing an active, inquiry-based curriculum; using a problem-posing pedagogy; and organizing schools such that students develop habits of responsibility and social engagement provide our best hope for revitalizing democracy and ensuring that it is not simply an empty slogan but a rich, participatory, justice-oriented way of life.


  • Educational Politics and Policy
  • Educational Purposes and Ideals
  • Educational Theories and Philosophies
  • Education and Society

If we were to ask a typical citizen in the United States about the meaning of democracy, they would likely tell us that it is a political system that entails freedom, choice, and voting. They would have some familiarity with branches of the government, the electoral process, and the idea that citizens get to choose their leaders. They have probably learned that democracy is the best system in the world, especially in contrast to other possibilities, such as communism, socialism, totalitarianism, and oligarchy. They may point out how democratic societies allow individuals to do what they want, provide myriad consumer choices, and ensure opportunities for everyone who works hard to be successful, often implicitly conflating capitalism and democracy. Most likely, they take democracy for granted; it is simply the name for our way of life. Yet at the same time, the idea of democracy is fragile and contested and, from a global perspective, increasingly suspect. Democracy has been invoked to support a range of questionable practices, including invading foreign countries, declaring wars, exploiting the environment, and placing the needs of corporations above those of people. Democracy is called upon as the justification “for almost anything people want to do” (Beane & Apple, 2007, p. 6), leading many around the world to worry “that an appeal to democracy is a veiled attempt by those making the appeal to dominate, to manipulate, or in other ways to advance their own interests at others’ expense” (Ryder, 2007, para. 1). Ironically, the more democracy is called upon, the less we seem to agree on what it means, and the more empty an idea it becomes.

In this article, I offer a rich vision of democracy as a way of life and describe the role of education in supporting that vision. In contrast to a shallow view of democracy as merely a political process, I argue that democracy is an ethical ideal that must be deliberately fostered and nourished in order for it to survive. It is ever a work in progress, and the fundamental role of schools in democratic societies is to cultivate the habits, values, dispositions, and practices necessary to sustain a democratic way of life. Since the creation of public schools in the United States centuries ago, they have always served a civic mission, though the centrality of this mission has waxed and waned. In our current climate of high-stakes accountability, excessive international competition, and privatization of public goods, we have arguably lost sight of the crucial relationship between education and democracy. In order to revitalize the civic mission of public education, we must understand the meaning of democracy and the role of schools in teaching, modeling, and sustaining a democratic way of life.

I begin this article by defining democracy as a way of life that requires certain habits and dispositions of citizens, including the need to balance individual rights with commitments and responsibilities toward others. I then discuss some of the current threats to democracy, including the ambiguity surrounding its meaning, and the reductive ways in which it is interpreted in practice. Third, I describe the historical relationship between education and democracy, exploring how this relationship has developed over time. I focus especially on the ideas of John Dewey, as he dedicated so much of his philosophical work to detailing the intimate and reciprocal connections between democracy and education. Fourth, I make an argument for the role democracy should play in our thinking about education contemporarily, describing the civic habits and dispositions that schools should cultivate if democracy is to hold any meaning. Fifth, I sketch some visions for democratic schooling that can help to revitalize and sustain a democratic way of life, arguing that a way of life as fragile and precarious as democracy can only survive when schools equip young people, as citizens in the making, with the skills, knowledge, and dispositions needed to nourish it. I describe approaches to curriculum, pedagogy, and school organization that can best cultivate democratic habits and behaviors. I close by suggesting that thinking deeply about the relationship between democracy and education is critical to bringing about a more just, fulfilling, and peaceful world.

What Is Democracy?

Describing the meaning of democracy is a more difficult task than it might initially seem. Most of us learn that democracy is a “form of political governance involving consent of the governed and equality of opportunity” and that it involves direct participation in some activities in our society, including electing representatives who will speak and work on our behalf in others (Beane & Apple, 2007, p. 7). We may also consider it a way of social and political organization, involving rules, laws, prohibitions, and rights, encapsulated in such documents at the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The word democracy comes from the Greek root demos, which means the population of a town or nation. Building on this root, Kohl (1992) writes that, “a democracy is a society in which the population rules, not royalty, not a small number of families, or the military” (p. 201). Yet exactly how the people rule, and who constitutes “the people,” are matters of ongoing debate. Historically, many people were excluded from democratic participation, including women, people from minority groups, slaves, and men who didn’t own land. Moreover, there are multiple ways in which people can be involved in governing themselves, from directly participating in deliberation and decision-making on a face-to-face level to voting for people whom they implicitly trust will make choices that are in their best interest. Held (2006) claims that the idea of democracy is contested and that key democratic ideas and ideals are sometimes ambiguous and inconsistent, including “the proper meaning of ‘political participation,’ the connotation of ‘representation,’ the scope of citizens’ capacities to choose freely among political alternatives, and the nature of membership in a democratic community” (p. x).

Describing the relationship between democracy and education is particularly challenging because there is only loose consensus on the meaning of democracy itself, and there are different forms of democracy in practice. Held (2006) identifies nine different (though often overlapping in important ways) models of democracy that have evolved over time: developmental republicanism, protective republicanism, protective democracy, developmental democracy, legal democracy, competitive elitist democracy, deliberative democracy, participatory democracy, and pluralism. Gabardi (2001) adds communitarian democracy and agonistic democracy to this list, while Biesta (2007) describes different ways of conceiving democratic subjectivity including individual, social, and political. Acknowledging the range of possibilities and practices, Dahl (2015) nonetheless argues that heart of democracy involves a belief in the political equality of citizens and that actualizing this belief requires, at a minimum, equal and effective opportunities for civic participation, voting equality, equal and effective opportunities to learn about a range of options and their potential consequences (what he calls “enlightened understanding”), citizen control of issues that get placed on the policymaking agenda, and inclusion of all adults as citizens in all matters that affect them.

Perhaps even more important than a political process, democracy is also a way of life, it is “both an ideal and an actuality” (Dahl, 2015, p. 26), marked by values and practices that are complex, contested, and varied. In his well-known and often-cited description of democracy, John Dewey (1916) writes that it “is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience” (p. 93), whose contours require regular discussion, assessment, and reinvention. Dewey goes on to suggest democracies are built upon the collaborative interdependence of people in a society who identify shared interests, work together to solve problems, and create ways of living together that bring out the best in everyone. We value democratic social arrangements because they offer us “the promise of freedom and self-determination in the context of shared commitment to the public good” (Gallagher, 2008, p. 340). Yet there are always tensions, challenges, and conflicts among values in democratic societies. Among the most significant of these tensions is how we balance a commitment to autonomy alongside at least some minimal obligations to other people. One of the hallmarks of democratic societies is that they work to maximize individual liberty and autonomy, protecting the ability of individuals to advance their own interests without imposing upon them a singular vision of a good life. Liberal democratic theorists are thus “preoccupied with the creation and defense of a world in which ‘free and equal’ individuals can flourish with minimum political impediments” (Held, 2006, p. 262). Alternatively, leftist, radical, and socialist-oriented democratic theorists worry about overly individualistic conceptions of democracy and defend the need for more collective orientations and intervention by states so as to ensure equality among citizens in reality, not just theory. The tension between liberty and equality never simply goes away; indeed, Mouffe (2009) claims this paradox is constitutive of democratic societies, it is “a tension that can never be overcome but only negotiated in different ways” (p. 5). Democratic educational theorists adopt a range of positions on the spectrum between liberal and leftist perspectives on the relationship between democracy and education, with many arguing that in our current era, and given existing threats to democracy, we need to reinvigorate our concern for common, not just individual, goods.

While understanding government systems and political processes is necessary for peaceful citizenship, the founders of democracy had grander ideals than simply creating laws for people to vote upon and follow. Rather, in the vein of Dewey, they believed that democracy was a way of life that involved values, principles, beliefs, and habits of being. Arguing from the more leftist perspective, Beane (2005) describes this way of life well. He maintains that democracy is ultimately an idea about how people can live together in ways that are equitable, just, enriching, and fulfilling. At the heart of democracy are two ideas: “that people have a fundamental right to human dignity and … that people have a responsibility to care about the common good and the dignity and welfare of others” (p. 9). The right to dignity requires the ability to access to information, think for oneself, decide how to live one’s life, be free from coercion, and pursue happiness. At the same time, as part of one’s responsibility toward others, we are compelled to care about common goods, work together to solve problems, participate in discussion, and improve our collective well-being. These ideas provide some “guidelines” and a moral compass for how people can “live and learn to work together democratically” (Beane, 2005, p. 120). Yet in popular understanding, we have typically decoupled rights from responsibilities and lost sight of the centrality of common goods and commitments to others as an integral part of democratic living. In its most crass and neoliberal forms, democracy has too often come to mean celebration of individual self-interest. That is, as long as I obey laws, pay taxes, vote periodically, and don’t intentionally harm others, I can do pretty much anything that I want.

To challenge reductive, narrow, and overly individualistic and neoliberal visions of democracy, it is useful to consider it as an ethical, social, and political ideal—a dynamic work in progress. Minimally, argues Gutmann (1999), democracy entails the principles of nondiscrimination and nonrepression. In its ideal from, democracy involves the cultivation of individual characteristics and habits of being, such as caring, compassion, generosity, fairness, respect, imagination, courage, kindness, and cooperation. Concurrently, it requires that citizens create communal systems and arrangements that support inquiry, problem solving, diversity, and ongoing efforts at social reform. It involves both dispositions toward others and everyday practices, like listening, questioning, participating, and experimenting. An open flow of ideas and equitable access to information are necessary in democratic societies, even when that information may be unpopular, as this openness is imperative if people are to make informed decisions about issues that affect their lives (Beane & Apple, 2007, p. 7). Democratic citizens value diversity and believe a range of ideas, worldviews, and perspectives is enriching and important. Indeed, the valuing of diversity and pluralism are central features of democratic societies, because in diversity there is strength. Moreover, they require that citizens actually at least minimally care about the welfare of others who are different from them and want to uncover social problems, work to solve these problems, and pursue peaceful means for navigating conflicts.

On the one hand, democracy is of course a political system, yet ideally, on the other hand, citizens come to view it as much more than that, seeing it more foundationally as a “creative, constructive process” that we need to nurture and protect, “a trek that citizens in a pluralistic society make together … a political path, a tradition of sorts, that unites them, not a culture, language, or religion” (Parker, 2003, p. 21). In our richest visions of democracy, democratic citizens would understand that voting is only a small part of their responsibilities and that democracy is always unfinished and thus needs our sustained attention; it is not a gift we have simply received from our ancestors. Neumann (2008) captures this expansive and rich vision of democracy well, maintaining that democratic citizenship “involves a disposition for social responsibility and civic engagement; it involves participation in groups concerned with advancing foundational principles of liberty, justice, and equality and with improving human welfare and the environment of the country and planet” (p. 332). That is, it requires critical thinking and the habit of working with others to deliberate on matters of social importance as well as “faith in the individual and collective capacity of people to create possibilities for resolving problems” (Beane & Apple, 2007, p. 7). While this vision of democracy as a way of life may never have been actualized widely, it is currently under significant threat, especially by shallow yet increasingly pervasive interpretations of democracy as nothing more than a system that protects and celebrates individual self-interests.

Democracy Under Threat

It is difficult to say whether democracy is more troubled now than any other time in our history. While some may argue that the deleterious impacts of neoliberal forms of globalization have led to a deeply problematic conflation of market freedom with democratic freedom and, in effect, have reduced our sense of democracy to little more than an empty slogan, there has been no time in our history when we have fully lived up to our democratic ideals. Moreover, different versions of democracy have always been in tension. Advocates of liberal, individualistic approaches to democracy have typically elevated individual freedoms and rights above common goods, arguing that these goods themselves are always contested and that the best way to protect individual liberty is through minimal state intervention. While we proclaim in the U.S. Declaration of Independence the equality of all “men” and their inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we have always excluded large groups of people from this supposed equality. It has taken the deliberate and sustained work of numerous civil rights activists to overturn slavery, extend voting privileges, and remove structural barriers to opportunity for historically marginalized peoples. And yet there is still much work to do to better achieve democracy in our times, especially given the growing gaps between the wealthy and poor around the world in terms of income, opportunity, health care, and overall quality of life. Indeed, advocates of more leftist visions of democracy suggest that we have lost sight of the fundamental commitment to equality that is part of democracy and maintain that states have an obligation to ensure not just “formal equality” among citizens “before the law, but also that citizens would have the actual capacity (and health, education, skills and resources) to take advantage of opportunities before them” (Held, 2006, p. 278). They worry that we have frequently forgotten that democracy takes ongoing effort and commitment. Addressing this concern, Barber (1993) asserts that “we have been nominally democratic for so long that we presume it is our natural condition rather than the product of persistent effort and tenacious responsibility” (p. 44). He adds that “democracy is anything but a ‘natural’ form of association. It is an extraordinary and rare contrivance of cultivated imagination” (p. 44). As such, we need to perpetually attend to the work that democracy entails, recognizing that citizenship is an action, not merely a static identity.

Dewey also recognized the tendency to assume the existence of democracy rather than to understand it as an ongoing effort. He was especially troubled by this laissez-faire understanding while the United States was at the same time justifying its involvement in world wars “with the virtually unassailable statement that our soldiers were fighting to ‘make the world safe for democracy’ ” (Beane & Apple, 2007, p. 5). Writing about the challenges he saw to our democratic way of life between the First and Second World Wars, Dewey (1938) called attention to our complacency and our habit of seeing democracy as simply a fact rather than a project that requires sustained focus. He lamented that citizens “had, without formulating it, a conception of democracy as something that is like an inheritance that can be bequeathed, a kind of lump sum that we could live off and upon” (pp. 298–299). Alternatively, he argued that each generation has to rework democracy in a fashion that is relevant for their times and that is responsive to contemporary challenges. Yet many people today still think of democracy in static ways, as a given, something that requires very little of citizens beyond voting and abiding by certain procedures. Goodlad, Mantle-Bromley, and Goodlad (2004) echo Dewey’s concern about stagnation, worrying that too many people simply “assume that the United States has a democratic system of governance” that was created “by the framers of the U.S. Constitution” and “that it is so thoroughly embedded in our collective psyche that it is invulnerable to external threats … and that all we have to do to maintain it is occasionally to vote” (p. 35). Compounding the belief that we have already fulfilled the promise of democracy in this country, the idea is also threatened by ambiguity surrounding its meaning, allowing it to be co-opted by those seeking to justify the global expansion of a way of life marked by self-interested, capitalist accumulation.

Absent sustained attention to the moral heart of democracy, namely commitment to individual freedom amid a concern for common goods, it often is reduced in public discourse and imagination to little more than a theory of individualism. We conflate capitalism and democracy, believing that an unregulated economic market is necessary and sufficient to secure democratic freedoms, which themselves are often reduced to consumer choices. Price (2011) argues that democracy is presented to us as system of governance that we ought to uncritically appreciate, one “that can only be built upon and sustained by free markets, private property, increased consumption and productivity, and the over-arching pursuit of profit” (p. 293). Yet unregulated capitalism under the guise of democratic globalization has led to the rapid concentration of wealth in the hands of an increasingly small portion of the population, as well as the pervasive assumption that economic growth inherently trickles down to the poor and improves their quality of life. There is little evidence that this is actually the case, and instead we have ever-growing gaps worldwide between the extremely wealthy and everyone else. One of the biggest challenges to democracy is the belief that our current approaches to globalization are actually democratic and that unregulated corporate behaviors can somehow protect the interests of citizens as opposed to simply shareholders.

Perhaps the biggest threat to democracy in our times is complacency. If we consider democracy as a given, we are unlikely to engage in the sustained efforts needed to bring it to fruition. Yet schools too often teach, both explicitly and implicitly, that democracy is merely the political system that we use to make decisions by in our country. We rarely discuss deeper visions for democracy or tensions and paradoxes within democracy or even reflect on the meaning of democracy at all. This allows those with more self-interested goals to assert, often persuasively, that their agendas are actually democratic. Apple and Beane (2007) capture this worry well when they argue that “rather than referring to ways in which political and institutional life are shaped by equitable, active, widespread, and fully informed participation, democracy is increasingly being defined as unregulated business maneuvers in a free-market economy” (p. 150). Revisiting the historic relationship between democracy and education can help to disrupt this reductive vision and provide the foundation needed to reclaim a more expansive understanding of what it means to live in a democratic society.

Historical Perspective on Democracy and Education

The founding and development of public schools in the United States were historically closely tied to democratic ideals. Indeed, as Schlesinger (2009) maintains, “it seems bizarre to have to make the case that the public school system should prepare citizens for democracy” (p. 88) since this why our school system was initially created in the first place. The founding fathers of the United States held important political motives for education, believing that critical literacy, as well as an understanding of history, were imperative for self-governance. These motives are evident in George Washington’s first message to Congress, where “he advocated for public schools that would teach students to ‘value their own rights’ and ‘to distinguish between oppression and the necessary exercise of lawful authority’” (Rothstein & Jacobsen, 2006, p. 267). Consistently, in his farewell address he also talked about the importance of education to informed decision-making, claiming that “‘it is essential that public opinion should be enlightened’ by schools that teach virtue and morality” (Rothstein & Jacobsen, 2006, p. 267).

Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams also maintained the centrality of schooling to providing citizens with the information and habits needed to make wise decisions and to hold their leaders accountable. Jefferson acknowledged the potential for corruption in leadership, arguing that only an educated citizenry can protect against this. He wrote, “every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree” (Neumann, 2008, p. 329). John Adams, who authored the section of the Massachusetts constitution focused upon “spreading the opportunities and advantages of education,” wrote about the importance of diffusing “wisdom and knowledge” to the broad population, because these are “necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties” (Michelli, 2005, p. 11).

We can also see the relationship between education and democracy as an important part of the Common School Movement in the early part of the 1800s in the United States. Common school reformers believed that public schooling could help shape the population in progressive directions by providing all children access to shared basic information and the means to develop literacy skills, concurrently reducing tensions between social classes and developing citizens with the knowledge needed to self-govern. Spring (2005) identifies three distinctive features of this movement: creating schools “attended in common by all children in which a common political and social ideology was taught”; using schools as part of government policy aimed to address social, economic, and political problems; and building state agencies to regulate and administer schools (p. 74).

Considered the founder of the Common School Movement, Secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education Horace Mann, in a series of annual reports he wrote to encourage support for public schooling, consistently maintained its integral role in sustaining democracy. For example, in his Tenth Annual Report in 1846, he asserted that a democratic society requires public schools to provide, at the very least, the amount of education needed “to qualify each citizen for the social duties that he will be called to discharge,” including the information and dispositions necessary to maintain health, parent effectively, be a good witness or juror, and vote thoughtfully, and “for the faithful and conscientious discharge of all of those duties which devolve upon the inheritor of a portion of the sovereignty of this great republic” (Fraser, 2001, p. 53). In another of his reports, written after a visit to Europe, Mann argued that schools needed to teach more than simply literacy, especially since students in autocratic regimes also learned to read and write. Instead, he offered “schools in a democracy could not be held accountable for academics alone, but must inculcate democratic moral and political values so that literacy would not be misused” (Rothstein & Jacobsen, 2006, p. 268).

Historically, the discussion of the relationship between education and democracy, especially in the ideal, is most fully developed in the work of John Dewey. Across his large body of work, Dewey consistently argues that democracy is, first and foremost, a way of life marked by the degree to which individuals share similar interests and work across lines of difference in order to solve problems and create habits of interaction that allow all people to reach their potential. For Dewey, democracy and education are intimately and reciprocally related. He suggests that without an education that conditions us to understand both our freedoms and responsibilities toward others, democracy can neither develop nor endure. We need schools to learn the values, habits, and dispositions that form the heart of democratic living and that allow us to live “together in ways in which the life of each of us is at once profitable in the deepest sense of the word, profitable to himself and helpful in the building up of the individuality of others” (Dewey, 1938, p. 303). The most essential function of schooling is to help develop democratic values and purposes. This goal should be the foundation for all other educational efforts. Dewey (1938) offers that school,

[i]s not the only means, but it is the first means, the primary means and the most deliberate means by which the values that any social group cherishes, the purposes that it wishes to realize, are distributed and brought home to the thought, the observation, judgment and choice of the individual.

(p. 296)

It is through schools that we learn the meaning of democracy and develop commitment to others and to the processes of inquiry and collaborative problem solving necessary for individual and communal growth.

For Dewey, democracy is an evolving, creative, and cooperative way of life that must be nourished through schooling in order for it to survive. He argues that democratic citizens must learn to be critical, reflective, open-minded thinkers who can use their minds well to solve social, economic, and political problems and thereby reconstruct the world around them in more just, equitable, and fulfilling ways. The Educational Policies Commission echoed these beliefs in their 1938 report on “The Purposes of Education in American Democracy.” Sponsored by the National Education Association, then a quasi-governmental group comprised of teachers, educational professionals, and policymakers, members of the Commission were concerned about how schools should respond to challenges posed by global unrest in the wake of the First World War, and the aftermath of the Great Depression. The Commission opened this report stating definitively that “the democratic way of life establishes the purpose of American education,” yet they worried about how this way of life was being challenged both abroad and at home, and thus claimed, “the achievement of democracy through education” was “the most urgent and most intensely practical problem facing our profession” (Educational Policies Commission, 1938, p. vii).

The vision of democracy offered by this Commission is consistently reflective of Dewey’s ideals and of more leftist visions of democracy that foreground the connection between freedom and equality. For example, they claimed that commitment to the general welfare was one of the most important elements of democratic living, asserting that

[d]emocracy prizes a broad humanitarianism … a feeling of kinship to other people more or less fortunate than oneself. One who lives in accordance with democracy is interested not only in his own welfare but in the welfare of others – the general welfare.

(Educational Policies Commission, 1938, pp. 7–8)

They went on to outline a number of other “minimum essentials of democracy,” including that democratic societies afford individuals inalienable rights, inescapable responsibilities, and respectful treatment; ensure access to information and the participation of the people in decision making; use peaceful and thoughtful methods of settling controversies; and work to create the conditions for all people to pursue happiness (Educational Policies Commission, 1938, pp. 7–8). Speaking to educators, the Commission argued that democracy ought to be the guiding ideal for public schooling, and “those who administer and teach in the schools must regard the study of democracy as their first professional responsibility” (p. 16).

While I have only provided a snapshot of the historical connection between democracy and schooling, that democratic goals were central to the founding and development of a public school system in the United States is undeniable. There is significant support over time for Dewey’s (1897) belief that “the community’s duty to education is … its paramount moral duty” (p. 94). This is because it is only through education that “society can formulate its own purposes, can organize its own means and resources, and thus shape itself with definiteness and economy in the direction in which it wishes to move” (Dewey, 1897, p. 94). Democracy as a “personal way of individual life” (Dewey, 1939, p. 226) requires schools that nurture democratic attitudes, habits, and dispositions and that uphold a civic mission. Writing contemporaneously with Dewey, the Educational Policies Commission (1938) outlined a compelling vision for the civic responsibilities of schools in rich detail, suggesting that an educated, democratic citizen is sensitive to the disparities of human circumstance, acts to correct unsatisfactory conditions, seeks to understand social structures and processes, has defenses against propaganda, respects honest differences of opinion, has regard for the nation’s resources, measures scientific advance by its contribution to the general welfare, is a cooperating member of the world community, respects the law, is economically literate, accepts his or her civic duties, and acts upon an unswerving loyalty to democratic ideals (p. 108). Yet in our current era, we seem to have lost sight of this civic mission of schooling, pointing to the pressing need to revisit and establish anew a democratic vision for public education.

Role of Schools in a Democratic Society

While history illustrates that a civic mission was always an integral reason for public schooling, attention to this mission has waned over time, but especially in the last few decades, and particularly since the 1983 report assessing the quality of education in the United States, A Nation at Risk. This contentious report (as later analysis revealed much of the data and its interpretation to be problematic) set in motion a pattern of attacking public schools “for failing to keep up with other foreign powers with the context of Cold War geo-politics” (Au, 2009, p. 44) and for implicitly allowing a “business model of competing in the global economy” (McClung, 2013, p. 37) to trump civic purposes for schooling. The authors of the report claimed that international students were outperforming U.S. students in crucial areas of math and science. As part of the response to this report, states created education commissions to establish rigorous content standards and to develop a framework for schools to engage in regular testing to ensure that students met these standards. This high-stakes accountability regime was only exacerbated when the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation went into effect in 2002. Frequent, high-stakes testing in reading and math are integral to NCLB, as the law mandates that students be tested in these subjects every year in grades 3–8 and at least once in high school. Testing in science at least once in elementary, middle, and high school was added in 2008 (Au, 2009). While ostensibly this system helps educators to ensure the achievement of all students, a corollary effect has been to significantly narrow the curriculum, as little attention is now paid in schools to nontested subjects like social studies, art, writing, and the humanities (Pederson, 2007).

One of the most disturbing consequences of an obsessive focus on students meeting standards in math, reading, and science, beyond the fact that standardized tests are now dictating and dominating the curriculum, is that concurrently, we have lost sight of more noble goals for schools. McClung (2013) laments that “the economic purpose of getting a job or getting into college in order to get a better job”—narrowly individualistic pursuits that implicitly presume our quality of life can be measured by the quantity of our paychecks—“has evolved into the de facto primary purpose of K–12 (and higher) education” (p. 37). Students are taking fewer classes in social studies, and in the best-case scenario schools are attempting to integrate social studies content into literacy goals. Yet as McGuire (2007) shows, social studies taught in this supposedly integrated fashion are not helping students to develop as democratic citizens, as typically students are simply offered disconnected bits of information to digest, memorize, and recall for tests. Instead of learning to think critically about history, current events, political systems, operations of power, and global dynamics, social studies topics are offered instrumentally as a way to improve reading skills. For example, “students are asked to find main ideas and supporting details, to compare and contrast, to make inferences, to scan, and to understand graphical material” (McGuire, 2007, p. 621) but are not taught the habits and dispositions needed to become knowledgeable, engaged, social justice–oriented citizens.

It is against the backdrop of a declining attention to civic educational purposes that the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement released a 2003 report entitled The Civic Mission of Schools. Containing contributions from some of the most respected and distinguished scholars in the bipartisan field of civic education, the report was an outgrowth of a series of meetings held to reach consensus about the research, role, and value of civic education and provide recommendations for civic education reform, especially important in light of what they characterized as waning civic participation in the United States. The opening to this report echoes the knowledge and wisdom of our founding fathers:

For more than 250 years, Americans have shared a vision in which all citizens understand, appreciate, and actively engage in civic and political life—taking responsibility for building communities, contributing their diverse talents and energies to solve local and national problems, deliberating about public issues, influencing public policy, voting, and pursing the common good. Americans know that it is a rare and precious gift to live in a society that permits and values such participation.

(Carnegie Corporation of New York and CIRCLE, 2003, p. 8)

While they describe a compelling role for citizens in a democratic society, there is little evidence that today’s young people understand this “rare and precious gift” or that they are being taught the habits necessary to sustain it. The high stakes accountability movement only exacerbates this concern.

In arguing for revitalizing the civic mission of schools, this committee offers a powerful description of the habits and behaviors integral to democratic citizenship. This description can serve to guide efforts to center democratic goals for public education and to reform curriculum, pedagogy, and the organization of schooling. Their vision is worth quoting at length. They maintain that “competent and responsible citizens”:


Are informed and thoughtful; have a grasp and an appreciation of history and the fundamental processes of American democracy; have an understanding and awareness of public and community issues; and have the ability to obtain information, think critically, and enter into dialogue among others with different perspectives.


Participate in their communities through membership in or contributions to organizations working to address an array of cultural, social, political, and religious interests and beliefs.


Act politically by having the skills, knowledge, and commitment needed to accomplish public purposes, such as group problem solving, public speaking, petitioning and protesting, and voting.


Have moral and civic virtues such as concern for the rights and welfare of others, social responsibility, tolerance and respect, and belief in the capacity to make a difference. (Carnegie Corporation of New York and CIRCLE, 2003, p. 4)

They offer this vision in the hopes that educators will better understand the centrality of schooling to democracy and, concurrently, strengthen their commitment to preparing young people to engage in the work needed to sustain and promote a democratic way of life.

In order to create the kinds of caring, competent, committed, and responsible citizens envisioned both by our founding fathers and by the wide range of democratic educational theorists exploring the issue of schooling for democracy, educators need to think more regularly in the language of habits and dispositions than in the more familiar language of content and standards. Instead of obsessing about what students know—the information that students must learn in order to be successful on standardized tests—educators need to attend much more to identifying how students should learn to be—the habits and dispositions that we ought to be cultivating. We should be as concerned, if not more concerned, with the kinds of people we are shaping and molding through schooling than we are with the isolated bits of information students can recall for tests or whether they outperform their counterparts around the world on these tests. To start, democratic citizens need to be in the habit of accessing information, determining the veracity of claims, thinking critically, researching problems, asking questions of those in power, dialoguing with others, finding resources, communicating ideas, and acting to improve the world around them. Stitzlein (2014) argues that developing certain habits of inquiry is at the heart of educating for democracy. Drawing from Dewey, she offers that such habits include “beliefs in equal opportunity, free communication, inclusion of varied perspectives, hope for a better future, and valuing of life uncoerced by others” (Stitzlein, 2014, p. 63). In addition, democratic citizens must be empathetic and compassionate, media literate, responsible to others around them, and globally aware. They should be able to think for themselves and to substantiate their perspectives and opinions about the world on the basis of evidence and information, not easily falling victim to propaganda or lies.

The habits, dispositions, and behaviors of democratic citizenship don’t simply come naturally to people; they must be learned in the context of interaction with others. As most of all young people in the world attend schools, they are ideally positioned to directly and deliberately cultivate these habits. Parker (2003) describes the minimal qualities of good citizens in relation to foundational knowledge, cognitive habits, and dispositions toward others. He writes that democratic citizens understand that they are caught up in an “inescapable network of mutuality” with other people; exhibit practical and contextualized judgment; hold civic knowledge, including “knowing the conditions that have undermined democracies in the past”; demonstrate “civic know-how,” such as skills for deliberation and problem solving; and maintain a thirst for social, political, and economic justice (Parker, 2003, p. 23). It is no doubt one of the most important roles of schools to cultivate these skills and habits, and to help students to “develop initiative and imagination, the capacity to name the world, the wisdom to identify the obstacles to their full humanity and to the humanity of others, and the courage to act on whatever the known demands” (Ayers, Kumashiro, Meiners, Quinn, & Stovall, 2010, p. 13). These civic goals are surely as important, if not more important, than economic goals for schools, which are reflected in the ways, however inadvertently, schooling has often become simply about acquiring credentials for individualistic and selfish economic gain.

Taking democratic goals seriously would mean that we would organize and focus schools differently than we do now. At the very least, such schools would be “marked by an emphasis on cooperation and collaboration rather than competition” and would be organized to “encourage young people to improve the life of the community” around them, instead of simply using education as a steppingstone to personal gain (Beane & Apple, 2007, p. 12). Cultivating democratic habits is no doubt best done in schools that are themselves structured to support a democratic vision and mission. While many schools and school districts allude to and even explicitly name issues of democracy in their mission statements, rarely do they demonstrate deep commitment to democracy in practice.

Democratic Schools

In contrast to the all-too-common reality of schools as passive places where students quietly absorb textbook-based information in classrooms, complete worksheets and standardized assessments, and where knowledge is artificially divided into disconnected subjects, schools that foster democratic habits are active, engaged spaces built around a culture of inquiry and civic engagement. They are organized such that teachers and students are encouraged to be creative, flexible, and experimental. They elevate cooperation and collaboration above competition and ask students to take ownership over their own education and to complete community engaged projects. Students in such schools study actual problems facing humanity, as opposed to simply learning about inherited truths, mathematical and scientific abstractions, or events in the past.

Reflecting on contemporary schooling, it is disturbing how little of the dominant content taught helps students to make meaning of the world around them, let alone to address and respond to pressing social concerns. Purpel brings this point home in a thought experiment he often performed with his teacher and administrator education students (Shapiro, 2006, p. 18). He would begin his classes by posing two questions to students. First, he would ask them to brainstorm a list of the biggest problems currently facing humanity. Here they would typically identify such topics as war, poverty, terrorism, racism, famine, materialism, environmental degradation, prejudice, and greed. He would then ask them to reflect on if, and how, the education we offer young people prepares them to respond to any of these problems. As Shapiro (2006) reports, what usually resulted was a “stunned silence as they recognized how removed our educational focus and work have become from anything that attempts to help us engage and change the human condition in the contemporary world” (p. 18). Alternatively, an education that cultivates the “habits of heart and mind that make democratic life possible” (Wood, 1992, p. xvi) reorients typical approaches to curriculum, pedagogy, and school organization such that content is meaningful, learning is vibrant and student centered, and schools are structured to cultivate relationships and build a sense of responsibility. We have many models of such democratic schools, and democratic practices within schools, which provide a vision for what is possible.

In democratic schools, the curriculum is built around inquiry, as students learn to ask questions of the world around them and to engage in civic work in their communities. They complete “transdisciplinary projects” that address social needs, while coupling “these with academic analyses of the social and institutional context” (Westheimer & Kahne, 1998, p. 7). Rather than math and science, social studies are centered in a curriculum that prepares students for democratic citizenship. Students engage in self-reflection, work with others, question power, and develop action plans to change the world around them. As an example of this type of education, Westheimer and Kahne (1998) describe the curriculum of C. Wright Mills Middle School, which is designed around themes and “prompting challenges,” such as how to respond to hunger, violence, or homelessness in the local community and, concurrently, the world. Interdisciplinary teams of teachers start with these challenges and construct the curriculum around deep questions, covering required subjects and topics within the context of studying pressing social problems. Math and science are not neglected, rather these subjects are taught through real world examples, for instance, studying the economic costs of violence or violence in families (Westheimer & Kahne, 1998, p. 9). Similarly, in his 5th grade classroom at Byrd Community Academy in Chicago, Schultz (2007) worked with his students to develop an entire year-long curriculum around understanding problems in their impoverished and neglected community and working to fix their collapsing school. This project paid off, as standardized test scores improved, but more importantly, students came to school feeling both valued and involved in learning that mattered. They attended school at unprecedented rates (98%) and had few disciplinary problems (Schultz, 2007, p. 78). In both examples, educators model Wood’s (1992) belief that “less is more.” Describing meaningful democratic curricular reform, he writes, “not all of the facts we teach children will stick with them. But a habit of mind, something much more important, will stay with young people. It takes time, not coverage, to develop these habits” (Wood, 1992, p. 168).

Paralleling a curriculum built around projects, inquiry, options, and engagement, educators teach differently in schools that cultivate the habits of democratic citizenship. They see themselves as co-learners, facilitators, and guides, not as experts whose role is to inform and enlighten students. They help students to “question power” by exposing them to social, economic, political, and cultural contradictions, creating spaces for them to dialogue about these contradictions, and pushing them to take action against education that dehumanizes (Elliott, 2015, p. 20). Students learn to take positions and argue for their stances as part of a pedagogy premised on active learning. Imagining such a pedagogy, Wolk (2007) suggests that such schools replace textbooks, worksheets, formulaic assignments, and multiple-choice tests with activities that create a love of learning, an exploration of self, habits of caring and empathy, environmental literacy, multicultural understanding, a commitment to peace and nonviolence, media literacy, global awareness, creativity and imagination, and social responsibility. “Rather than being places where students sit in silence as their teachers talk all day,” argues Wolk, classrooms that cultivate habits of engagement are “dynamic public spaces where the authentic and vibrant discourse of daily democracy would be an essential part of the school experience” (2007, p. 651).

Democratic teaching involves creating communities of learning, where collaboration and cooperation are the norm and students have opportunities to participate in decisions about curriculum, assignments, school organization, and assessment. Students learn to become social justice–oriented citizens who are “thoughtfully informed about a variety of complex social issues, think independently, and look for ways to improve society” (Westheimer, 2015, p. 40). The curriculum and pedagogy of Deborah Meier’s (1995, 2003) Central Park East Secondary School provides a powerful example of such schooling for democracy, as teachers in this school developed relationships of trust with students, provided them choices for their learning, asked them to exhibit and/or perform what they know, and habituated them to thinking critically. In teaching students to assess all information and curricular content, they pushed them to develop the habits necessary of good democratic citizens, for example, conditioning them to ask how we know what we know, whose perspective information comes from and why this matters, what causes what (as part of looking for patterns and connections), how things might be different, and why we should care (Meier, 1995, p. 50).

Schools that foster the habits of democracy are organized and governed in ways that solicit and value the input of all stakeholders, including parents and community members. They are open and flexible places that model respect and teach responsibility. Wood (1998) laments the fact that we give students very few responsibilities in schools, instead worrying more about controlling their behavior and covering predetermined content. Yet if we want students to become responsible citizens, they need to practice responsibility. Putting this idea into action when he took over as principal at Federal Hocking High School, Wood completely reorganized the school around the ideas of “being accountable for one’s own actions, choosing to make a contribution, making wise decisions that take into account how decisions affect others, and making productive use of one’s own time” (1998, p. 128). What this meant in practice is that high school students learned to track their own academic progress; displayed their learning through projects, portfolios, and exhibitions, instead of simply accumulating credits; took their learning into the community through action projects and internship experiences; managed their own time during the school day as they were given options for what to work on and how to learn; and assumed significant responsibilities in the school, including involvement in scheduling, organizing extracurricular activities, hiring staff, and designing the standard operating procedures of their school. Ultimately, to learn the habits and dispositions necessary for democratic citizenship, students need to practice them in schools that are organized to support the cultivation and development of democratic values. As Beane (2005) aptly notes,

[c]ritical thinking is learned only by thinking critically, reflection by reflecting, collaboration by collaborating, independence by working independently, social action by acting on social issues, compassion by caring for others, responsibility by having authentic and meaningful responsibilities, and decision making by making decisions. The only way we can have democracy is by being democratic.

(p. 119)

Developing an active, inquiry-based curriculum; using a problem-posing pedagogy; and organizing schools such that students develop habits of responsibility and social engagement provide our best hope for revitalizing democracy and for ensuring that it is not simply an empty slogan but a rich, participatory, justice-oriented way of life.

As is evident from the preceding examples of democratic schooling, there is a close relationship between democracy and social justice, especially among leftist-oriented democratic educators who pay consistent attention to issues of equity and equality of opportunity in social, political, and educational arrangements. Leftist-oriented democratic educators are troubled by the glaring and persistent inequities in both our society and our educational system, the latter of which are especially apparent in inequitable funding for schools, lack of resources in poor districts, and pervasive achievement gaps between privileged and marginalized students. They argue that a commitment to social justice is part and parcel of what it means to be a democratic citizen. As social justice entails “the principles of ‘fairness’ and ‘equality’ for all people and respect for their basic human rights” (Sensoy & DiAngelo, 2012, p. xvii), it is inherently also a democratic value. Yet the degree to which social justice is centered in our thinking about democracy varies, and many liberal democratic theorists would argue for personally responsible and participatory models of citizenship (Westheimer, 2015), believing that in an ideologically diverse society we must respect students’ rights to identify the good life for themselves and not to seemingly compel them to uphold certain conceptions of what this life entails. These tensions are inherent in democratic education, which, like democracy itself, is ever a work in progress.

Final Thoughts

The future of democracy is tied to the quality of our public education system. Democratic societies need schools that teach the habits, dispositions, and practices of citizenship. Democracy is a precarious yet potentially powerful and energizing ethical ideal, in spite of the significant tensions and paradoxes in how we understand democratic life. It provides us a kind of moral compass for how we ought to live together amid our diversity, learning from each other and working to expand freedoms for all people. It is a way of life that celebrates individual autonomy and growth in the context of care for fellow citizens and the environment and a future of peace and social and political stability. The challenges to enacting democracy in our present time are many. Currently, despite how often we invoke democracy as part of our discussions about education, “schools don’t really teach the democratic way of life. Mostly they just teach about it. Or more accurately, they teach about its symbols and procedures” (Carnegie Corporation of New York and CIRCLE, 2003, p. 118). Schools that truly emphasize democracy are few and far between, but they exist, and we can learn much from their practices. Commitment to democracy requires concurrent commitment to rich, sophisticated, ongoing, and comprehensive civic education. This is a move away from schooling that both implicitly and explicitly celebrates competitive individualism. Public schools have always played a significant role in the making of citizens and in bringing the kind of society we imagine to fruition. As Levinson (2012) powerfully argues, “decisions about how to educate our and others’ children are at their heart decisions about how we conceive of the world we live in now and how to create the world we want to inhabit in the future” (p. 54). A truly democratic future requires education that nurtures, fosters, and sustains the habits and dispositions of citizenship, as well as ongoing discussion about the nature of these habits, which is ultimately our best hope for creating a world that is just, mutually fulfilling, and peaceful.

Further Reading

  • Apple, M. W., & Beane, J. A. (Eds.). (2007). Democratic schools: Lessons in powerful education (2d ed.). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Beane J. A. (2005). A reason to teach: Creating classrooms of dignity and hope. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Elliott, S. (2015). Teaching and learning on the verge: Democratic education in action. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Westheimer, J. (2015). What kind of citizen? Educating our children for the common good. New York: Teachers College Press.


  • Apple, M. W., & Beane, J. A. (2007). Lessons from democratic schools. In M. W. Apple & J. A. Beane (Eds.), Democratic schools: Lessons in powerful education (2d ed., pp. 150–155). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Au W. (2009). Social studies, social justice: W(h)ither the social studies in high-stakes testing? Teacher Education Quarterly, 36(1), 43–58.
  • Ayers, W., Kumashiro, K., Meiners, E., Quinn, T., & Stovall, D. (2010). Teaching toward democracy: Educators as agents of change. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers.
  • Barber, B. R. (1993). America skips school: Why we talk so much about education and do so little. Harpers, 287(1722), 39–46.
  • Beane J. A. (2005). A reason to teach: Creating classrooms of dignity and hope. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Beane, J. A., & Apple, M. W. (2007). The case for democratic schools. In M. W. Apple & J. A. Beane (Eds.), Democratic schools: Lessons in powerful education (2d ed., pp. 1–29). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Biesta, G. (2007). Education and the democratic person: Towards a political conception of democratic education. Teachers College Record, 109(3), 740–769.
  • Carnegie Corporation of New York and CIRCLE. (2003). The civic mission of schools. New York: Carnegie Corporation and Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.
  • Dahl, R. A. (2015). On democracy (2d ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Dewey, J. (1897). My pedagogic creed. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), John Dewey: The early works, 1882–1898 (Vol. 5, pp. 84–95), Electronic edition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University
  • Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and education. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), John Dewey: The middle works, 1899–1924 (Vol. 9), Electronic edition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University.
  • Dewey, J. (1938). Democracy and education in the world of today. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), John Dewey: The later works, 1925–1953 (Vol. 13, pp. 294–303), Electronic edition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University.
  • Dewey, J. (1939). Creative democracy—the task before us. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), John Dewey: The later works, 1925–1953 (Vol. 14, pp. 224–231), Electronic edition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University.
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  • Elliott, S. (2015). Teaching and learning on the verge: Democratic education in action. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Fraser, J. W. (2001). The school in the United States: A documentary history. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Gabardi, W. (2001). Contemporary models of democracy. Polity, 33(4), 547–568.
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  • Held, D. (2006). Models of democracy (3d ed.). Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.
  • Kohl, H. (1992). From archetype to zeitgeist: Powerful ideas for powerful thinking. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.
  • Levinson, M. (2012). No citizen left behind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • McClung, M. (2013). Repurposing education. Phi Delta Kappan, 94(8), 37–39.
  • McGuire, M. E. (2007). What happened to social studies? The disappearing curriculum. Phi Delta Kappan, 88(8), 620–624.
  • Meier, D. (1995). The power of their ideas: Lessons for America from a small school in Harlem. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Meier, D. (2003). So what does it take to build a school for democracy? Phi Delta Kappan, 85(1), 15–21.
  • Michelli, N. M. (2005). Education for democracy: What can it be? In N. M. Michelli & D. L. Keiser (Eds.), Teacher education for democracy and social justice (pp. 3–30). New York: Routledge.
  • Mouffe, C. (2009). The democratic paradox. London: Verso.
  • Neumann, R. (2008). American democracy at risk. Phi Delta Kappan, 89(5), 328–339.
  • Parker, W. C. (2003). Teaching democracy: Unity and diversity in public life. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Pederson, P. V. (2007). What is measured is treasured: The impact of the No Child Left Behind Act on nonassessed subjects. The Clearing House, 80(6), 287–291.
  • Price, J. M. (2011). Democracy: Critical red ideal. In J. L. DeVitis (Ed.), Critical civic literacy: A reader (pp. 291–304). New York: Peter Lang.
  • Rothstein, R., & Jacobsen, R. (2006). The goals of education. Phi Delta Kappan, 88(4), 264–272.
  • Ryder, J. (2007). John Dewey, democracy and a cosmopolitan ideal. Americana—E-Journal of American Studies in Hungary, 3(2).
  • Schlesinger, A. B. (2009). The death of why: The decline of questioning and the future of democracy. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
  • Schultz, B. D. (2007). “Feelin’ what they feelin’”: Democracy and curriculum in Cabrini Green. In M. W. Apple & J. A. Beane (Eds.), Democratic schools: Lessons in powerful education (2d ed., pp. 62–82). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
  • Sensoy, O., & DiAngelo, R. (2012). Is everyone really equal? An introduction to key concepts in social justice education. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Shapiro, H. S. (2006). Losing heart: The moral and spiritual miseducation of America’s children. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
  • Spring, J. (2005). The American school, 1642–2004 (6th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Stitzlein, S. M. (2014). Habits of democracy: A Deweyan approach to citizenship education in America today. Education and Culture, 30(2), 61–86.
  • Westheimer, J., & Kahne, J. (1998). Education for action: Preparing youth for participatory democracy. In W. Ayers, J. A. Hunt, & T. Quinn (Eds.), Teaching for social justice (pp. 1–20). New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Westheimer, J. (2015). What kind of citizen? Educating our children for the common good. New York: Teachers College Press.
  • Wolk, S. (2007). Why go to school? Phi Delta Kappan, 88(9), 648–658.
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