The term “public education” can be understood in a couple of different ways. One common meaning is related to its funding source. Public education is education that is publicly funded, as in our public schools and other publicly financed educational programs.
Another meaning of public education, however, is related to its primary purpose. In this view, public education refers to our intentional efforts to create a public – that is, a body of citizens who have the inclination and the capacity to participate in the ongoing and responsible practice of self-government. This broader understanding of public education encompasses the work done by our public schools, but extends far beyond them to include the institutions and political, economic, and social structures of the larger community.
This kind of public education – citizenship education – is a community responsibility. And, as is the case with other types of learning, it is best learned by doing. In other words, the best way to become a true citizen is in the actual practice of citizenship. Citizenship is its own education. And to make this education possible, it is our job as a community to ensure that real opportunities for citizen participation are widely and continuously available, known to the community, and actively supported.
So what does the practice of citizenship look like? I like to think of citizenship as simply doing my part to make my community work. And in a democracy, that means participating at some level in the practice of self-government. Voting, yes, but much more than that. Democracy can be understood as a continuous process of mutual transformation. It is a respectful “give and take” that results in beneficial growth to all those involved.
And this process is driven by, more than anything else, ongoing and thoughtful dialogue. Yes, the foundation of democracy is the very human act of just talking with each other. It is through this never-ending public conversation that we come to understand each other, grapple with new ideas, enlarge our thinking, and ultimately solve problems and make decisions together. This kind of citizenship is the most transformative kind of education there is. You cannot emerge unchanged because continuous and responsible change is the name of the game.
But this kind of public education – citizenship education – doesn’t just happen all by itself. We have to intentionally create the forums for it to flourish. Here are a few suggestions to get us started. We could begin by:
1) Creating more opportunities for nonpartisan dialogue around issues that are important to us (this could include regular citizens’ forums and neighborhood assemblies).
2) Finding ways to integrate the practice of citizenship more seamlessly into our daily lives, even at the workplace (this could include an increase in workplace democracy and giving employees paid time off for participation in citizenship activities).
3) Raising expectations for citizenship by empowering citizen groups with real decision-making authority and promoting a culture of ownership.
4) Exploring new ways to increase participatory citizenship in our schools (this could include more participatory modes of school governance, regular civic action involving school-community partnerships, and making citizenship a primary measure of student success).
Citizenship, like democracy, is a way of living that stretches us to grow and brings out the best we can be. It is the common arena in which we define ourselves both as individuals and in terms of our relationships with others. Citizenship is how we hammer out a vision for community that works for us all – today.
But what works today may not work tomorrow, so this process can never stop. I want to live in a world where growth never stops, where learning never stops, where the human conversation never stops. And to me, that’s what public education is all about.