Thursday, March 18, 2010

Creating Extraordinary Citizens

I spoke earlier today at a conference on civic education sponsored by the Utah State Office of Education and the Utah Coalition for Civic, Character and Service-Learning. Here is an outline of my comments--called "Creating Extraordinary Citizens."

Creating Ordinary Citizens
By this time, well into the third decade of service-learning, we have figured out how to create ordinary citizens. It is visible in my own life, in the way, for example, that my daughters not only filled out the census but also also analyzed it in the context of contemporary politics.

More importantly, the creation of ordinary citizens is visible in schools across the US. We know, for example, that a civic curriculum can improve the likelihood of voting, particularly in high-poverty schools. There is some evidence that experiencing democratic deliberation in school (i.e. regularly participating in discussions about governance) increases the likelihood of students being involved in service. (In Utah one school that does this very well is the City Academy charter school.) And a recent report suggests that a comprehensive civics curriculum helps students develop 21st Century Skills.

Taken together, these reports suggest that a combination of rules and incentives--requiring civics curricula, for example, or funding to support student-led civic behavior--can encourage civic engagement. And the result of all of these efforts (plus many other forces, to be sure) is that young people are increasingly likely to vote, to serve, and to engage in public life. That is, youth are more likely than they were a decade ago, to be ordinary citizens.

Creating Extraordinary Citizens
It is not clear, though, that the same activities can create extraordinary citizens. Consider the story of Jane Addams and the founding of Hull House. Or Greg Mortenson's efforts to build schools throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan. Or the actions of the villagers in Le Chambon during World War II who sheltered thousands of Jews from the Nazis.

If these three accounts are wrapped around the actions of extraordinary citizens, what do they have in common?
  1. The people, Addams, Mortenson, Pastor Trocme who led the Le Chambonnaise, were all more or less willing to do what ordinary citizens do--vote, participate, serve their neighbors.
  2. When faced with a moment of great potential import, though, all of them made a quick decisions to take enormous actions--build schools, create a settlement house, shelter refugees--for what they saw as the good.
  3. They made these decisions without a full plan or even with certainty that things would work out well for them. And in most instances, they made plenty of blunders.
  4. Their decisions were counterintuitive. That is, the rules and incentives in place would urge ordinary citizens to behave differently than did these extraordinary decisions.
  5. In retrospect, all of the extraordinary citizens looked at their activities and said that what they had done was perfectly natural for them. By this they meant (I think) that their extraordinary acts helped them to see themselves in a new, more authentic light.
Note that many of the characteristics of extraordinary citizens, then, differ from or contradict the characteristics of ordinary citizens and their actions.

How do you create extraordinary citizens?
Surely some of the actions of extraordinary people comes from sources other than schools. But schools can do things that help provoke extraordinary citizenship. Here are a few:
  • Use real stories of citizenship. By real I mean "not bowlderized stories meant to inspire, but unvarnished stories of crisis and heroism." (Addams herself collected such stories.) Two overlooked sources of these stories are the works of Robert Coles (especially in The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination) and the philosopher Philip Hallie (especially Lest Innocent Blood Be Shed and In the Eye of the Hurricane.)
  • Give students open-ended, complex problems to solve. By this I mean particularly that teachers should avoid the sort of simulations with a single, right outcome. Instead, we might look to the sort of story-based problem solving found in multi-player online games. (I am indebted to this talk by Jane McGonigal for making this point. See especially her games "World Without Oil' and "Evoke.")
  • Encourage the development of moral skill, moral will, and moral freedom. That is, in both objective, content, and assessment, encourage these sorts of behavior. (For suggestions on how these things differ from the typical rule- and incentive-based forms of motivation, see this talk by Barry Schwartz.
In closing, let me refer to two additional examples of extraordinary citizenship. The first, well-known, comes at the end of the Declaration of Independence, where the signatories pledge not just their support or service to the cause. Instead they pledged "our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor."

The second, more recent and less well-known, happened in Haiti after the earthquake. There, Gilbert Bailly, the owner of Muncheez restaurant, decided that rather than let his food spoil he would serve it to the hungry. Then he decided that when the food ran out he would figure out how to keep feeding the hungry. His snap decision led to something extraordinary--people coming together, sharing out of their lack, not their wealth. By the time NPR covered his story, Muncheez was feeding 1,000 free meals a day.

Moral skill, moral will, moral freedom leading to extraordinary citizenship.

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