Skip to content Skip to navigation

How teachers and schools can support civic engagement

drawings of raised hands
(Photo: Alina Federova / Getty Images)

How teachers and schools can support civic engagement

Rob Reich explains the purpose of educating students in a democratic society and gives examples of how teachers can support civic engagement.

On School’s In, hosted by GSE Dean Dan Schwartz and Senior Lecturer Denise Pope, Rob Reich explained why we educate students in a democratic society and the roles of schools in promoting civic engagement.

Below are excerpts from the conversation with Reich, who is a professor of political science and faculty director of the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society. Listen to the full episode at the link below and find more episodes at Stanford Radio. School’s In airs weekends on SiriusXM Insight channel 121.

Interview Highlights

The Purpose of Education

There are three big reasons why we educate students in a democratic society, why we provide public funding to educate students in democratic society and why we compel parents to force their kids to be educated even if it's against their wishes.

The first is that there's an economic or a vocational purpose for schooling. We want people to acquire the skills, capacities they need to assume position in a society which they can contribute to the efforts of social cooperation and make a living for themselves – skill development.

Second, we want people to have the skills and characteristics they need to be good citizens. There's a civic purpose to schooling as well.

And third, and perhaps the one that comes up least frequently these days in policy discussions but which goes all the way back to the initial roots of thinking about education as something to organize collectively, it's just independent of citizenship and independent of the labor market, a good thing for people to have their talents and interests and skills developed, because it's good for them to flourish as human beings to have those things developed. Education is a humanistic enterprise in addition to being a civic enterprise and an economic enterprise.

The Role of Teachers in Encouraging Engagement

You need to give teachers the permission to engage fully as citizens and even if it's in the course of, say, a social studies class, mentioning how it is they're engaged so long as they're not trying to convert students to their own policy or political positions themselves. They can offer up a range of arguments. They can teach controversies. They can teach the importance of being engaged and model that for students as well.

Seeing Facts as Policy Disagreements

Whereas one might imagine that 50 years ago there could be some rough consensus on the idea of separating what counts as scientific fact from what policy positions are, now so much of science itself has become a partisan issue. It looks like even basic factual claims are subject to policy disagreements. That's a reflection of the frayed civic fabric that we currently have. That itself is the consequence of a whole different variety of factors in life far beyond the purview of what schools are responsible for.

So yes, it's really complicated.  My own view here is that teachers and school leaders need to step up to the challenge of facing the facts about civic dysfunction in order to advocate for the significance of the essential nature of performing their role as educator, which has to do something with conveying science or, if you will, the truth. In those cases, you don't announce those positions as a way of sealing off debate, but saying what you think your professional role requires and then inviting the discussion that happens as a consequence.

Get the Educator

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter.

Back to the Top