With the growth of a global economy, there is the need for a type of educational system that promotes civic engagement as a means of building new models toward a democratic society.
There is a trend emerging in our present educational system that wants to take us back to the days of reproducing individuals to fit a more authoritarian philosophy. This trend seeks to promote a managerial “banking” system where the power of disseminating knowledge is being transferred to the needs of the business and political establishments. This shift fits into the early 20th century industrial model of schools where students were socialized in assembly-like rows to be taught the status quo and not to be heard from.
With the promotion of standardized tests and quantitative methods that evaluate the performances of both teachers and students, there is a diminishing of the space for the creation of democratic bridges between what is being learned in the classroom and the challenges of democratic decision-making in our communities. This trend is characterized by the growth of for-profit charter schools and companies that are redefining the meaning of education. Rather than tapping the passionate reason as to why so many college graduates become teachers, this trend vilifies teachers and is forcing many to turn away from the educational world as a career.
With so many problems being faced by our society, there is the opportunity for our schools and colleges to play a
role in advancing new forms of research, learning and practice that can help engage our teachers, faculty and students in critical thinking and problem-solving to find solutions to those problems. This type of learning will help develop a citizenry and a leadership in the future that is more engaged and excited about participating in making the future society.
There are all types of studies that show how much students benefit from connecting their learning in the classroom to community engagement. In addition to improving their grades, these studies show that students develop principles of collectivity that go against the grain of individualism and enhance the skills of working with diverse populations, taking leadership, creating new knowledge, and formulating solutions to real-world problems.
The type of teaching that is needed in this contemporary period is one where: there is a passion for creating spaces of equity; where students are exposed to a curriculum that does not just deal with the problems in the society but that looks at the systemic and structural aspects of inequity; that brings to center stage the contributions of communities who (because of poverty, racism, sexism, classism or homophobia) have historically been excluded from our textbooks; and that involves students in working alongside excluded communities on common projects to implement transformative social change.
Rather than a traditional monocultural education where the students learn very little about the contributions of the diverse mosaic which comprises the people of this country, our educational system needs to support a multicultural learning environment in which differences are embraced (not just tolerated). In this context, our institutions do need to appreciate our historical pluralism, but there is no getting around the reality that U.S. pluralism had its origins in laws and ideologies which were used to justify the stratification of different groups through conquest, slavery and exploitation. If we don’t absorb and appreciate this aspect of history in all its manifestations, there is the danger that we will maintain a society that blames the victim for his or her lack of social mobility.
Rather than frontally assaulting the national dilemma of restructuring the economy with policies that invest in education and development, energy has been diverted toward seeking someone to blame. In the debate over the state of our educational system, many taxpayers have been led to believe that the issue is only about the quality of our teachers and not about the structural inequities that many of our underrepresented students and their families confront every day in their communities.
As we seek to develop models of civic engagement in teacher education, it is important for us to look toward new ways of carrying out democratic forms of learning and curriculum building in our classrooms that connect to new models of building democratic participation in our communities. Our beginning to dialogue on these issues may help us in looking toward new ways of carrying out democratic forms of learning and curriculum building in our classrooms – new models that can help in advancing a more democratic and socially just culture in our society.
Jose Zapata Calderon is an emeritus professor of Sociology and Chicano Studies at Pitzer College in Claremont and president of the Latino and Latina Roundtable.