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Reviewed by:
  • Citizenship under Fire: Democratic Education in Times of Crisis
  • Elizabeth Beaumont (bio)
Sigal R. Ben-Porath. Citizenship under Fire: Democratic Education in Times of Crisis. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006. 174 pp. Cloth: $29.95. ISBN: 0-691-12434-5.

Depressed by the outbreak of World War II, John Dewey (1939) urged that creating democracy remains "the task before us" during the "critical and complex conditions of today" (p. 225). While acknowledging the danger of external "enemies of democracy" such as Nazism, Dewey viewed the gravest threat as the internal dissolution of democratic [End Page 320] culture. With Deweyan insight, Sigal Ben-Porath's timely book focuses on the critical challenge of "democratic education in times of crisis."

The circumstances of post-9/11 United States and modern Israel serve as lenses rather than as full case studies through which Ben-Porath contemplates this challenge, beginning by alluding briefly to a thought-provoking episode. In 2002, a handful of Israeli soldiers became the first of hundreds who refused to serve in the occupied territories of the Gaza Strip because they believed such service would "destroy all the values we had absorbed while growing up in this country" (described in greater detail in Courage to Refuse, 2002).

Months later, high school seniors in Israel on the verge of their own compulsory military service and enfranchisement faced this question on their civic education final exam: "Explain why conscientious objection is subversive." In effect, Ben-Porath explains, this educational exercise encouraged students to abandon "decades of democratic deliberation on the balance between conscience and compliance, between majority rule and minority dissent" and instead conclusively argue that "opposing the decisions of a democratically elected government is, in the context of war, treacherous" (p. 1).

This tale frames the problem Ben-Porath aptly diagnoses for democracies at war and the educational systems that seek to sustain or improve them: The crises that provoke wars and the exigencies of engaging in military conflicts can constrain or distort such normative foundations of liberal democracies, as political participation, tolerant deliberation of the public agenda, and civic equality (pp. 2, 51).

Ben-Porath's project conveys the imperative for public education to provide a form of "expansive education" that can nurture the long-term goal of democratic health in the face of pressing needs of survival or endurance. Educational institutions in a democracy must be fundamentally concerned about what kind of polity—and what hope for the future—will emerge at the end of a conflict, not simply whether the nation can withstand the conflict itself. Although Ben-Porath focuses on public K-12 institutions, the questions she raises are equally pertinent for higher education.

Ben-Porath's argument builds from the premise that citizenship in war is qualitatively different than in peace: citizens' affection for their nations may be heightened or transformed; "public and political distinctions between 'us' and 'them' shift; citizens' expectations from their governments can be revised" (p. 9). With national security dominating the public agenda, access to information can be constrained and many issues can be enveloped by "security discourse"—immigration, criminal law, demography, free speech, and artistic expression.

As political theorist Hannah Arendt (1954) recognized, the freedom and creative elements inherent in democratic action require physical and psychological space. Ben-Porath similarly argues that political forces can restrict the space for democratic participation during security crises. Conditions of war, whether viewed as "normal" or as a tragic failure of human reason or empathy, generate psychological and material vulnerabilities. Wartime public anxieties and political and military responses can shrink the multi-layered conceptions of democratic citizenship that exist in peacetime.

Ben-Porath terms this narrower, war-circumscribed conception "belligerent citizenship." Belligerent citizenship is characterized by reinterpretations of civic participation, public deliberation, unity, and solidarity (or patriotism). Typically, it emphasizes citizen loyalty, sacrifice, and support for public authority. It often coincides with narrowing the public agenda, shrinking civil liberties, and discouraging democratic deliberation (pp. 3, 11–13, 18).

These prevalent wartime transformations of democratic citizenship can permeate schools as much as other institutions (p. 1). Ben-Porath reminds us, for example, that World War II led the U.S. National Education Association to...


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