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Chapter One Introduction The Ecology of Civic Learning Now the change which is coming into our education is the shifting of the center of gravity. It is a change, a revolution, not unlike that introduced by Copernicus when the astronomical center shifted from the earth to the sun. —John Dewey, The School and Society Education is seen as the only road to a flourishing democracy. We rely on education to prepare citizens for an ongoing commitment to public life. And yet, “American democracy is at risk,” according to a new report from the American Political Science Association’s first Standing Committee on Civic Education and Engagement, echoing many previous studies on civic participation.1 Perhaps part of the problem lies in the way we conceptualize education. “There is a fundamental problem in the progressive theory of education that I think bears scrutiny by those concerned with the politics of education in contemporary America,” begins Lawrence Cremin in his 1975 lecture to the John Dewey Society. Cremin, the former dean of Columbia University’s Teachers College who has written extensively on the history of American education, defines the problem as “the tendency to focus so exclusively on the potentialities of the school as a lever of social improvements and reform as to ignore the possibilities of other educative institutions.”2 A narrow educational focus still plagues us today, if anything, it has only gotten worse. Education has become synonymous with schooling. Since the U.S. Department of Education’s National Commission on Excellence in Education warned of the deterioration of American education in A Nation at Risk 1 in 1983, the crisis in education has become a national priority for people across the ideological spectrum. But it is common for policy makers, educators , parents, and youth to articulate their concerns with the state of our educational system solely in terms of the school. The bipartisan No Child Left Behind federal legislation, for example, set out to improve educational achievement and accountability through the standardization of American schooling. Efforts to improve civic education among our youngest citizens have also been focused on the classroom. Increasing concern about America’s civic health throughout the 1990s culminated in a report entitled A Nation of Spectators, issued by the National Commission on Civic Renewal in 1998. The bipartisan commission warned that citizens were becoming apathetic and disengaged from public life and that “in a time that cries out for civic action, we are in danger of becoming a nation of spectators.”3 In response, an array of reports and initiatives has appeared calling for an increase in the participation of young people in public life. Most proposed interventions, however, have used schools as the primary platform for civic renewal. For example, a diverse group of more than sixty distinguished educational scholars and practitioners convened by the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) and the Carnegie Corporation issued The Civic Mission of Schools and launched the subsequent Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, urging that K–12 schooling become the primary venue for increasing civic education among our nation’s youth.4 On the surface, this seems to make sense given the time and resources American society devotes to schooling and the social investment we make in schools as instruments for democratic socialization. As The Civic Mission of Schools rightly observes, “Schools are the only institutions with the capacity and mandate to reach virtually every person in the country.”5 Yet schools cannot educate in isolation. Equating education with schooling relieves the rest of society from the responsibility of taking part in the education of young people. It also misses the central issue because what happens in schools reflects what happens outside the classroom . Educational successes and failures are mostly the products of communities and families: underachieving schools simply pass along the inequality of resources from families and communities, while high achieving schools pass along family and community privileges.6 Finally, limiting education to schooling overlooks important assets for improving our educational system and preparing young people to contribute to our democracy—our communities and community institutions. “Why is it that we have Boards of Education, but they only hire the superintendent of schools?” Lawrence Cremin often asked.7 He did not 2 Why Community Matters mean that boards of education should oversee all aspects of learning in society. He was asking us to imagine what would happen if we broadened our definition of education to reach beyond the schools...


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