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  • From the Editorial Board:Human Democracy in the Age of Standards
  • Christoph Stutts

How shall educators and researchers close the distance between a curriculum focused on the future and the present circumstance of student life? According to most standards documents, students are future citizens, expected to adhere to a commonly held vision of what it means to contribute to public life.1 However, this vision delays and denies the promise of democratic participation. High school students are key players in the American democratic experiment right now, bearing the weight of its legal and political structure as much as the adult electorate. The experiences of students around the country reveal a flaw in the notion of high schools as training grounds for democratic life.

Wildin Acosta of Riverside High School in Durham, NC, was placed in solitary confinement under threat of deportation one day before his expected graduation (McDonald, 2016a).2 For him, the notion of a future civic life to be undertaken upon conferral of a diploma is a broken promise. Those incarcerated and deported provide a painful reminder: students are full subjects of the state despite the fact that the curriculum and the legal and political structure withhold their full participation. Recent focus on police shootings highlights an even more tragic inconsistency. The state supposedly prepares some students for a democratic future through one institution and ends their lives through another. The curriculum promises new life and the law extinguishes it.

Thankfully, more hopeful examples of how students and teachers make real connections between academic and civic life abound. For Jalon Nelson, the senior class president of Detroit’s Communication and Media Arts High School who led a walkout of his school under threat of suspension, democracy happens now. “It’s unacceptable, we deserve better, and it’s time for a change” said Nelson, leading a protest of inadequate funding for books, teacher pay, and school safety. (Lange, 2016).. At Riverside High School many of Acosta’s teachers and fellow students raised money for his legal costs and continue to advocate for his fair treatment (McDonald 2016a; McDonald 2016b). In Colorado, students have loudly protested changes to their U.S. History curriculum (Brundin, Lamp & Minor, 2014). These examples show that true civic experience happens in schools. (Osler & Starkey, 2003; Verhellen, 2000) These students don’t wait to organize and push on the forces that shape their lives.

Dewey (1938) provided some guidance in writing that “preparation for a more or less remote nature is opposed making the most of opportunities of present life” (p.19). The sentimental depiction of Deweyan pedagogy as experiment and play belies a fundamental underpinning of his philosophy: student experiences are immediately [End Page 1] consequential. High school students face the threat of detainment and physical punishment from the legal system within the supposedly safe confines of the school, and outside of it. It is past time to discard the false separation between academic and lived experience as it concerns American democracy. If our field positions high school students as on the precipice of civic life rather than within it, we deny their democratic participation while accepting their status as subjects to the state, undoing the social contract. Students are forced to accept the consequences of democracy without any responsibility or credit for its evolution.

The establishment of a standard notion of “active and responsible citizenship” (NCSS, 2013, p.19) alongside the growing web of national and state benchmarks is a denial of student agency and voice. Researchers and policy-makers must begin to invert this conversation. Current curriculum asks some version of “What kind of citizens do we want them to be? How can we ensure they serve the country as responsible citizens?” Instead, we might ask “What does student action and resistance teach us about American democracy? How is American democracy serving teenagers who live the system’s real legal and physical consequences?”

Teachers can effectively navigate the relationship between academic standards and student agency. Schultz (2008) tells the story of how he and his students constructed a curriculum and a plan of action together to force change in a Chicago housing project. They worked from within the existing curriculum to build something...


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