Democracy Writ Small

Last year, I almost totally revamped the way that I teach, striving to make my classes much more student-centered. Although it wasn’t the only change I made, the implementation of the Harkness method played a significant role in transformation. Given that the approach was completely new to my school community, I was asked to write about it for last spring’s issue of the school’s alumnae magazine. My article is below.

Educating young people for democratic participation has never been more important. That might sound hopelessly old-fashioned, but it is nevertheless true.  In an age of high-tech gadgetry, 24-hour global news coverage, and manipulative political advertising, it is easy to lose sight of the very foundations of democracy: a willingness to talk seriously with others (as opposed to talking at or over them), to listen to their ideas with an open mind, and to make sometimes difficult but always informed decisions. Unfortunately, evidence suggests that such skills may be in short supply these days.

In August [2011], The Washington Post published a story on the decline of political civility in America. It read, “The new basic unit of political discourse [in town hall meetings] is not the question or the comment, but the earful. Even legislators who say they enjoy a spirited give-and-take have had trouble getting the quiet required for such an exchange.” More recently, the bipartisan “Supercommittee” charged with reducing budget deficits failed to reach a compromise, much to the chagrin of Americans across the political spectrum.

It should come as no surprise, then, that as of this writing, more than eighty percent of Americans disapprove of the job that Congress is doing. Of course, when communication between citizens and their elected representatives breaks down, confidence in government is bound to falter. However, we should think twice before assigning all of the blame to our elected officials. As Abraham Lincoln famously stated, the American government is one “of the people, by the people, for the people.” If it’s not working, we must accept a considerable portion of the responsibility, and we must dedicate ourselves to preparing future generations for more productive political leadership.

How exactly to do that is something I’ve wrestled with since I began teaching at Saint Mary’s. This past June, though, I had the privilege of attending the Exeter Humanities Institute. Along with more than fifty other teachers from around the world, I spent a week at Phillips Exeter Academy learning and practicing a student-centered, discussion-based pedagogy that has become known as “the Harkness method.” I originally went to Exeter because I wanted to learn more about discussion-based teaching in general, but once I witnessed the true potential of the Harkness method, I was committed to transforming my classroom. It is without a doubt the best way I’ve found to prepare my students—in the limited time that I have with them—for participation in a democratic society.

My students have heard me say it so many times that they will tell you—in a mocking tone, most likely—that “disagreement is good for discussion.” It’s true, but that’s not to say that Harkness discussions are just open-ended arguments; they also require students to listen and think. The best discussions are those in which students question each other’s ideas, probe each other’s thinking, and ask for evidence of each other’s claims. Not coincidentally, these are all the makings of a strong and productive public discourse.

Quite often in our discussions, there is no “right answer,” but that’s not to say that opinions alone will suffice. Students find that their opinions rarely have enough weight to carry the conversation, so they are forced to examine their views and justify them to their peers. That is democracy writ small, and in this process, students begin to discover who they are and what they believe about the world.

They also discover that a frank and open exchange often leads to greater understanding and a better finished product. My eleventh grade American history students recently spent about a week writing an essay as a class. The prompt asked students to consider the extent to which American colonists were unified on the eve of the Revolution. As they began their discussions, there was almost unanimous agreement that the colonists had been unified, and even though I had allotted a week for the assignment, the students acted as if they might have the essay written in only a day or two. I just smiled and waited patiently as they began to grapple with the evidence.

Soon enough, one student challenged her classmates to account for a contradictory source. Within minutes, their thesis-in-progress evaporated, and ironically, as their confidence in the unity of the colonists waned, they became more divided themselves. Some students became frustrated that not everyone shared their opinions, and at times the conversations grew heated. I had to intervene once or twice, but they were mostly respectful of each other’s opinions, and I was proud of the fact that they were taking intellectual work so seriously.

Although many students found the exercise uncomfortable—they didn’t like confrontation, they said—they acknowledged that the essay ended up being much better for it. Having to account for contradictory evidence and differing viewpoints made them question and defend their original stance. In the process, ideas that didn’t pass muster fell by the wayside, and those that remained gained strength and clarity.

Reflecting on the experience, I realize that using the Harkness method helped me teach something much more valuable than any “fact” about the American Revolution. That week, my students learned that disagreement and conflict are (and always have been) at the heart of the democratic process, and they learned that making decisions in a democratic way takes time—just as the “Founding Fathers” intended. In today’s politically polarized society, that’s a lesson worth learning.

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