Teaching Citizenship After the 2016 Election

One thing the 2016 election has made starkly clear is that we have a dearth of citizenship skills across the electorate – on both sides. Regardless of whom we voted for, we would do well to reflect upon how we got here and how we move forward toward a dialogue that goes beyond the vitriol and blame which have consumed the airwaves and social media before and after November 8. At Oneness-Family Montessori High School of Washington, we’ve identified core skills that every student should learn to be an informed and engaged citizen. As we enable each individual to reach their Unique Student Potential™, we aim to foster young leaders who have the breadth of knowledge and depth of aptitudes necessary to make actual citizenship work. Three of our core skills of citizenship are outlined below. We all could benefit from taking these to heart.

Information Literacy: According to the Association of College and Research Libraries, Information Literacy is “a set of abilities requiring individuals to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and use effectively the needed information. Information literacy forms the basis for lifelong learning. It is common to all disciplines, to all learning environments, and to all levels of education. It enables learners to master content and extend their investigations, become more self-directed, and assume greater control over their own learning.”

“Because of the escalating complexity of (our) environment, individuals are faced with diverse, abundant information choices–in their academic studies, in the workplace, and in their personal lives. Information is available through libraries, community resources, special interest organizations, media, and the Internet–and increasingly, information comes to individuals in unfiltered formats, raising questions about its authenticity, validity, and reliability.”

At Oneness-Family Montessori High School, we aim to teach that information literacy is about understanding the various sources of information, the different media through which that information may be accessed, the context of time and place from which the information is being shared, and the biases, whether intentional or unintentional, which may be embedded in the information. For our students to become engaged citizens, they must be able to discern the what, where and why of information in order to determine – to the highest degree possible – what is accurate and what is true.

Critical Thinking: According to the Foundation for Critical Thinking, “Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.”

“Critical Thinking entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue; assumptions; concepts; empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions; implications and consequences; objections from alternative viewpoints; and frame of reference. Critical thinking — in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes — is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking, among them: scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, moral thinking, and philosophical thinking.”

Our aim at Oneness-Family Montessori High School is for students to become proficient critical thinkers, capable of analyzing the writing or thinking of others in order to determine what the core thoughts and purposes might be. Critical thinking is absolutely essential in the civic arena, where the key messages of politicians and leaders are expressed by means of a wide variety of rhetorical devices. Understanding the power of language to persuade and inspire can both inure a citizenry from demagogues and also help identify the attributes that define those leaders we admire most in history.

Civics: Civics is the study of citizenship and government. It includes the history of our government’s foundation and it’s development over time. Civics begins by deep reading and reflection upon on the core documents that define our democracy, including the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, among others. By studying civics, students learn how power and responsibility are shared in American democracy – and how our government both empowers the individual to reach for his / her dreams – and at the same limits the power of any individual to usurp the will of its citizenry as a whole.

Civics teaches the origins of democracy and the historic versions of democracy – from the ancient Greeks to the Iroquois confederacy. It also explores the impact of American politics on world affairs – from our founding to the current day. The teaching of civics highlights the central role of law in the American constitutional system; how our laws enshrine the fundamental truths which we hold as “self-evident – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” By studying civics we learn that, while the rights of American citizens are encapsulated in our founding documents and preserved in our legal system, those rights can only be guaranteed by the informed and active participation of citizens in the democratic process itself.

At Oneness-Family Montessori High School, we encourage our students to take heed of the words inscribed on Thomas Jefferson’s memorial: “Vigilance is the price of freedom”. Students who will be the leaders of tomorrow must understand that being a citizen means staying informed, being engaged and understanding the value of a free press. They also must have a knowledge of how the world is organized politically and how civic participation in the American political system compares to that in other societies around the world. In the end, being a part of a pluralistic democratic political system requires a knowledge base and a set civic skills – such as dialogue and debate – along with a good dose of patience.

If your preferred candidate won the 2016 election: you could gloat, ignore the disparity between the electoral college and the popular votes, and think the work for now is done. If your candidate lost, you could give in to despair and apathy – and blame the system for failing to allow your points of view to be heard. Neither of these responses will be very helpful working through the challenging times and hard work ahead. Sometimes – even often times – democracy is messy and uncomfortable. Let’s do our part to “up our game” as American citizens regardless of our political beliefs. We can start by going back to Civics 101. And let’s hope the next generation of Montessori educated leaders will help ensure that our democracy survives and thrives forever.

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