Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

John Samuel Tieman: A Civics Lesson


Freedom can exist only in the society of knowledge.  — Benjamin Rush


When I taught high school, I once caught a boy scribbling anti-Semitic graffiti on a desk. He was immediately expelled. That was thirty-plus years ago. Things have changed.

The day after the election of Donald Trump, middle schoolers in York, Pennsylvania, spent part of their lunch chanting ,“Build the wall. Build the wall. …”

On “Univision”, I listened to a mother, a mother in tears, speak of how her Spanish speaking daughter was threatened by other middle schoolers because she “speaks taco.”

In Maple Grove, Minnesota, “Whites Only” was the least offensive thing painted on a high school door.

These examples are used because they occurred in schools. But they reflect a disturbing national trend.

Our problems are manifold. And Americans are not given to reflection. Nonetheless, this last election must give us pause. Let us focus on one problem. About those schools.

At least in part, this election is the logical, and perhaps necessary, result of the decades during which we neglected our public school system. The elemental thrust of American public education, from Benjamin Rush and Horace Mann to John Dewey, from the common school to today’s comprehensive high school, has been to educate for democracy and away from tyranny and plutocracy.

Educational theorists, like Benjamin Rush and Horace Mann, knew the fragility of representative democracy. They considered the need, to educate for democracy, so vital that they instituted a new form of schooling, the common school. The common school had many problems, but of importance here is its central demand for civic education. Common schools were the dominant form of schooling throughout the 1800’s, and well into the 20th century.

The philosopher, John Dewey, in his 1916 Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education , says, “If a plague carried off the members of a society all at once, it is obvious that the group would be permanently done for. Yet the death of each of its constituent members is as certain as if an epidemic took them all at once. But the graded difference in age, the fact that some are born as some die, makes possible through transmission of ideas and practices the constant reweaving of the social fabric. Yet this renewal is not automatic. Unless pains are taken to see that genuine and thorough transmission takes place, the most civilized group will relapse into barbarism and then into savagery.”

The demand, therefore, is for an educated and informed electorate. In this sense, educated does not mean a doctorate. It means the ordinarily informed citizen, one who reads the papers, debates the issues, considers all sides. This ordinarily informed citizen is one who understands the need for a civil dialectic, and takes loyal opposition as a given. Put simply, this citizen minimally understands facts, dialogue, voting.

Yet repeated studies show that we just elected someone whose followers are bound by their longing for the authoritarian. Authoritarianism is a world view that trusts rigid order, and distrusts change. It is not Republican or Democrat. But this year, yes, it is Trump and much of what he represents. Deferring to the authoritarian today results in a denial of scientific facts like global warming and evolution, as well as setbacks in our elemental civic progress toward civil rights, gender equality and religious toleration.

How did this happen? There are many reasons. But, in schools, we no longer educate for democracy. We educate for The Test. The Standards And Accountability Movement, begun in the 1990’s, has resulted, frankly, not in education but in ignorance. The measure of a student is no longer civic responsibility but test preparedness. Standardization created a moral vacuum filled now by the authoritarian.

Various studies, including some published in Education Week, suggest that “No Child Left Behind” resulted in a shift toward math and science, and away from social science. Other studies support similar conclusions. In any case, 36% of Americans cannot name the three branches of government. The Annenberg Public Policy Center also found that just 15% of Americans could correctly identify the Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts, while 27% knew Randy Jackson was a judge on “American Idol”. And these folks can vote.

Authoritarianism trusts rigidity. It is antithetical to democracy, which values the fluidity of civic dialogue. Combine that with simple ignorance, and the result is – and this is not too strong of a word – terrifying. Why? Because the republic is fragile. Because authoritarianism, as we experience it today, thrives on ignorance.

Let us listen, once more, to John Dewey. “Knowledge is humanistic in quality not because it is about human products in the past, but because of what it does in liberating human intelligence and human sympathy. Any subject matter which accomplishes this result is humane, and any subject matter which does not accomplish it is not even educational.”

An education in civics does not track toward the left, right or center. It tracks toward an informed electorate. It does not result singularly in a Bernie Sanders, a Paul Gigot, an E. J. Dionne. It results in all of them.


I cannot end this essay without a personal note. I am a retired high school teacher. My observations are consistent with the educational studies mentioned above. I also know that Benjamin Rush, Horace Mann and John Dewey, despite any faults, left an ideological and pedagogical legacy, which we abandon at our peril.

So it came as a surprise to me, shortly before I retired, when a student teacher asked, “What is the greatest change in your forty years of teaching?”

And I spontaneously answered, “When did teaching become morally ambiguous?”

Thus do I mourn for my profession and my nation.

(c) 2016 John Samuel Tieman


3 comments on “John Samuel Tieman: A Civics Lesson

  1. John Tieman
    December 4, 2016

    I deeply appreciate your comments. I am heartened to see that folks, who are so knowledgeable on this subject, have taken the time to read and respond to my essay.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. pollybrown2013
    December 3, 2016

    I myself have been thinking a lot about the way so much mainstream education functions, now, as a sorting of winners and losers, with maximum humiliation for the losers. Your wonderful essay, Mr. Tieman, feels to me like another side of that same sorrow. I want to say that young children are as important here as older ones; children as young as three or four, certainly ten and eleven, who learn about inclusion by including; learn about the skills for coexisting with others, listening carefully, by doing that within a classroom community in which they do the most important talking. Information about civics is vital, yes, but the experience of civic community is even more important. Meanwhile, the constant, corrosive testing, checking for information transmission, systematically destroys any experience of shared responsibility for the safety of all.

    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Daniel Burston
    December 3, 2016

    Amen! John Samuel Tieman has hit the nail on the head! Unless we recognize that Trump’s election speaks to the degradation of our public schools, the lure of authoritarianism, and the dangers of “teaching to the Test”, instead of engaging students as future citizens, we may completely loose our democracy – or what little is left of it, anyway.

    Though he focuses specifically on middle school and high-schools – where the problems, admittedly, are worst – the education trends he’s describing have obvious “knock on” efforts for post-secondary education as well. When racism, climate change denial and “creationism” all become respectable or mainstream again, when professors are placed on watch lists for being critical of the status quo, when civility means not talking about the elephant in the room, it can only be because of a massive cultural regression. The pervasive ignorance, apathy and indifference engendered by a shabby high school education – as he rightly says – are simply terrifying.

    One would like to introduce a note of hope, a plan for change, etc., but it is probably too early to start talking about “solutions.” I fear that we haven’t begun to process the full depth and magnitude of the problem we – and future generations – are facing here.

    Thank you, Mr. Tieman. We need thousands more like you.

    Liked by 1 person

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This entry was posted on December 3, 2016 by in Personal Essays, Social Justice and tagged , , , , , .

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