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South Carolina Honors College

Education and the Role It Plays in the Development of Democracy

by Brantley Metcalf

In 1783 the Revolutionary War ended, and America decided that to create a steady, equal balance of power, the country would need to be run through a democracy. Democracy would occur through elected officials who would be chosen by the people according to their own ideas, opinions, and knowledge of government. The government would have three different branches that each hold each other accountable. The school system was given the job of educating students about their duty to the continuation of a free country. However, as time progressed, the schools branched away from teaching students about democracy and civics, leading to a potential threat to America’s distribution of power to the people. Writers including John Dewey, Jeffrey McCall, and Rebecca Winthrop have pointed out that the lack of civic education is dangerous to the functioning of a democracy and the distribution of power. They have criticized school systems for not requiring government, noting that education is the foundation for democracy, and called out the dysfunction that the lack of civic education causes. Public education should teach the importance of understanding who you vote for, how the government is set up, and how each student’s knowledge benefits a democracy.

To correctly exemplify how the lack of education is dangerous to a democracy, Winthrop shames school systems for not requiring government courses. Many schools offer a course but do not require their students to participate, leaving “civic learning [to be on] the margins… of the school experience” (Winthrop 2020). Winthrop acknowledges that schools try to encourage students to take civics seriously by offering a class. But with the workload and stress on “important” classes, such as math and English, government is looked at as not having the importance needed to succeed. Because state governments don’t require their students to take the class, many graduates may end up voting for situations and advocating for issues they don’t fully understand. Winthrop also calls on the knowledge of Horace Mann, who helped develop the education system after the Revolutionary War. Mann “argued that free, standardized, and universal schooling was essential to the grand American experiment of self-governance” (Winthrop 2020). His main goal was to have education be the way democracy continued. He thought that schools should be required to inform students of their duty to the continuation of a free republic. But through time, school systems branched away from this definition of education and more towards the “educational experience” (Dewey 1959, 27), which provides knowledge for a student to excel in one particular area that they will most likely pursue in higher education. Winthrop includes Mann’s words to demonstrate that education was meant to be a gateway to democracy, but schools are diminishing the importance of civics. She criticizes curriculums that have shied away from teaching civics. These classes teach not only the branches of government, but also the key elements of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the roles of citizens within a democratic society.

There are many issues in our society today that, with a solid understanding of civics, could be managed more civilly and productively. The border control crisis is one such issue. Immigration is not just an issue faced by the country but also by singular states and communities. Each year more than 700,000 people come to the U.S. looking for refuge, a new start, and freedom. Instead, these people are faced with racial discrimination, cruel holding facilities, and they are sometimes forced to go back to their home country. After the election of Donald Trump, border rules were created that caused an uproar. Later, Joe Biden was elected and got rid of some of these laws, but people were still not happy that immigrants were still coming into the United States undocumented. Civics teaches us that we are the leaders of our country. We as a nation picked those to lead us and represent our decision. According to a recent study by Gallup, 71 percent of teenagers reported they would vote for the same person as their parents because that is all they know (Lyons 2005).  It is the school’s responsibility to teach these children the civics behind voting. They should consider not who their parents vote for, but who supports the same ideas as their own, values the same political stances, and represents their voice. There is no way for our government to come to a conclusion about immigration without a consensus of ideas. Schools should teach students civics so they are able to represent themselves and understand that they are helping determine how the country is run.

“A divided government will make it nearly impossible” for the immigration debate to be settled (Lyons 2005). If a citizen understands the basics of civics, they will know their job as a citizen of the United States is to vote for someone that demonstrates the qualities they believe will lead to the success of the nation and a final agreement on immigration. This could be in support of Donald Trump, Joe Biden, or new political candidates.

Civics does not merely give insight into a productive government but also into how to be a respected leader, how to communicate effectively, and how to problem-solve. Historical figures including Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George Washington show students how to work around problems, how to establish an educated idea, and how to understand government in a way that will benefit those around them. This is especially important today when trying to solve immigration. Education in government is essential to live successfully. For democracy to exist it must have a robust and educated public that does not fold, as seen in the words of Dewey, McCall, Mann, and Winthrop. The education system needs to understand its role in government is to teach the younger public about civics. Or else, as Jeffery McCall puts it, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people will not last.”

Works Cited

Dewey, John. 1959. Dewey on Education, edited by Martin S. Dworkin. Columbia University: Bureau of Publications, Teachers College.

McCall, Jeffery. 2016. “McCall: Uninformed Public is Danger to Democracy.” IndyStar. Accessed March 2, 2023.

Lyons, Linda. 2005. “Teens Stay True to Parents' Political Perspectives.” Accessed 2 March 2023.

Winthrop, Rebecca. 2020.“The need for civic education in 21st-century schools.” Accessed 2 March 2023.

Brantley Metcalf

About Brantley Metcalf

Brantley Metcalf is a senior at Dorman High School in Spartanburg, where Mr. Chris Smutzer is her AP Language teacher. Brantley plans to get a four-year degree and then attend medical school, hopefully working with children in some capacity.

Brantley Metcalf on Instagram.

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