Will Our Kids Become Fascists or Support Democracy?

Citizenship can and should be taught and experienced at school.

Posted Nov 19, 2018

I’ve heard it said that an extra-terrestrial that arrived on Earth could easily find out what kind of government we humans prefer by visiting an elementary school in any country. Watch closely what the children are taught in their classrooms and one can quickly tell what kind of government is in power. Fascist? Religious theocracy? Democratic? Populist? Children are taught the values of their leaders through the subtlety of everyday lessons. How we ask them to sit. To memorize. To think. To talk to authority. Pray. Tolerate others.

I recently heard Professor Raymond Blake, a historian from the University of Regina, say that “politicians create narratives that voters adopt.” Even children are susceptible to these stories about how (and if) power should be shared. If you want to know if your children will grow up and become fascists, show a tolerance for ideologues, or feel comfortable letting religious zealots tell everyone what to believe and how to think, then spend a day in your child’s school. You will walk away inspired, or downright scared.

As we watch the divisive politics that are now festering in the United States, Britain, Brazil and across Canada, we may be sowing the seeds of hatred and war for generations to come unless schools (and families) can resist this pull to telling stories about others that are wildly untrue. Democracy can actually work, but it needs an informed population of voters, not a manipulated group of individuals who are being fed lies. A little science wouldn’t hurt either. And science tells us that, on the whole, the best government is one that doesn’t let one religious group, one political ideology, or one narrow set of values impose itself on everyone. Or at least, that’s what I was taught in school.

Lately, I’m more worried than I was a decade ago that our democratic institutions are failing. And I’m not alone. Cognitive biases start young and then get reinforced when we keep ourselves isolated from anyone, and any form of mass media, that might challenge us to think differently. The ideological left is just as much to blame for the current fragile state of democracy as the ideological right. There are days I feel like I’m living in a Maoist state, with my neighbors watching me for any tiny transgression to the way I’m supposed to think. Likewise, our schools are teaching our children to be victims, which makes everyone else but them evil and dangerous. That sounds to me like a formula for fascism rather than the promotion of tolerance which is the foundation for democracy.

Our education system is going to have to do more. Professor Jonathan Jensen, a famed educational scholar from South Africa, says teachers have an especially important role to play in promoting citizenship. Educators need to disrupt polarized thinking (including their own) and help their students to be more tolerant of divergent points of view. In today’s nanny state, where no student (or parent) can ever be uncomfortable with an idea they don't like, I fear for our children’s ability to hear, filter, and decide for themselves what they believe, and later, who they will vote for. Teachers need to instead model for their students the basic tenets of democracy. They (like parents too) need to experience what Jensen calls “pedagogic dissonance”, the discomfort that comes teaching beyond one’s comfort zone and shattering stereotypes, creating educational spaces rich in empathy, compassion and the desire to alleviate suffering.

None of that was present when children from a rural Nova Scotian school forced a boy with Cerebral Palsy to lie down in a cold stream and then used him as a human bridge. It is a sickening thing to watch, and yet one can’t entirely blame the children. Children are taught to behave like that. Or more accurately, they behave like that when their families, schools and communities fail to educate them in basic empathy for others. But then, maybe these children are simply the canaries in the mine, warning us that something isn’t quite right. It’s our most vulnerable who signal when democracy is in danger. Is it such a leap to think that when we put children in cages on the border, or let them drown at sea, or allow madmen to shoot them in their schools, that our children might stop feeling responsible for each other?

Which brings me back to our peek inside our children’s classrooms. What do we see? Respectful conversation about difficult topics? Opportunities to read real news from reliable sources? The chance to tell one’s own stories one’s own culture?

I’ve heard it said that there are three types of citizens. (1) There are those who take personal responsibility for following the rules and being a good person. They believe that character matters and are proud of the part they play in making their neighborhood a nice place to live. (2) There are participatory citizens who believe their actions can change the way society works for everyone. These are the people who run the food drive versus the people who leave cans out to be collected. (3) And there are social justice citizens. These are the folks who see their philanthropy in a historical context, righting old wrongs and balancing power. The social justice folks ask us to wonder why we have to have a food drive at all, and why people go hungry in a wealthy country like ours. I’d be happy if children were helped to become any one of these. The question is, are they?

Which brings me back to schools and how they teach children to show responsibility for themselves and others. Dr. Dorit Alt, an Israeli scholar of education, sees citizenship as the result, in part, of an education system that promotes attitudes towards national accountability, reinforced by participatory democracy and institutional practices like voting. When children are provided opportunities to learn and experience these things at school, children have a better chance of becoming good and engaged citizens.

Except, being a citizen these days is a little more complicated than it was a century ago. Today, children need to also be good digital citizens, which requires internet access and the ability to navigate the digital landscape with a critical eye, even as they are inundated by social media. In this regard, education systems that promote a resilient citizenry are those that teach kids to think deeply about issues like immigration, globalization and prejudice. They show kids how to judge the truthfulness of the media they see, the books they read, and the statements made by their politicians, even those at the highest levels of their government.

We can do better to make our children’s classrooms an incubator for democracy. Educational scholars agree: the pictures we show children, and the stories we tell them (those narratives Raymond Blake talks about), become the basis for an educated citizenry or a mob of violent fools. It is a responsibility we all share to promote the former and prevent the latter.