In this Issue
Educating for Democracy at Catlin Gabel
by Tim Bazemore, Head of School
Five-year old children sitting in a circle share ideas about classroom rules. Second graders present the division head with a proposal for a new student club. Eighth graders identify social issues in Portland and commit to sustained personal involvement. Upper Schoolers lobby the administration on academic policies and organize community dialogues in Portland.
At Catlin Gabel, one of our principles of progressive education is educating students for democracy. We believe that education is a powerful force for freedom and opportunity, and that a central purpose of education is to prepare students to take an active role in their communities. Our commitment to democratic principles has its roots in early 20th century progressive educational theory and the Black Mountain College ideals of the mid-20th century, and has been taught and modeled by Catlin Gabel teachers over the decades.
What do we mean by educating for democracy? Most schools in our country teach the skills and knowledge of citizenship. At our school, those are important means, but not ends. Our deeper goals are to have students experience democratic processes and develop the disposition to engage in community affairs. Our goal is not to educate students to be Republicans, Democrats, or Libertarians; it is to prepare them to be informed political citizens, capable of forming reasoned opinions and acting on their beliefs.
We start with the skills of democracy, familiar as essential elements of a liberal arts education. In every grade, students focus on reading, writing, discussion, analysis, computation, and research. They work with classmates from varied backgrounds to access information, interpret data, and determine salience. This equips them to analyze facts and opinions, debate and persuade, and advocate for their point of view.
We teach knowledge of democracy, an understanding of civics and how our political system is used by individuals and groups to achieve their goals. Our students learn the history of the United States, Oregon, and Portland, the origins of our federal republic and constitutional democracy, and how political power is distributed at the federal, state, and local levels. They also study the practical activities of legislation and voting, and political symbols and practices such as the flag and Pledge of Allegiance.
Experiences of democracy begin in the Beehive, where young children learn how to be community members. From early lessons of rights and responsibilities to seniors leading change on campus and in the Portland community, we ask students to engage with a wide range of social, political, economic, and environmental issues. We challenge them to see needs and opportunities and become agents of change through practical experience.
The disposition to participate in democracy is borne of the confidence that students gain from applying their skills and knowledge. When students have opportunities to form opinions, use their voices, and influence what happens in their classroom, school, team, or community, it becomes a self-reinforcing, virtuous cycle. John Dewey wrote that “…the object and reward of learning is continued capacity for growth.” (Democracy and Education, p. 73). At Catlin Gabel we believe that should be true for every student and for all citizens in our community and country. We teach that the privilege and opportunity of a Catlin Gabel education should inspire a lifelong commitment to civic engagement.
Our mission calls on us to provide “inspired learning leading to responsible action.” For students to understand how to take responsible action in the 21st century, they need to learn the skills and knowledge of democracy, and have experiences that show them how to effect change. This essential outcome of a Catlin Gabel education, illustrated vividly in this issue of The Caller, ensures that education benefits both the student and the world.
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