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Writing (and Learning) for Democracy

By Dave Stuart Jr.

Some time ago, a professor in California named Dr. Sue Baker wrote me after my post on the economic advantages of writing well. She asked, “Would it be possible to do a plug for writing instruction and how it supports our democracy? I understand that writing skills are key for employment, and that employment and being an active citizen are not separate from each other, however, a plug for reading and writing skills and how crucial they are for helping us maintain and defend our democracy, would be great, too.”

Now seems like the right time.

I was at Divine Child High School in Dearborn, MI, this past week, and in one of many moments where I was blown away by the quality of conversations amongst that staff, a Theology teacher said that he was bothered by students always wanting to know, “When will I use this?” Mind you, this man's love for his students was as obvious as the sun — he wasn't at all dismissing their need for a reason to value the work. (Value, of course, is one of the five beliefs I've been thinking on lately.) Rather, he was just concerned about what happens when our young people constantly crave a black and white use for their education; he was worried about purely utilitarian approaches to education. “Apply yourself to school so that you can have a good job someday” — he sensed the void in that way of thinking, just as you and I do. Utility is part of the rationale for an education — I want my daughters and son to be able to earn a living for themselves and their families — but, just like the professor in California was getting at, it is far from the whole.

Recent events are certainly reminding us of another reason: we need our students to build knowledge, argue, read, write, speak, and listen frequently and with ever greater care and skill because our democratic republic depends on them being knowledgeable and skillful in these areas by the time they're 18. And here's how that translates, very bluntly: You ought to become a thoughtful, literate person not just because of what it can do for your life, but because of what it can do for all of our lives. We need to see how roughly this rationale rubs up against the increasingly worshipful attitude our culture has toward ME. Here are some of the ME-exalting messages I've heard this past week:

  • Do what makes you happy.
  • Live your best life now.
  • Pursue your passion.
  • Each person must decide what's right and wrong for them.
  • If a book is boring to you, it's not worth reading.

The public school classroom never ought to be used to teach one's political or religious views as the only way, but it always ought to be a place where we teach and require students to found opinions on strong evidence and clear reasoning. Such skills need not be taught using the hot button issues of the day (mine rarely are, to be honest — it's just too difficult to practice clear thinking when emotions are so close at hand) — rather, kids can practice evidence-based, rational thought with any issue germane to our curricula:

  • This is the best way to solve that kind of math problem because _____________.
  • An experiment set up like this is going to better help us test the hypothesis because _____________.
  • The advent of agriculture was ultimately bad for humanity because _____________.

We can practice this through writing (as the professor wisely knew), and through reading and speaking and listening. After all, teaching toward a thriving democratic republic is one of the Everests that the Everest Framework helps us aim at.

In all of these curriculum-centered arguments, we can require evidence and logic. Like Mr. Miagi asking Daniel to “wax on, wax off,” what we're doing here is building an unconscious bias toward reasoned decision-making. I'm reminded of something Daniel Willingham wrote on this recently at his blog (emphasis mine):

It would be very very difficult indeed to persuade the people who marched in Charlottesville that their ideas about race, religion, immigration, history, the United States government, and many other things are wrong. But for each person who marched, there are likely hundreds or thousands who did not march but who read about these events and thought “Huh. Well, I see their point.”

These people might be reached. The children of these people might be reached.

The way to reach them is with facts, by building in them a habit of seeking evidence for their own beliefs, and with the skills to seek and evaluate that evidence. That’s the long-term goal of educators.

So in our writing instruction, let's keep these things in mind — all year long, not just during the lesson or two on Charlottesville.

I'll say one last thing: At some point, we do need to decide if American education is going to get back into the game of actually teaching kids that there are moral truths. When we teach children that they are their own arbiters for what is morally right and morally wrong, we cannot blame them if they decide that neo-Nazism is right, that “reverse racism” is a real and present problem, that systemic injustices aren't real, and that the sins of our fathers aren't our problem. It is a harsh thing, I think, to fail to equip our young people with the moral knowledge that humans have accrued over the centuries.

Here might be some good moral truths to start with:

  • It is wise and good to love your neighbor as yourself. To treat someone as you would not want to be treated is wrong and foolish.
  • It is wise and good to judge others as you would want to be judged. To characterize a fellow human being is wrong and foolish; it is a sure recipe for misunderstanding and division.

Teaching right beside you,


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2 Responses to Writing (and Learning) for Democracy

  1. Gail Desler August 19, 2017 at 2:19 pm #

    I’m hoping post becomes Part 1 of a much-needed series. Thank you, Dave.

  2. patrycja August 21, 2017 at 12:42 pm #

    Great post, Dave. I have noticed over the past few years an increase in fuzzy thinking. Students argue a position, especially political or religious positions, without any evidence or clear thinking. They begin their sentences with “I feel…” not “I think…because…” They react quickly to images and soundbites, but they struggle to unpack informational texts. As teachers in the 21st century, I think it’s our duty to guide them to those timeless moral truths that you mention. And when I say ‘guide’ I do mean teach critical thinking and evidence-base reasoning, as you point out.

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