The School Doctor: Civility, Democracy and Schools

In their latest post, The School Doctor discusses civility and democracy in schools…


In their recent book, How Democracies Die: What History Tells Us About Our Future, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt outline the conditions under which the democracies we take for granted may fall. Taking a wide historical and geographical perspective, Levitsky and Ziblatt pinpoint these dangers: political leaders who are lukewarm towards, or outright contemptuous of, democratic conventions; those who refuse to accept the legitimacy of their opposition, and who threaten the civil liberties of that opposition (including the media); and those who endorse, or at least do not condemn, violence as part of the political process. Fundamentally, those who do not exercise mutual tolerance and restraint pull away what Levitsky and Ziblatt call the ‘soft guardrails’ of democracy.

What has this got to do with schools? Everything.

Democracies are at their healthiest when there is mutual respect and rational discussion, not knee-jerk contempt and loudest-voice-wins slanging matches. The problem is that today’s younger generations are being inducted into democratic life (or what we hope is democratic life) at a time when vitriol trumps respect and hectoring upends rational discussion.

Vitriolic hectoring is naturally more attention-grabbing than measured debate. When media outlets require commercial backing and therefore viewers to consume adverts, they will go for aggressive ratings-bait. Once that attention has been grabbed, it cannot be sustained, because short attention spans require instant gratification and quick fixes. The nuances of sometimes understandable fears and concerns then become hacked up and channeled into pithy in-your-face us-versus-them, good-versus-bad headlines. With 24-hour news, or the irresponsible use of social media, repeat the process ad nauseam and witness the increased entrenchment of the vilification of the ‘other’. We cannot just disagree with someone; we have to hate them. We cannot just give the measured alternative view; we have to call them a ‘fascist’ or a ‘snowflake’, a ‘Nazi’ or a ‘libtard’. Give this the endorsement of key political figures and watch the descent of democracy into kleptocracy and authoritarianism.

Mutual tolerance and restraint, Levitsky and Ziblatt’s ‘soft guardrails’, therefore need to come from somewhere else. In Ken Robinson’s Creative Schools, he lists eight desirable characteristics to encourage in our pupils. They all conveniently begin with ‘c’: curiosity, creativity, criticism, communication, collaboration, compassion, composure and citizenship. The last four get very close to the mark when it comes to our ‘soft guardrails’ and I would venture to add two more: coexistence and civility.

Much of this can be encouraged in lessons. I spend a not insignificant amount of my teaching day reminding my pupils always to look at both sides of an argument (within, of course, the confines of decency and the law). They are not allowed not to have opinions – fence-sitting leads to stasis and stagnation – but I remind them that giving a balanced account or overview distinguishes a convincing argument from an off-putting rant. This requires practice. Anyone who has ever got Year 7s to take part in their first debate will know that you can’t just leave them to it – cacophony, chaos and tears usually ensue. Rules for propriety need to be put in place and constantly reinforced, as tedious as that may be.

Outside the classroom, everything about school life should inculcate civility and coexistence. Every interaction in the corridor, at the school gate, in assemblies, should be respectful and measured – between pupils, between teachers, between pupils and teachers. Aggression should be abhorred and censured, in its verbal as well as physical form. On the one hand this is stating the bleeding obvious – of course we all stop fights – but on the other I wonder how many more subtle Lord of the Flies scenarios we remain oblivious to in our schools, as we career from classroom to photocopier to staffroom.

Yes, this is yet another demand on educators. But if it is part of a school’s vernacular, it should not require any effort; it demands, in fact, much less energy to be rational than to be aggressive. And, as Levitsky and Ziblatt argue, if someone doesn’t inculcate and police civility, when many pressures elsewhere encourage incivility, the consequences are so far-reaching they are too terrifying to countenance.


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