Summary of "Education, Democratic Citizenship, and Multiculturalism"

Summary of

Education, Democratic Citizenship, and Multiculturalism

By Michael Walzer

This Article Summary written by: Conflict Research Consortium Staff

Citation: Michael Walzer, "Education, Democratic Citizenship, and Multiculturalism," in The Handbook of Interethnic Coexistence, ed. Eugene Weiner, (New York: Continuum Publishing, 1998), pp. 153-161.

Walzer offers an account of education geared toward supporting democratic citizenship in a multicultural context, drawing upon lessons learned from the Israeli case. He begins by describing three historical approaches to maintaining multicultural societies. The first approach is typified by the millet system of the Ottoman empire, which followed a "divide and rule" strategy. Under this system groups were allowed to retain considerable autonomy over their communities, while submitting to a broader imperial rule. Group autonomy extended to matters of family life, inheritance, and often education. This system requires every individual to affiliate themselves with some group.

Nations-states represent second approach. Nation-states arose as groups began to assert their right to their own territory, and to rule themselves according to their own customs and history. Nation-states have arisen by consolidation over time, by colonial revolt, and by partition of existing states. Nation-states seek to preserve the culture of a majority group. They usually have no particular commitment to supporting minority cultures.

Immigrant societies are those in which there is no one dominant group. This may occur over time in nation-states, as the arrival of new groups displaces the old majority group. In such societies "the state is forced into a kind of neutrality, which is first expressed in religious toleration and secularism and then in a slow disengagement from the national history and cultural style of the first immigrants."(p. 154) Groups are left to sustain their cultures on their own.

Educational arrangements differ in each of these approaches. Under the millet system education is generally decentralized. The local curriculum is usually largely under the control of the local group, and conducted in the local language. Nation-states generally have a centralized curriculum which teaches the dominant national culture and history , in the national language. Immigrant societies also have a centralized curriculum, which either ignores the various cultures or attempts to expose students to all cultures equally.

Israel has elements of each of these approaches to maintaining a multicultural state. It has been a territory of the Otttoman and British empires, and grants its various religious communities limited autonomy in their courts and education. Modern Israel was formed to create a Jewish nation-state, reflecting the culture of the dominant group. Walzer notes that "members of the minority are citizens of the state, but they do not find their culture or history mirrored in its public life."(p. 155) Israel is also an immigrant society. Although its immigrants generally share a religion, they come from many different cultures, histories, races and languages. They may have even have rather different religious attitudes and practices.

The only thing that that these people do all have in common is their citizenship. "They vote in the same elections; they obey the same laws (except for family law); they pay the same taxes; they participate in the same arguments about what the state should and should not do."(p. 156) Maintaining a strong sense of democratic citizenship is crucial to maintaining a multicultural state. Walzer argues that civil differences are and must be bridged in the democratic political arena; in a culturally diverse democratic state political action requires support from a coalition of groups. Strengthening the democratic political arena requires that the people "learn to think of one another as fellow citizens and to accord to one another the rights that democratic citizenship entail."(p. 156) This learning is best begun in childhood.

Walzer offers two reasons for why there must be a common civic curriculum in schools. First, very nation must takes steps to insure its own the survival and internal security . Second, a strong commitment to democratic citizenship in a diverse society produce a strong commitment to the politics of difference, which in turn encourages people to seek a sympathetic understanding of different groups.

A civic curriculum for democratic citizenship should include three elements. First it must offer education in the history of democratic institutions and practices. It should also foster critical engagement with the democratic and non-democratic tendencies in the particular group's history. Second, it must teach the philosophy, or political theory, of democracy. Students should explore the various types of democracy, alternatives to democracy, and the various arguments for and against each. Third, classes should cover the practical political science , explaining how the government works, and what the citizens' roles are. Students should learn how to form and debate political ideas with their peers. The curriculum overall must inculcate a "democratic consciousness," which is open to new ideas, critical and questioning.

Walzer considers the objection that this sort of education imposes a new democratic culture on students, and so requires some traditional cultures to change or assimilate. He notes that democracy as practiced at a particular place and time may reflect the culture of some dominant group. But democratic states are always open to a "friendly take-over" by some other cultural group, by shared democratic processes. The values associated with democracy itself may require some cultural changes, although many traditional authority structures can be m within the democratic political process.

Democracy is a politics of strain. It is a "culture of criticism and disagreement ,"(p. 158) When the strain of democracy is too great people may abandon it, retreating to the comfort of their cultural group and leaving the politics of coexistence to elites, charismatic or authoritarian leaders. Walzer concludes "that is why education is so important--school learning (also practical experience) aimed at producing the patience, stamina, tolerance, and receptiveness without which the strain will not be understood or accepted."(p. 160)