Educating for a Healthy Democracy in Jewish Day Schools

In Democracy in Education, John Dewey is unequivocal about the role of education within a functioning society. “Without [the] communication of ideals, hopes, expectations, standards, opinions, from those members of society who are passing out of the group life to those who are coming into it,” Dewey states, “social life could not survive.”

For society to exist and to thrive, we have to successfully pass our most cherished values to the next generation. We can never take for granted that this process happens naturally. We cannot leave it to chance. It is our profound obligation to the next generation. It is our legacy.

Last week, we received a collective wake-up call. We got a taste of what can happen if, as a nation, we fail to communicate the core of our democratic ideals, and the hopes and expectations we have for how our democracy should function. As we witnessed frightening scenes playing out in our nation’s capital, we found ourselves struggling with many important questions. 

Who are we as a country? Will our nation get through this? Are the fissures in our public life able to be healed? Is our democracy strong enough to rebuild trust across the divides? What does our society need at this moment?

As educators, we ask ourselves a whole other set of challenging and nuanced questions. What is our professional role in this moment? When is it our job to give just the facts, and at what point is it our responsibility to share our moral beliefs? How do we best educate young people for healthy civic engagement? What is our role in ensuring that the voters, leaders and activists of the future have the skills they need to communicate and build trust across differences?

Sometimes the questions are more important than the precise answers. 

We understand as American educators that we hold the future of American democracy in our hands, so these questions have to be on our minds at all times. These are not just questions for current events and history lessons, but questions for playground conflicts, science lessons and Torah study. Each time we help a child listen to someone they don’t agree with, each time we support a student to articulate their thoughts in a calm and clear way, each time we allow for multiple paths to solve a math problem, each time we encourage perspective taking, each time we celebrate the holy arguments between our Torah sages—each time we make an intentional pedagogic move to strengthen critical thinking, empathy, curiosity and so many more essential skills—we are laying the foundation for a functioning democracy.

Educators in Jewish schools are particularly well-equipped to lay this foundation. As the inheritors of our ancient tradition of respectful debate, we know exactly what it looks like to argue for the sake of heaven. We know that this means putting truth above ego, and it involves an intentional balancing of the needs of the individual with the wellbeing of the social structure. We teach our students to grapple with ancient legal texts and to analyze logical arguments, and as we do so we emphasize both head and heart, making sure that our students understand the underlying ethical and spiritual values that inform differing opinions. 

We know what it sounds like to listen with an open mind. When we pair our students for havruta learning, we expect to see a meaningful exchange of ideas that pushes each student’s thinking towards a deeper understanding of the text. We celebrate when these discussions are intense and impassioned while remaining respectful. We want our students to articulate ideas that are grounded in evidence, and we want them to value the ideas of another, listening with curiosity, asking follow-up questions and checking for understanding.

These are Jewish learning skills, but they are also powerful democratic engagement skills. We know how to lay the foundation for a civic society. We have been doing it for thousands of years.

We also know what it looks like when these skills fall out of use. We know the cost a society pays when baseless hatred undermines our Torah values of respect and responsibility for the other. And our painful history has taught us what happens when critical thinking and empathy are sacrificed for demagoguery. 

In this vulnerable national moment we, the educators of America, must focus on the facts and do our best to help our students feel safe and calm. And every day, for all the days to come, we must redouble our efforts, continuing to ask ourselves nuanced questions that bring us back to the purpose of our work. As Jewish educators and as American educators, we must do all we can to nurture the mindsets and skills that our future democracy depends on.

Tania Schweig is the head of school at the Oakland Hebrew Day School in the Bay Area.