To build a better citizenry

Professor Joel Westheimer

Does our education system do enough to encourage children to think critically and to become responsible citizens? Joel Westheimer believes there is much room for improvement. He hopes to help cultivate a more engaged citizenry through a deeper understanding of how children are taught about democracy, citizenship and economic inequality.

In early 2014, the University of Ottawa professor of education and a team of collaborators received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for a groundbreaking study on how schools in Canada, the United States and Mexico teach the concept of economic inequality.

Westheimer holds the University’s Research Chair in the Sociology of Education — a field of study that has been growing in importance now that school systems at all levels face budget cuts and frequent philosophical reform. As a result, “recently education has been in the public eye much more than in previous decades,” he notes.

So too has the concept of economic inequality in society — yet Westheimer and his colleagues wonder whether younger generations fully grasp the issue. Economic analysts continue to chart an alarming rise in global wealth disparity: Oxfam estimated in January 2015 that by 2016 the world’s wealthiest one percent would own more than 50 percent of global wealth. But current studies show that “schoolchildren and adults alike exhibit huge gaps in their understanding of economic inequality in the world,” says Westheimer.

To help address this gap, he has joined forces with John Rogers, a professor of education at UCLA, and several other North American researchers to examine existing curricula, survey and interview a range of teachers, and conduct case study analyses in classrooms. Westheimer and Rogers are assisted by a binational team of graduate students. The goal is to develop new pedagogic strategies to help teachers engage students on the topic of economic disparity in a more meaningful way.

The desired impact, however, is about more than knowledge transfer. “We need citizens who can think critically,” explains Westheimer, who believes that schools should be better equipped to help students come to grips with controversial social issues such as race relations, gender discrimination and economic inequality.

“Some of the key outcomes from the project will be policy recommendations for both K-12 and teacher education programs,” he adds. “We also want to empower curriculum creators. This is slow and steady work but we feel that we are on the right path.”

Westheimer’s own path to a career of research in the education of democracy and social values might be traced back to his childhood, when he learned that his mother’s parents perished in a Second World War concentration camp. His mother escaped to Switzerland on a Kindertransport.

When asked why he chose scholarship over activism, the professor and CBC Radio education columnist says that both endeavours are necessary and that “certain kinds of research are a kind of activism. I’m walking the line between the two.”

“I love working with kids and researching and developing education programs,” concludes Westheimer, who taught in New York City grade schools for seven years before moving to academia. He has since emerged at the top of his field, a discipline of rising global consequence.

A personal approach to the tenets of education

The entrenched “narratives” that shape our societal institutions are sometimes difficult to alter. This has not deterred Joel Westheimer, however. His new book, What Kind of Citizen? Educating Our Children for the Common Good, caps a decade of examining what he calls “the dominant narrative of school” — the core philosophies that guide how we teach and methods he feels could and should be reformed for the betterment of society.

Published by Teachers College Press (Columbia University) in April 2015, the book details Westheimer’s research on how schools teach the concepts of democracy and citizenship — two subjects particularly relevant to the author’s family history.

In the introduction, Westheimer recounts his mother’s tragic experiences in Nazi Germany, a narrative that may have spurred his interest in social values. “I started there because, although my parents — both German Jewish refugees — spoke relatively little about their experiences during World War II,” he writes, “I suspect that the intellectual and emotional lineage I inherited was shaped by the profound injustices that informed their childhoods.”

Bold, provocative and rooted in research, Westheimer’s new work offers a fresh perspective on some of the hallmarks of democracy, such as the responsibilities of citizens and the development of critical thinking in school. Ultimately, the author challenges readers to envision their ideal society and shows how education reform might help make that vision a reality.


by Tony Martins

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