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International Education Conference Ponders Democracy, Citizenship
HGSE Cosponsors "Education and the Civic Purposes of Schools in the Americas” in Costa Rica

September 1, 2005

When nearly 50 academics and policy-makers from 10 countries met recently in San José, Costa Rica to discuss education's role in fomenting citizenship and participation in democracy, the perhaps most-repeated quote of the conference was famed anthropologist Margaret Meade's: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

Education and the Civic Purposes of Schools in the Americas poster  

This refrain seemed to capture the hope that organizers and many participants expressed as they tackled the not-so-small question of how schools could better prepare and encourage students to be active participants in democratic society.

Organized jointly by the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, a Costa Rican organization founded by former Costa Rican president and Nobel Peace Prize–winner Oscar Arias, the two-day conference entitled “Education and the Civic Purposes of Schools in the Americas” was intended to bring together those with ideas and those who could act upon them.

“There is a very specific effort—in terms of who has been invited and who is going to present—to try to cross these two, to cross-fertilize, and then hopefully create longer-term working relationships in which some of the research can inform practice and some of the practice can inform research,” said HGSE Professor Julie Reuben.

Like many participants, Reuben submitted a paper prior to the conference, hers entitled “Citizenship and Public Education in the U.S.: A Historical Overview,” and gave a presentation on the topic at the forum. She told those gathered that preparing students for citizenship “has been the primary purpose of education in the United States,” but that its role has changed over time. Currently, she said, the United States is experiencing an era of privatization and private interests, with a “minimalist” idea of citizenship.

“There is a lot of alienation from the idea that individuals can make a difference and alienation from the idea that they should expect and look to government to take care of and create a kind of rich, equal society.”–Professor Julie Reuben

“I think people are focused on personal concerns, whether that is continuing to do well or simply surviving, depending on where they are in the social classes,” she said. “There is a lot of alienation from the idea that individuals can make a difference and alienation from the idea that they should expect and look to government to take care of and create a kind of rich, equal society.”

One recurring theme in the conference was the idea that democratic citizenship cannot simply be taught as another subject in the curriculum.

“They talked about engaging students in a different way, with dialogue and actually modeling democratic behavior in schools. That’s not done very often, even in the United States,” said conference participant David Ives, executive director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute, based at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. “In order to teach democracy, you have to model it. It can’t be the sort of top-down learning lectures all the time.”

Rosario Jaramillo, an advisor to the Civic Education Program in the Ministry of Education in Colombia, agreed with Ives, and said the process begins with “authentic questions.”

“When teachers are truly interested in the questions—the real questions—a student can tell,” she said. “A democracy, in essence, is about listening to others. If you don’t listen, you’re not democratic. You’re authoritarian.”

“In Colombia, what we at the ministry are trying to do is learn to listen,” Jaramillo added. “If we want the teachers to listen to the students, the ministry has to listen to what the teachers are doing, to what the secretariats are doing.”

Luis Alberto Cordero, executive director of the Arias Foundation and one of the main organizers of the conference, said his foundation would devote part of its Web site to sustaining the debate and the network formed at the conference.

Julie Reuben and Oscar Arias  
Professor Julie Reuben with the Arias Foundation's Oscar Arias
(photo courtesy of Fernando Reimers)

The site, he explained, would allow participants to continue to discuss the ideas and topics generated at the conference, as well as update each other on “what we are doing, where an important event is taking place, who has published a must-read paper, who is implementing an exemplary public policy in their country—so we can all be behind this, learning and disseminating.”

“I personally have hopes that these results can influence the formation of public policy in matters of education in more than one country,” Cordero said.

Attendees hailed from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and England, among other countries.

Ford Foundation Professor Fernando Reimers, director of Global Education at HGSE and co-organizer of the conference along with Cordero, said when he and staff members were contemplating the conference they thought immediately of partnering with the Arias foundation in light of Oscar Arias’ “long history” with the university, including an honorary Harvard doctorate.

Arias, who won the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize for his work in Central American peace talks, is currently campaigning for a second presidential term in 2006. He attended parts of the conference and addressed attendees the evening after the event’s conclusion.

Support for the conference, which ran Aug. 18-19, was also provided by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University, the Academy for Educational Development, and the Costa Rica–United States of America Foundation for Cooperation.

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