Taken from Penn GSE Magazine, spring 2007
One Leg in the Future
Thriving democracies accommodate diversity and dissent. But in times of war, when stark distinctions are drawn between “them” and “us,” how can they sustain such civic ideals? Searching for answers, Penn GSE Research Associate Sigal Ben-Porath looks at the role education can play.
By Ann de Forest
During World War II, schoolchildren planted Victory Gardens and collected old tires and cans to support the war effort. Baby boomers remember ducking under their school desks as air sirens blared, a Cold War drill to prepare them for future nuclear attack. And, to that same generation, math and science studies took on patriotic urgency as America competed with the Soviets for technological prowess.
A generation later, America responded to the terrorist attacks of
September 11 with similar displays of unity and urgency. In Nebraska, for instance, in October 2001, the state board of education unanimously endorsed a 1949 state law requiring school to teach lyrics to patriotic songs, reverence for the flag, and the dangers of communism. Many American high schools opened their corridors and classrooms to military recruiters. Unity, sacrifice, obedience. All are typical of the way democracies respond to war and conflict, asserts GSE researcher Sigal Ben-Porath, in her thoughtful, provocative new book Citizenship Under Fire: Democratic Education in Times of Conflict. Citing examples from the United States and her native Israel, Ben-Porath observes that in wartime, the very
definition of what it means to be a citizen changes. Priorities shift. Security takes precedence over individual rights; solidarity overrides diversity. In short, a democracy in wartime often compromises the values most cherished in times of peace. To describe this phenomenon, Ben-Porath coins a term “belligerent citizenship.”
The nature of these changes, the necessity for citizens to make
compromises in order to endure a period of conflict, and the long-term effects of “belligerent citizenship” on a democratic society are all issues Ben-Porath grapples with in her study. A social and political philosopher with a BA and MA in education, and years of experience teaching high school in Israel, Ben-Porath delivers an analysis that is “like its author, both far-ranging in its theorizing and pragmatically focused,” says Penn President Amy Gutmann, a political philosopher herself, and instrumental in bringing Ben-Porath to the United States. “An original thinker,” Gutmann calls her younger colleague, “she challenges conventional wisdom on educational policy and political philosophy.” Passionate and optimistic, Ben-Porath sees the most difficult challenge for societies in times of conflict as balancing the temporary, pressing needs of wartime with the enduring need to preserve democratic values. In a culture of warfare, where the need for solidarity and security take precedence over other democratic values—peace remains a vague Utopian notion. Without a conscious effort to recognize the problems inherent in belligerent citizenship, Ben-Porath argues, war will repeat, generation after generation.
No sphere is more vulnerable to these changes than a nation’s classrooms, where the values of belligerent citizenship are inculcated—intentionally or inadvertently—in future citizens. Rather than take on the
responsibilities of a true civic education, teaching students to be active participants in the democratic process, public education becomes, in Ben-Porath’s phrase, “war by other means.”
So what’s a democracy to do?
Fortunately, Ben-Porath does much more than present a fascinating if disturbing analysis of the nature of “belligerent citizenship” and then throw up her hands—leaving outraged readers to do the same. She offers a blueprint for change, with education as the vehicle. She advocates an approach she names “expansive education,” public education focused on engaging citizens in preserving democracy. “To fully respond to the psycho-social needs of society at war,” Ben-Porath addressed an audience at the University of Pennsylvania Bookstore, “we need to consider a public educational response … that would incorporate a nuanced understanding of the needs of society at war with an unwavering commitment to democratic values.”
In Ben-Porath’s view education is always political. “The main job of the public education system is political in the broadest sense of the word,” she says, her hands slicing the air for emphasis. “We do necessarily political work, and if we don’t do it reflectively and intentionally, we don’t do it right.”
Promoting education as an agent for political change has been the thrust of Sigal Ben-Porath’s career. As a young social philosopher and educator in Israel, she participated in an interdisciplinary study group funded by the Ford Foundation. Discussing social, environmental, economic, and educational issues, these Israeli scholars began hopeful preparations for “The Morning After,” setting forth a positive agenda of actions and reforms their nation would be free to address the day that peace arrived. “When the group first formed, peace seemed possible,” says Ben-Porath wistfullly. Instead, the week they started meeting, in September 2000, the second intifada began. “Literally the last day of peace.”
Despite the group’s deflated hopes, the exchange of ideas lasted a year, with the final meeting taking place on September 13, 2001. “Not the best time to talk about ‘the morning after,’” she says. “Instead we ended up talking about the way war effects the conception of citizenship in a democratic society,” the first seeds of Citizenship Under Fire.
In the meantime, Ben-Porath, a mother with two babies, was finding life in Tel Aviv increasingly stressful. “I know other people were suffering so much more; people from the Occupied Territories had it even worse,” she says. But in Tel Aviv, the most ordinary acts—the hour-long drive to visit her mother in Jerusalem, a trip to the grocery store—were fraught with anxiety. She and her husband agonized over what route was least likely to be bombed or whether it was better to bring the children to the
supermarket or leave them home, better to be killed as a family or to leave the babies orphans. When Princeton University offered her a
post-doctoral fellowship, Ben-Porath and her journalist husband seized the opportunity, “thankful,” she says, “to leave these tensions behind and move to the safety and comfort of life.”
Ben-Porath and her family arrived in the tranquil suburban New Jersey town at the end of August 2001.
Whenever she tells this tale, to an audience at a book signing or an academic conference or to an interviewer in her office, Ben-Porath pauses at this point. She doesn’t need to say what happened next. Every American knows.
She smiles ruefully, “My husband’s a journalist, and friends back home joked that he wanted to keep life interesting.” Meanwhile, Ben-Porath “was in awe” as she watched a situation unfold that seemed eerily familiar. This time, with the benefit of an outsider’s perspective, she witnessed how quickly a democracy can change focus when national security is threatened. As Americans rallied round the flag and ballparks played “God Bless America” during the seventh inning stretch, Ben-Porath behaved like an astute diagnostician charting the stages of a condition she recognized all too well. The U.S. had an acute case of “belligerent citizenship.” In Israel, the condition seemed chronic. As a teacher, she had noted how the belligerent stance pervaded the education system. In the youngest grades, children celebrate Jewish holidays as historic military victories, “transmitting a national message of a people perpetually at war,” she writes. History textbooks likewise emphasize militaristic themes and the story of Israel as a nation forged through constant struggle, “while projecting a uniform and uncritical image of the people and state.” Suppression of dissent or debate is one of the most problematic
characteristics of a belligerent citizenship. Citizens under Fire opens with a telling anecdote of a final exam question posed to Israeli high school students in 2002: “Explain why conscientious objection is
Educators across America, hearing her ideas, have sent Ben-Porath examples from their own experiences in the wake of September 11 and the war in Iraq. Her “belligerent education folder” is filled with “horrific
examples,” she says. One high school teacher wrote about a flyer
distributed to all teachers from military recruiters, who offered to “cover classes” and present a new, school district-approved “self-esteem” curriculum. A state law requiring a certified teacher in every classroom was waived for these recruiters.
“Recruiters visit weekly,” this teacher wrote. “… they had office space. They
develop relationships with students which obviously enhances their ability to recruit.” Just like the Israeli military, the US military portrays itself as “unique” and “moral.” The recruiters not only stressed “service” but also “educational opportunity.”
Rather than denounce the conservative, insular tendencies of a democratic
society under attack, Ben-Porath seeks ways to respond to what she sees as the constructive aspects of “belligerent citizenship.” Wartime, much more than peacetime, provides the ideal opportunity to engage students in the democratic process and to become more active citizens. When a
democracy is “under fire,” citizens should be taught “it’s not just what you contribute—enlist in military service, go out shopping to boost the economy—it’s how you participate.” Recasting the patriotic emphasis on national identity into a notion of “shared fate,” for example, is one way of transforming the more harmful and destructive tendencies of
“belligerent citizenship” into a more inclusive and active view of civic participation.
And public education is society’s best tool for effecting such
transformations. Education, with “one leg in the present and its other leg in the future,” she says, “is always, at least potentially, an agent for change.” Yet schools, Ben-Porath believes, don’t usually go far enough in their civics lessons or take seriously enough their fundamental role in raising tomorrow’s citizenry. In October 2003, when “Operation Iraqi Freedom” no longer looked to be the quick, effective mission the U.S. government had declared, the districts around the country, she recalls, introduced an ad hoc unit on Iraq’s geography, history, and culture. Tips for reducing personal stress accompanied the unit. While Ben-Porath commends the school district for attempting to broaden students’
understanding of the world and to know more about the country their own nation was occupying as “better than nothing,” she mourns the “lost opportunity to talk about political issues.” Drained of political content and avoiding any controversy, the ad hoc unit in the end sent students a message of disempowerment. The only way to cope with the strain and horror of war was to practice breathing and stretching exercises.
For similar reasons, Ben-Porath feels that peace education often lulls
students from taking meaningful political action. “The work towards peace is very abstract because peace itself is not tangible, right?”
Ben-Porath’s pale eyes shine as she speaks. “Children release doves into the air and it’s all very nice,” she muses. “But balloons and butterflies and doves, that’s all about us, [making ourselves feel good].” These gestures, may nurture hope in children’s impressionable minds, but they do not change political reality. Teaching children that they have a voice and a role as citizens is far more important than instilling Utopian dreams. “The main challenge we have—and the main hope—is in maintaining democratic principles. That will help us stem the tide.” Teaching democracy, she says, is “a more robust way of incorporating peace into the process.” More important, in times of war, preserving democracy becomes education’s most significant role. “Educational resources devoted to creating a commitment to democracy and peace in each country can support the endurance of democracy through war,” Ben-Porath writes in her book’s introduction. “In this way, expansive education can… contribute to creating democratically committed citizens who maintain a realistic appreciation of peace even in times of conflict.” .
“Expansive education” then is civic education during wartime aimed at strengthening democratic values, skills, and practices. She defines it as “the practical rendering of what Kant called ‘enlarged thought’ or putting oneself—in thought—in the place of everyone else.” In her vision,
expansive education reaches out to include more voices, more opinions, more citizens, especially those belonging to groups marginalized in times of national solidarity.
Ben-Porath seeks models for expansive education in the fields of peace
education, feminist pedagogy, and multicultural education. She sees peace educators’ tools of conflict resolution, anger management, and mediated dialogue as useful for inter-personal and social relations, but less valuable in the political sphere. More relevant are the lessons offered by feminist and multiculturalist theories and practice.
The feminist struggle provides an especially compelling model. It was,
and is, writes Ben-Porath, “pursued by peaceful means not to conquer social constructions but to expand them so that they include further perspectives.”
“Talk back,” bell hooks’s rallying cry for “critical response to the
social mainstream,” neatly sums up what feminist pedagogy offers
educators working for peace and democracy. But feminist scholars,
theorists, and educators offer more than crucial lessons in resistance or recognizing difference. Feminism also provides an important, alternative narrative to the patriarchal paradigm, that even the most liberal
democratic society tends to adopt in times of war, when men become soldiers while women tend the home front. The feminist emphasis on “creating a positive conception of the future self” translates to the social arena as well. “A main aim of civic education for peace is to enable the formation of a positive vision of the future,” writes
But it is multicultural education that provides the clearest template for
expansive education. They share essentially the same mission and differ, says Ben-Porath, only in context. Multicultural education is dedicated to “responding to social conflicts, tensions and differences while creating democratic citizens,” while expansive education responds to the tensions and differences of armed conflicts. Multicultural education has already taught citizens to reverse their perspective; where traditional patriotic response in times of conflict sees “unwelcome diversity,” multiculturalism sees instead “oppressive unity.” Ben-Porath quotes Susan Muller Okin’s “compelling formulation” of multicultural education as “the radical idea that people in other cultures, foreign and domestic, are human beings too, “ and finds in multicultural thought especially valuable examples of how to acknowledge past wrongs and incorporate forgiveness into the political process.
While there are few active examples of the kind of politically engaged, expansive education she espouses in Citzenship Under Fire, Ben-Porath does point to one example of educators working to prevent the replication of war. In Israel and Palestine under the auspices of PRIME (Peace Research Institute in the Middle East), teachers from both sides of the conflict are “developing dual narratives of their common history.” The goal is not for students to agree on a common narrative nor is it to dismiss or even alter their own primary reading of history. “We don’t have to share our reading of the 1948 war. There’s no chance of that,” says Ben-Porath pragmatically. “Each studies their own version, infused with how the other side understands it.” Expanding one’s understanding to include an
alternative view, without ignoring it or denigrating it, broadens and enriches one’s understanding of history.
Ben-Porath’s attempt to “grapple with the unique challenges of citizenship in wartime” has earned accolades from colleagues in the field of education and social philosophy. But, as demonstrated by a panel convened at the annual conference of the American Political Science Association to discuss the issues presented in Citizenship Under Fire, not everyone agrees wholeheartedly with her argument. Sharing the podium with Ben-Porath, were Amy Gutmann, a longtime supporter; Rogers Smith, a professor of political science at Penn and author of the Pulitizer Prize-nominated Civic Ideals; and political philosopher Michael Walzer, author of Just and Unjust Wars and fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies. Gutmann, while
enthusiastic about Ben-Porath’s analysis of “belligerent citizenship” and her antidote of “expansive education,” criticized Ben-Porath for wavering on the moral threat that the compromises of “belligerent citizenship” entail. “I wish,” said Gutmann, “that Sigal distinguished between merely perceived and real states of defensive war. And therefore between
necessary and unnecessary belligerence.” Gutmann also insisted a moral distinction be made between “protracted warfare that is aggressive rather than defensive.”
While Smith shared much of Ben-Porath’s perspective, Walzer criticized Ben-Porath for downplaying the urgent need to keep citizens secure in times of conflict. Relating this discussion a month later, Ben-Porath eyes spark as she smiles, “One respondent said I gave far too much room to democratic considerations and not enough to security, and the other respondent said just the opposite.”
Ben-Porath does not shy away from controversy. Argument, questioning, conversation, and learning to acknowledge the opinions of those who disagree with one’s own is a key part of living in an engaged democracy. She hopes her book will generate discussion, questions, and even
disagreement. Her hope is that Citizenship Under Fire reaches an audience beyond her fellow scholars and will be read by teachers, policymakers, and school board members. “Even if they disagree with me,” she says, “it would help them re-think how conflict or war affects our democratic processes.” Despite all she has witnessed in Israel and the United States, she remains an optimist. “Political education is our single most important hope for attaining this worthy goal,” Ben-Porath addressed the bookstore audience. “And our schools—as underfunded, over-stretched, and undervalued as they are, are our best bet.”
Citizenship Under Fire: Democratic Education in Times of Conflict is published by Princeton University Press, 2006.