Democracy and the Arts

Illustration by Sam Fink from his book The Constitution of the United States

A Curriculum in Two Lessons

by Merna Hecht for the Poet Populist

About These Lessons

There are several main learning goals that frame these two lessons. One is to energize students so that they will engage in thinking about democracy as an on-going process that requires vision, creativity, and active participation. Another learning goal for these lessons is to ignite students’ interest in the long-standing populist tradition of rallying creative energies from grass-roots and community efforts, often via the arts, that serve to motivate individuals, organizations and movements to resist injustice and adversity and organize socially and politically so that the greatest numbers of people have a better quality of life. The aim of these two lessons is also to support students in making meaningful and relevant connections to the issues at stake in the upcoming presidential election.

Informed discourse and debate around the upcoming elections and forefront issues such as the economy, education, jobs, the Iraq war, the housing crisis, environmental sustainability, health care, and matters of race, class, and gender are or should be at the forefront of our civic conversations within and beyond high school classrooms. Both lessons will call on diverse American voices, historical and poetic, to engage students in conversations that allow them to explore their own concerns related to the November election.

The first lesson draws from history and civics and should open up a lively discussion of democracy and populism.  Students will be asked to read excerpts from several key historical documents having to do with the formation of the U. S. Constitution and Bill of Rights and to consider the ideals of extending civil and social rights to all people by way of governance and institutions that represent the will and desires of the people.

The second lesson will focus on how poetry can spark populist sentiments and provide an innovative frame through which people give artistic expression to what they want and need for a better life. The manner in which poetry can reach into the heart of experiences of people struggling with problems of economic, cultural, and political disenfranchisement will be part of this lesson, as will a look at the extraordinary resources poetry can call forth from people both individually and collectively prompting them to take their voices into public space and make a difference.