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To know democracy, learn how the system works

To John Brademas, better teaching about American democracy might well begin with teachers getting a better understanding of what the American democratic system is.

A one-time teacher of political science and now president of New York University (NYU), he looks at the question from the standpoint of one who is both an educator and a former practicing politician.

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From 1958 until defeat in 1980, Dr. Brademas served as United States representative from the Indiana district that includes his hometown, South Bend. And he had become the No. 3 person--the ''whip'' --in the Democratic House leadership.

In an interview at his NYU office here on Washington Square South, he talked about the discrepancy between the way American democracy is sometimes presented in civics classes and the way he actually saw it work.

Responding to a hypothetical question about how he might go about discovering whether democracy is well taught in New York schools, he said:

''I would want to go into the classrooms to see and hear the teaching. I would want to see to what extent it was overly legalistic and formalistic, as distinguished from conveying a realistic picture of the American democratic process.''

Understanding American democracy realistically, he said, means seeing the diversity built into the constitutional system through the separation of powers and the federal arrangement that disperses power into national, state, regional, and local governmental bodies.

A Rhodes scholar who studied at Oxford's Brasenose College, Dr. Brademas is particularly conscious of how the US system differs from the British, with the latter's disciplined political parties and its inclusion of the executive branch within Parliament.

As Democratic whip, he was kept always conscious that US political parties are not disciplined to ensure that members follow their leaders, but that representatives (and senators as well) vote according to the diverse economic, ethnic, religious, and other interests of their areas.

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''The moral lesson to this,'' Dr. Brademas said, ''is that the pluralistic nature of American society should lead us to respect diversity, and to see that we have to compromise.''

He once planned to write a civics textbook, he recalled, and intended to make ''bargaining'' a central principle of explanation, interpreting it not cynically but as a legitimate and necessary process.

''Bargaining of course occurs also in totalitarian countries, but in our country it happens more in the open where checks and balances work,'' he asserted.

So if teachers present only a ''formalistic'' concept of American government, he contended, and don't show the way a nation of diverse interests reaches accommodation, then they are not teaching American democracy.

Taking note of the low percentage of voters among some minority groups, Dr. Brademas said teachers can motivate students to become participants in the democratic process by showing them the stake they have in the system.

''When I first came to Congress, we had some members who were blatant racists ,'' he said. ''But the Voting Rights Act changed that. Now nobody runs for office and thumbs his nose at black people.''

Dr. Brademas recognizes that talk of ''bargaining'' could lead to cynical attitudes, and he doesn't mean to suggest that everything going on in the political arena merits applause.

In addition to classroom learning, Dr. Brademas said, youngsters, and maybe teachers, too, need to ''brush up against the system'' more directly through such experiences as helping in political campaigns and serving as interns in the legislative or executive branch of government.

Their own experience in running student elections and student government also carries value, he said, recalling his participation in a mock political convention as a student at South Bend High School. ''They can learn respect for majority votes and for minority rights,'' he said.

As an educator, however, Dr. Brademas finally cautions against putting total responsibility for education about democracy on the schools.

''Much of the burden must be carried by other institutions of our society such as the churches and synagogues,'' he said.

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