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Learning how democracies fail. School in Vermont takes new approach to studying civics

William Altman teaches citizenship by showing his ninth-graders how democracies fail. As a high school subject, ``citizenship'' is often an afterthought -- a Friday afternoon debate on capital punishment, a quick seminar on ``civics'' taught by the soccer coach.

Not at Harwood Union High, the small rural high school in upstate Vermont where Mr. Altman teaches. Here, each ninth-grader spends an entire year examining the demise of democracy in ancient Athens, the Roman Republic, and the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1920s and '30s.

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It's an ambitious sweep for these students -- many of whom are more likely to go to work on a farm rather than to college.

But despite their love-hate relationship with ``Three Democracies'' -- as the course is titled -- most students at Harwood become conversant with some fairly sophisticated ideas: They know that expansionist policies, combined with a loss of idealism, spelled doom for democracy in Athens. They know some of the blind-spots and character flaws in Roman politicians such as Cato and Cicero. And they know that Hitler was elected democratically.

What junior David Luce found ``is that these democracies failed because the people didn't get into it and support the government. They were passive -- and in a democracy, you've got to participate.''

Such comments are sweet music to the ears of Altman, who conceived the idea of ``Three Democracies'' two years ago, with the help of colleagues John Nelson and Tom Dean. The course avoids current events, but does ask students to consider the dynamics of democracy, and to evaluate their own place in it.

It is a goal characteristic of the political folkways here in Vermont, where, before registering to vote, citizens still sign the ``Freeman's Oath'' -- a pledge that they will make their own decisions about who to vote for.

``We want students to see they are part of a political process, whether or not they want to be,'' says Mr. Nelson, social studies department head. ``We want them to know where they came from.''

``Three Democracies'' is an example of a larger trend in American public schools -- brought about in part by individual teachers -- to offer a more compelling look at the experiment called ``democracy'' in world history.

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The old Harwood civics course just wasn't doing the job. ``It wasn't profound enough,'' says Altman, a scholarly young man with a huge smile and rapid fire delivery: ``There was no sense of history -- no binding themes.'' No attention was paid, says Altman, to what he feels is a key issue for future citizens: the conditions and circumstances behind the collapse of other great democracies.

With a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, Altman designed his own course and textbook. He felt some classical groundwork in democratic ideas should be laid, before students went further into American history.

Altman & Co., however, do not simply present ``the classics.'' A major premise in the course is that the downfall of democratic societies has been due to far more than political factors. Students learn about the changing cultural atmosphere in Athens, Rome, and Berlin. Along with original works on political history, they study the plays, art, architecture, and relevant social questions of the times. The condition of morality in a democracy's twilight is a main avenue of investigation.

The humanities approach allows for a fuller grasp of the subject, Altman says, and helps students think more clearly about the present.

Concerned about the teaching aspect, Altman, Nelson, and Dean met at six each morning in a small Duxbury truck stop to talk about how to keep the subject lively. They were so earnest, according to Nelson, that the truckers started joining in. ``It's a small place, and some of them actually thanked us for the discussion -- so we'd try ideas out on them!''

Apparently it worked, since the course has gone over well. Junior Jessica Mathon says, ``Rather than feeling like `Oh no, I've got to read Plato tonight,' I kept wanting to see how the story came out.''

The decline of Athens is taught primarily as a sweeping drama, centering around the Peloponnesian War -- a war many prudent Athenians warned against. The fall of the Roman Republic in 42 BC -- superseded by the dictatorial Roman Empire -- is taught less as a drama and more as an interaction of personalities and characters, including Caesar, Cato, Sulla, Brutus, and Pompey.

``The Roman leaders went from being good guys to total evilness,'' says junior Shane Sandretto, ``That was really interesting.''

Germany in the 1930s is a more complex section, but students like the modern angle, says Nelson, and ``Hitler keeps their attention.''

At first the course met resistance within the Harwood faculty. It seemed too narrow and elitist, said some. These points also bothered Harwood Principal Andreas Lehner, but he became a believer in the course because of the questions it raised: Who defends the poor in a democracy? Who stands for the rich? What is the role of the military? Is there a difference between a country and a government? Do ends justify means? What is tyranny? Can it take place in a democracy?

Lehner felt such civic questions need more attention in present-day schooling. He admits now that ``Three Democracies'' has helped transform the curricula and thinking at Harwood. In fact, Lehner composed a ``mission statement'' last year for incoming students based on precepts behind the course. The statement reads like a liberal arts skills manifesto.

By 1990, all graduating seniors must be able to express and defend opinions ``on matters of public concern;'' to demonstrate critical thinking and problem solving skills; understand the responsibilities of citizenship; be aware of their historic and cultural roots.

One student said that even though ``Three Democracies'' did not draw ``exact parallels'' to modern America, ``they were there to see, anyway. I think America is slipping . . . in some ways.''

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