Education Opinion

Community vs. Democracy

By Deborah Meier — July 10, 2008 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

We’re agreed about Summerhill, sort of... But I’m also attracted to it, and delighted by those children engrossed in their hammering. Incidentally, the kids turned out well. It appeals to the anarchist/libertarian in me. But then I’m also a democratic socialist, a liberal, a traditionalist and a communitarian!

These labels describe people who I hope can all live forever together on the same planet without doing each other too much harm. Somehow they live together in me, so, perhaps.

If we start another war in Iran, my hopes may have to be postponed a few centuries. I’m not confident that democracy will protect us from such a catastrophe. (This comes after reading Seymour Hersh’s gloomy and tightly reasoned piece in The New Yorker. ”Preparing the Battlefield”, July 7) Then I read Elizabeth Kolbert in the same New Yorker on “The Island in the Wind” about the devastating impact of climate change and energy misuse. For that, we need a kind of communitarianism—a worldwide concern for our shared future as a species—that seems even harder to hope for. It involves the task of persuading Americans (since we use nearly half the world’s energy) as an essential starting point. Unlikely.

It turns out, says Kolbert, that the science for doing “the right thing” exists. The knowledge base exists. And it wouldn’t require going back to cave-man status! She describes an island off Denmark, Samsø , that decided--”for fun”—to take on the challenge of living a “2,000-Watt” life. What can we learn from that small homogeneous little island? Perhaps only that in a democracy a willing public can do wonders!**

Reading about the summit of corporate experts meeting in Sun Valley this week, to decide education’s future (see NYC Education News) raises an interesting question about public discourse on public matters. What these folks have in common is almost no knowledge of the subject they are discussing. This may in retrospect have something to do with what happened to America’s productive life. For a generation or more we’ve been led by financial wizards, not folks steeped in a lore of making automobiles. Or schools. And a public that doesn’t take its own judgment seriously.

Since time is limited not everything can be learned that deserves to be learned. But knowing when and how to use people who do know something is wise. What would we need to learn before we’re 18 just to preserve democracy and the planet? What can we do without? What can we afford to side-line for the next half century—or maybe just until we become adults? It’s not an easy mind-exercise. Because we need people with the desire and sufficient trust to accept the claims of experts, those scientists and economists Kolbert quotes. One also needs people with a strong sense of life’s potential in order to work hard to protect it. For the Samsø ians, to quote one farmer, “it became a kind of sport.”

I think about my kindergarten class, Central Park East and Mission Hill and wonder, did we create the kind of communities that satisfied both the anarchist and the communitarian? Did we provide a glimpse of what it might mean to preserve individual freedom while also giving up some for the larger community? To be a solo mountain-climber and a community builder?? Did we teach the skepticism needed to recognize a sham crisis and the trust to acknowledge a real one?

What are the nuts and bolts of such an undertaking? What skills and crafts would need to be learned, what knowledge stored away, what habits internalized, what moral and ethical underpinnings lived by? In just 6 hours a day for 180 days a year. Daunting.

When I began teaching 5-year-olds in the mid-60s, I took to it, in part, because I abandoned the idea of remaking the whole world. I “settled” on the notion that each day was a day unto itself. I encountered each child and family with the simple notion--do no harm, and hopefully add a bit of “good”. In the process I discovered some things that could be shared with others. So from Day One, I wrote a lot about what I was learning. Also, it fit in well with raising children. With a loss like you experienced at just that stage in life, I don’t know what I’d have done. No one can ever imagine such a tragedy’s impact fully.

“Doing good day by day” sounds icky. I’m uncomfortable comparing schools to families, but they do share this in common. It was enough to keep me at it for more than 40 years. Yet I am also an impatient revolutionary—and faced with what needs to happen in the next few generations I wonder how we can use “education”—not just schooling—for the whole planet’s benefit? How can “remaking” some of our habits seem a task worth shouldering with all our hearts and minds? And what kind of schools would foster such needed habits? What can teachers uniquely add to this discourse vs. the CEOs who want to avoid responsibility for there role in America’s failing economy? (Maybe we need an “educators for economic reform”?)

As you can see—I’m still in the thrall of Kolbert’s words: “Just about everywhere there are possibilities for generating energy more inventively and using it more intelligently… We may decide not to make this effort.” But if we decide to make it, what role could schooling play?

Meanwhile, oops, I should turn off the lights in my bedroom!


** It’s fascinating to reread Freeman Dyson’s “The Question of Global Warming”, June 12, NY Review of Books, for a contrary view of the global warming “crisis.” Dyson is leery of the politics of “crisis” even in the case of global warming.

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