Education Opinion

How Should Schools Help Teach Democracy?

By Deborah Meier — June 16, 2015 5 min read

Today Deborah Meier and Joe Nathan discuss how schools can teach students about democracy. Deborah begins and Joe responds.

Dear Joe,

As I’ve noted many times elsewhere, democracy is hard to define for good reasons. Its definition is, at its best, so deeply contextual and never a fixed, “there, that’s it.” Furthermore, it’s not particularly natural, I’d guess. No more than any other form of governance. It might even be that it’s particularly unnatural, though that’s hard—if not pointless — for us to decide.

It’s always a weighing of one democratic principle against another. Have I a “right” to over-rule because I know better? Never? Sometimes? If I’m older and wiser, more expert, have knowledge that I haven’t time to impart — then do I say “just do what you’re told?”

Surely we’ve all been in circumstances where we’ve used one of these excuses. And, where we still feel we were right to do so. And what made it possible of course, was that we had the power to do so.

Ultimately democracy has to do with the distribution of power, and each of its most honored attributes rhetorically presumes an equality of power that does not exist. And probably can or should never — or should never. Some of us are physically stronger, which sometimes is the deciding factor. Some more persuasive, more charismatic. Others have knowledge that is deliberately not available to all, resources that make them more persuasive, or access to forms of force that can overwhelm those that do not have such access.

And on and on. At a crucial moment in the third year of Central Park East, I fell back on my unequal power in a crisis to save the school. But doesn’t every dictator use that in his (her?) defense.

When the teacher walks into the room — as I discovered as a substitute teacher — she either does or doesn’t bring with her an aura of power. Every motion, tone of voice, gesture, choice of language reinforces or undermines her impact on those in front of her who could, if they “dared”, make her authority disappear in a second. Alas, I was mostly a failure with students over the age of 9 or 10! Schools are precarious organization that we all feel, uneasily, could at any moment break down if we are not alert to using our unequal power wisely.

Of course that also means that schools are by nature very poor places for honestly demystifying power that is at the heart of the democracy project. If the students glimpsed the magician in the Wizard of Oz as Dorothy did — in the flesh — authority would collapse. It’s as though the one thing a shoemaker could never teach his apprentice is how to make shoes.

This is especially so for those children and families who have no reason to trust that the school’s self-interest and theirs coincide. Open discussions of power in democracy are easiest where—wisely or naively—the children and their families presume that they live in a largely safe world where their power and the “powers that be” coincide.

It’s a vicious circle.

So I use the word democracy cautiously, at least when describing K-12 schooling. And I tend to use the words “habits useful to democracy” — which may be more important than knowing how Congress passes a law.

Is this too obtuse? Yes. But it’s what actually what schools like Central Park East and Mission Hill had to struggle with over and over. Who decides what — and how? Dewey was right — it’s only in “doing” democracy that we confront its living dilemmas. That’s also what makes schools exciting real world places.


P.S. How odd it is that my views seem so close to a Catholic principle known as “subsidiarity?” This tenet holds that “nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be.”

Joe Nathan responds: Thanks for your note, Deb. I think we agree there is no single strategy for public education to help youngsters learn about, believe in the value of, and develop habits that they’ll need to be active, constructive participants in democracy. Youngsters should see adults around them having the opportunity to help make key decisions. Youngsters should have opportunities to learn how they themselves can be active, constructive citizens. Finally, youngsters and their families ought to have some choices among various forms of public schools.

I’ll comment on three of the key points you made:

1. You wrote, quoting a Catholic belief: “nothing should be done by a larger and more complex organization which can be done as well by a smaller and simpler organization. In other words, any activity which can be performed by a more decentralized entity should be.”

For me, a key phrase in those two sentences probably is “which can be done as well.”

Should a public school be allowed to determine that it won’t serve students with special needs, or serve only students who score at the very top of a standardized admissions test? Should a public school be allowed to decide that it will only admit students of one race?

I think you and I would say “no.” So there is a value to having some decisions made at state or national level.

Should public schools have considerable control over key issues such as curriculum, staffing, budget, teaching methods? I think you and I would agree the answer is “yes.” But I’d say if a school has a persistently very low graduation rate, or persistently low academic achievement, measured in various ways, there should be some form of assistance provided to the school. Then if there are not improvements, there should be some other consequences.

2. Second, you wrote, “it’s only in ‘doing’ democracy that we confront its living dilemmas. That’s also what makes schools exciting real world places.” I agree. In an earlier exchange with you, I recommended that all public school students, grades K-12, should have opportunities to study current problems, help devise solutions and carry out some of them.

If we want to prepare youngsters to be active in the democracy, they need to learn how to do this while they are students.

You also have written about the importance of students, families, and faculty having opportunities to make decisions about how each individual school operates. Again, I agree. But I think the details of governance can vary from school to school.

3. I’d add a third form of democracy to public school by allowing families to select among various public schools. For choices to be real, families must have transportation provided, or have access to several different forms of schools in the same building, or have access to both a brick and mortar and on-line schools.

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