Education Teacher Leaders Network

Lessons in Democracy

By Kenneth J. Bernstein — December 09, 2009 7 min read
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What unnerves us most about freedom is the same thing generations of scientists were unconsciously ignoring about the universe—its unpredictability and capacity for disorder. In the classroom, this fear of the unknown has misled many of us into thinking that the relationship between freedom and structure is an either/or proposition. As educators, we’re either providing good, structured instruction, or we’re refereeing spitball fights. But there’s a difference between being authoritative and being authoritarian...

Those words appear in a new book by Sam Chaltain, now national director of the Forum for Education and Democracy, and formerly associated with First Amendment Schools.

The book, titled American Schools: The Art of Creating a Democratic Learning Community, includes a foreword by Sandra Day O’Connor, herself strongly committed to the idea of civic education. O’Connor offers some relevant words that I want to explore further. They are: “Knowledge about our government is not handed down through the gene pool. Every generation has to learn it, and we all learn best by doing.”

I teach six sections of government (a required course for graduation in Maryland) equally divided between courses in local, state, and national covernment, and an Advanced Placement course in U.S. government and politics. The vast majority of my students are sophomores. The challenge for me—and for them—is to have them not only learn ABOUT government but also EXPERIENCE it. That is, rather than just reading about democracy, learning how to live in a democracy—and what that entails.

I remember vaguely a statement read years ago for which I cannot now find the exact source. Eldridge Cleaver, minister of information for the Black Panther Party, himself a former prisoner (and later a conservative Republican), opined that America had the world’s best education system and the world’s best prison system. Unfortunately, he said, the education system was the American penitentiary and the prison was the American public school.

There are few places less democratic than the average American public school. This has been true since well before the depredations imposed upon education by the strictures of various generations of educational reform, whether those be A Nation at Risk, Goals 2000, or No Child Left Behind.

Chaltain recalls his own early experiences as a teacher in a large (3,500 students) urban high school where he observed that students were trained to be docile and wait to be told what to do.

…I witnessed…ways in which this emphasis on control had stunted the ability of my students to make thoughtful, informed decisions about themselves and their classmates. Some had never been asked to form an opinion about the material they were studying. Most had never been asked to demonstrate their understanding of what they learned in any other way than a standardized, multiple-choice test. The expectations were to follow directions and memorize information we gave them – not to inquire about the nature of knowledge, themselves, or their place in the world. (pp5-6)

An education of the kind Chaltain describes here places students in a position of being passive recipients of information, what Paolo Freire called the banking model of education. It certainly does not represent the practice of assuming responsibility that should be an essential part of participants in a democracy. Certainly some degree of order is necessary, but not to the exclusion of learning how to assume responsibility for one’s own learning.

Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond is one of the “conveners” of the Forum for Education and Democracy. In making his case for fostering democratic learning communities, Sam Chaltain offers some of her thoughts that are quite relevant:

“The middle ground between permissiveness and authoritarianism,” she says, “is authoritative practice. Auhoritative treatment sets limits and consequences within a context that fosters dialogue, explicit teaching about how to assume responsibility, and democratic decision-makings.”

Consider for a moment that the tension Darling-Hammond and Chaltain describe applies generally in American society. It was certainly a part of the 1960s, and again was part of the context of the past administration in a time of international conflict and fear of further attack. It should not be a surprise that this tension also occurs within the context of school.

The distinction between authoritative and authoritarian is crucial. An insistence upon order at all costs crushes the democratic spirit in our politics. In school, when the commitment to order limits necessary exploration, it can crush the spirit of students attempting to develop the skills expected of a participating citizen. As a teacher I would argue that it is equally crushing of real learning, in which the student must at some point find a way of connecting the material with himself—of assuming responsibility to some degree for his own learning.

Chaltain’s book contains several examples of how this could work. He offers an extended example of students from Nursery Road Elementary School who participated in transforming their school and wrote their own student constitution. Even more, they presented at the 2005 annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures—one 9-year old and four 10-year olds. Here’s an excerpt from Chaltain’s report on their presentation:

“The most important thing we’ve learned about our Constitution is that it protects our rights,” Madelyn explained to the adults in the room. “It doesn’t give us rights—those are given us at birth—but it protects those rights and it protects those rights for everyone, even for those who are very different from us and have very different opinions from us. That’s what America is all about.”

Let me say as a teacher of government to high school students, I wish all of my students already had that clear an understanding when they arrived in my rooms as 10th graders. They don’t, because they have not been given many opportunities to practice democracy as part of their schooling.

Learning by Doing

I am always amused (and I say that with a sardonic expression) that we claim to be teaching our students about democracy when at the same time in our schools we deny them real opportunity to practice democracy. A democracy is not inherently perfect—people can make bad choices, and the society has to live with the results. But we so restrict the freedom of our students that we give them little opportunity to learn from making mistakes.

Democracy also requires learning to cooperate, yet when students do cooperate, so many are quick to accuse them of academic laziness or dishonesty. What could be more important in a democracy than learning how to help one another, and yet we insist for the most part that our students “learn” in individual silos. We measure how they perform as individuals—not in groups—although we’re regularly told that the ability to work well in teams has become a critical 21st century skill.

People learn best by doing, by having the opportunity individually and in groups to realistically apply what they are learning. One learns science by doing science, not by reading about it and memorizing facts out of context. One does not become skilled in music by knowing that Mozart wrote 41 symphonies, Haydn 104 and Beethoven 9, but by listening, or even better, by performing.

So it is with democracy. The words “We the people of the United States” are not merely things to be memorized: they express something that must be lived. Jefferson wrote about our natural rights in the Declaration, and then informed us

That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

I strongly urge people to read Sam Chaltain’s book. It is based on real world experience. It offers concrete suggestions for how to make our schools more democratic. It provides an opportunity to expand how we think about the function and structure of schools, particularly public schools.

Rather than teaching ABOUT democracy, our task in public schools should be helping our students practice what it means to live in a democracy, to develop the skills and the tolerance necessary if our democratic republic is to survive, even thrive, in the future.

Recall how Abraham Lincoln concluded perhaps the most important speech in our nation’s history.:

and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

If that government is not to perish, then our schools must always remember that our primary purpose should be preparing our students to sustain it. They will only learn how to do that by practicing democracy. And it is long overdue that we restructure our schools to enable that to happen.


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