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Education Opinion

Summer Break: Pondering My Obsession With Schools and Democracy

By Deborah Meier — June 30, 2015 3 min read
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Today Deborah Meier concludes her dialogue with Joe Nathan. Read their full conversation here.

Dear Joe,

It’s been fun, Joe. Our writing back and forth has pushed my thinking. Thanks. I hope we keep trying to figure this out--in many different arenas. We agree on five out of seven of my “dictates” for publicly funded schools and disagree on my more “detailed” description of school governance and your view on choice--as “mandates” anyway.

Actually, my seven “dictates” (as the headline read) are hardly that. They are off-the-top-of-my-head efforts to imagine what such dictates/mandates might read like if we were writing legislation on how local, state, or federal education funds were to be spent. What might we want to “dictate” needs to include what we want to be sure is left to the discretion of those most affected by schooling and those who must implement the education of the children.

How these mandates draw upon our society’s founding ideals (e.g. equality, inalienable rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness) needs attention. Above all, we’d have to explore how they fit particularistic situations: how they might work--or not work--in actual schools.

As an advocate of small self-governing schools, how can the autonomy those schools need live in tension with these larger civic and social obligations? How can we have sufficient autonomy as professionals, include families, the community and students and still keep in mind our obligation to the larger world. My seven proposed dictates are just an effort to start the conversation.

I hope to continue it through Bridging Differences next fall with Professor Harry Boyte. (This isn’t an official announcement yet but that’s the plan.) Harry is an engaged political theorist, organizer and founder of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at the University of Minnesota in 1987 (now the Sabo Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College). His earlier work with Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement played a critical role in this work. He is known as the architect of the “public work” theory of citizenship, the founder of public achievement, a youth empowerment and education project operating in hundreds of schools world-wide and editor or author of ten books on these subjects. Boyte is also a very dear friend and longtime political mentor. But we bring to this discourse some useful differences as well.

My obsession: Trying to think through what the survival of political democracy might require of schools. Given its fragility as well as its complexity, and the questionability of the apparent presumption that it is possible to have equal political power in the absence of real social and economic equality, the task can’t be accomplished just within schools. But I think schools can help or hurt based on both their role in imparting knowledge and, perhaps more important, in imparting “habits” for living in a democratic society. Harry and I both like Dewey’s formulation, “It is the main business of the family and the school to influence directly the formation and growth of attitudes and dispositions ... Whether this educative process is carried on in a predominantly democratic or non-democratic way becomes ... a question of transcendent importance not only for education itself but for ... the democratic way of life.”

Knowledge itself will not bring the huge numbers (often a majority) of those who don’t now vote to the polls. Knowledge itself won’t overcome apathy and cynicism. So, we ask, what might schools do that will stir the hearts and minds of future generations to take democracy seriously?

What kind of accountability doesn’t undermine the purposes of democracy--which was “invented” as a form of accountability?

Until September then. We will be hoping for plenty of critical feedback. Including feedback from you, Joe.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.