Education Opinion

The Politics of Democracy, After Election Day

By Deborah Meier — November 07, 2016 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Harry and friends,

Maybe memory requires having experience—even briefly, real life experience—or something akin to it. Just maybe. Maybe the stories told by real life people are sometimes absorbed as if they were one’s own experience. Good story-telling can do that.

Something as “simple” as the power of solidarity may require experiencing it often enough to make it seem likely rather than a utopian dream (and, of course, solidarity can be abused for bad causes).

It’s why I insist that in the absence of other communities of action these days in so many of our lives, schools are potentially as important as unions once were. But, alas, schools in even many of their finest examples cannot teach the “politics” of democracy, since they are themselves organized as hierarchical bureaucracies. In personal on-the-ground terms they feel more like dictators—if sometimes very benign ones. We use the family metaphor to describe the good school—with a fatherly/motherly figure in charge after all.

The politics of democracy have been lost, and even my dearest friends use the word “politics” to mean something quite different than it must mean in a democracy. It must include arguments and compromises, and time and places to absorb and discuss information. It means accepting defeats as natural phenomenas, as well as obtaining some degree of empathy, and the willingness to listen—an “I might, just might, be wrong” on this or that stance.

Yes, yes! It includes experiencing the pleasures of conversation, including those that sometimes get contentious. It includes separating disagreements with others from judgments about their worthiness. It requires having experienced friendships that bridge differences, perhaps.

I’m not sure it’s amnesia, Harry. I think there’s nothing around their life experiences to recall—that reminds me of their public vs. private agency.

I had an argument the other day with a friend I often disagree with—Eric Nadelstern. He was a leading figure in the Klein/Bloomberg school leadership team and also a wonderful former leader of a school that I much admired (International High School)—precisely for its democratic ethos. His vision and mine are not so different, but he has placed his hopes on choice. He opposes neighborhood schools, even if they exist alongside of access to choice. He bases his argument on the impact of neighborhood schools on segregation by both race/ethnicity as well as social class. Poor communities composed of the least powerful people are bound to have poor schools powerless to help themselves. He’s for controlled choice. Our disagreement in part lies in our picture of how democracy might work on a grand scale—with neighborhoods as the political base. This seems more important than ever, given the collapse of the potential for workplace democracy via unions. Of course, in the best of all worlds we could revive the power of both.

Hey READERS (and you Harry). I’d love your thoughts about this.

We both can point to the “real world” to strengthen our argument, but both cases are problematic. Of course, creating schools that are truly democratic in the absence of a truly democratic political movement is perhaps fanciful as well.

I keep going back to District 4 under Anthony Alvarado (I wish I knew what happened to him. Where is he now?). He preserved neighborhood schools amidst a sea of alternatives. The alternatives were largely the creation of a teacher or group of teachers who had always yearned for democratic schools. He said, “so, go do it.” There were few if any examples of “the people” inventing schools, with teachers or without at first, for their own children.

And my own efforts rarely went very far beyond being very open (to parents and kids) staff-democracies. And barely included all the staff. Although, over time we developed such vehicles, and Mission Hill began with the lessons of CPE and CPESS in mind.

But what it did do was regularly remind us of the difficulties, the tensions, the hard-to-resolve conflicts that democracy rests on. It gave us—and our students and their families—something to remember for the future about what fun it could be to be apart of a living democratic setting. So far, few seem to have forgotten the experience of being apprentice citizens of a democratic community.

By the way, I think Sanders went beyond “we” versus “I.” His notion of a political revolution I think had a touch of what you and I are discussing. I don’t think I was simply reading that into him. Let’s see what we can do with the seed he planted.

Never, ever have we needed it more (forgive my amnesia, no doubt there are plenty of times in the past where it was desperately needed). Regardless of what happens on Tuesday (I shiver with anticipation) we need to make Sanders’ commitment a reality—to start that political revolution. But then I get confused by your phrase (or Bayard’s) “politics over protest.” In fact, Bayard Rustin engaged in both. But protest needs a respect and appreciation for politics just as much as politics needs to respect protest. Alas, both “Trumpism” (above and beyond plain racism and sexism) and the Sanders movement represent forms of protest. How can we learn from them both?

Ideas for post Tuesday? What should we keep our eyes on? How can we avoid complacency if Clinton wins (whew, we escaped that), or despair if Trump does?


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.