Education Opinion

The Risks of Democracy

By Education Week Staff — June 24, 2009 3 min read

Dear Diane,

The diverse views we get in response to our exchanges is a reminder about why we should not expect one right answer to the question of “why educate?” We need enough consensus to persuade the public that it should be paid for with public dollars, and enough leeway to let many views flourish. In some ways that’s an impossible task, but it’s at least a “direction” I want to keep us struggling for, rather than settling for whoever’s in power in D.C. setting curriculum and assessment for the whole nation!

Distributing such powers includes acknowledging different answers to the what and the how. More local control promises more variety (and more sense of ownership)—if nowhere near as much as I would actually like. But it too has its down-side, its trade-offs which I also need to frankly face. This is at least as true of schooling as many other policy questions—like health, transportation, energy, and myriad other issues.

Which is why I enjoy Paul Hoss and John Doe’s unremitting and single-minded criticisms. Even if John Doe may be a front man, or provocateur, who cares?

Paul raises the question that many of my friendly critics do. But “you” are the exception—think of all those other people who would carry out your ideas irresponsibly or stupidly, etc. It’s a familiar argument—one of some merit in arguing on behalf of democracy in general. One answer: Think of all the dumb policies we’ve arrived at in this nation democratically. Is that an argument for trying another system? Second, even my ideas are better for having to listen to and abide by what others think as well—to have to “persuade” rather than mandate. Third, if I want more people to be “like me,” then I have to allow them to not be like me, I have to try to imagine the settings in which both adults and kids can best learn from each other, and arrive at independent and free choices. Within limits. Its those limits that seem to me to be the interesting question—in a democracy who sets “limits,” and how do we set them?

John Doe seems partly to misread my not-so-cleverly stated concern about whether “standards” are a euphemism for a national curriculum—where all schools are on the same page at the same time. The other part of my argument is that such a curriculum takes the adventure out of teaching, and without that adventure the kids miss too much of what is at the heart of intellectual achievement. It weeds out teachers to whom doing the same narrow curriculum year after year is stultifying, and it doesn’t help those with the intellectual liveliness to engage children’s minds. So it fails my test on all grounds.

Alas, my California friend couldn’t switch schools, or even cities or states if we had a national curriculum in order to find a more compatible intellectual climate. Nor could I as a parent.

So here again, means and ends connect. The ends I’m after require the risks involved in encouraging people to expose kids to adults who have different approaches to the meaning of history and literature, who can spend far more time on one aspect of science and skim at most other important topics, who can pick up on students’ interests and shift direction, or use the occasion of a hurricane, flood, election, Supreme Court controversy to focus attention in their particular field.

But it is a risk. Of course, democracy itself is based on such a risk. That’s why we get all these absurd balancing institutions, parliamentary rules, etc. They each cause us trouble at times, a waste of precious time and sometimes we have to change them to get anything done. But they are safeguards. “Getting things done” may be easier in a dictatorship of one sort or another, but we have decided that the drawbacks are greater than the benefits. ( Still, Canada is a democracy and does it differently….)

Democracy rests on an argument, one that we have not done such a great job at convincing young people of or older ones either. Our Constitutional “balance of powers” and basic human inertia has saved us from ourselves, time after time. But it would be useful if we understood the trade-offs well enough to design a school “system” that took them seriously—and helped kids and teachers tackle them in real time and real life. Always, also, keeping in mind the risks, and doing our best to explore ways to minimize them. When and why does consensus sometimes work better? Or a unicameral legislative body? (For me, at present, for example, the issue of maximizing choice runs into the issue of strong neighborhoods and diversity and how we can have both.)

Meantime, I believe we are headed in a dangerous direction by ignoring the risks of a national curriculum—which is really what’s at stake. The lure? Higher test scores, or better educated adults, standardization or standards?


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.