'Democracy Is Not Always Convenient'

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There is a radical--and wonderful--new idea in the air these days in at least some of our public conversations: the idea that every citizen is capable of the kind of intellectual competence previously attained by only a small minority of citizens. Only after I had begun to teach 30 years ago did public rhetoric begin to give even lip service to the notion that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people's ideas, makers of their own personal marks on the world. It's an idea with revolutionary implications. If we take it seriously.

Taking it seriously means accepting public responsibility for the shared future of the next generation. Because we are talking about all children, public education is the necessary, albeit insufficient, precondition for making the future happen. If a significant number of Americans abandon public education--either out of lethargy or by opting for private academies--we risk turning public schools into schools of last resort.

Public schools are a crucial part of our democratic life. Schools dependent upon private clienteles--schools that can get rid of unwanted kids or troublemaker families, exclude on the basis of this or that set of beliefs, and toss aside the "losers"--not only can avoid the democratic arts of compromise and tolerance but also implicitly foster lessons about the power of money and privilege, a lesson already only too well known by every adolescent in America.

In schools that are public, citizens are joined by right, not by privilege. The critics of public institutions, of course, often decry all this talk about rights--from the rights of the handicapped to the rights of teenagers to wear outrageous clothes. Rights get messy and litigious. Democracy is not always convenient, and rights do require sorting out. Neither equity, civil rights, nor mutual respect for the ideas of others are always the winners even in public institutions--far from it--but public schooling shifts the odds in favor of such democratic principles.

Public schools can train us for political conversations across divisions of race, class, religion, and ideology. It is often in the class of irreconcilable ideas that we can learn how to test or revise ideas, or invent new ones. Differences make things complicated. But dealing with the complicated is what training for good citizenship is all about. Ideas--the ways we organize knowledge--are the medium of exchange in democratic life--just as money is in the marketplace.

Democracy is based on our power to influence by our public statements and actions what we want the future to look like. Our current state of anger at public schools is in many ways an anger over our loss of control over important decisions affecting our communities. But if we abandon public schooling, we have lost one more vehicle for controlling our future. Privatizing removes schools from democratic control. Why bother, after all, to debate what direction we want the future to take if we no longer have a voice in what are arguably the most important institutions for shaping that future--our schools?

The idea of education as a shared public responsibility is more critical now than in my own youth a half-century ago. The formal and informal institutions that were once accessible to the majority of children and that grounded the young in a society of responsible adults are missing for most, at precisely the moment that they are most desperately needed.

Face-to-face meeting places such as political clubs, union halls, and settlement houses have all but disappeared from our society. These were not only places of nurturance, but places where we learned skills, felt safe enough to take needed risks, learned to believe in the future. Only schools remain.

In addition, the role of the school has vastly expanded. Quite aside from their intellectual potency or their certification role, schools mark youngsters ever more deeply with their implicit values--not always those they intended to convey. Youngsters learn their place in the social order and develop a system of responses to their placement that are hard to dislodge. They form "an attitude" toward work, adults, the larger public setting, and what counts and what doesn't on the basis of schools. Schools still matter--even more than TV--in telling us who we are and can be.

Under these circumstances, the question of what kids are to be exposed to and how they and their families are to be treated in school takes on new dimension. It's time to invent a 21st-century answer, rather than just nibbling away at the old one. We need as many opportunities as possible for hearing and persuading each other that what's good for one might be good for all, that my child's interests are not a threat to yours. And we need to do this not just once, but over and over again. It's that important. Only out of such debate will we build new and better kinds of schools.

It will be difficult. We're just now learning how to create schools that work for everyone, just beginning to work out ways to do it on the scale needed. Until recently we were hardly surprised (nor were we concerned) that the socioeconomic and educational history of a family was overwhelmingly the best predictor of school success--more statistically reliable than any test devised.

At the school in East Harlem where I have worked for the past 21 years, we have shown that it is indeed possible to break that pattern--and not just for a few "exceptional" children. We are far from alone.

What we have discovered is that accepting the challenge of breaking with the past assumes a respect for our fellow beings and their capacities that does not come easily or naturally to most of us. We need not only to accept some new ideas, but to dislodge many of our old ones.

It is not surprising that so many families, so many teachers, and so many politicians are looking for an escape, urging us to retreat to an imagined past where everyone succeeded--with their McDuffey readers, teacher-proof daily lesson plans, and desks that faced forward all in a row--or to opt out altogether into their separate ethnic or religious enclaves. We are not accustomed to recognizing the power of each other's ideas; it is easier to take flight.

If we abandon a system of common schools--through apathy or privatization--we deprive everyone, not just the least-advantaged students, of the kind of clash of ideas that will make us all more powerful. We are a nation that loves a good fight; fighting with ideas rather than fists or guns or nasty sound bites could be a welcome relief. More importantly, reinventing our public schools could provide an exciting opportunity to use our often forgotten power to create imaginary worlds, share theories, and act out possibilities. This time not just on the playground but in all the varied public arenas in which we meet with our fellow citizens.

Schools embody the dreams we have for our children. All of them. These dreams must remain public property.

Vol. 14, Issue 30, Pages 35-36

Published in Print: April 19, 1995, as 'Democracy Is Not Always Convenient'
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