School Climate & Safety Opinion

Citizen Teachers: A New Common School Movement?

By Harry C. Boyte — October 25, 2016 4 min read
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Harry Boyte continues his conversation with Deborah Meier. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Deb and colleagues,

Your stress on teachers learning “smart politics [as] one of the arts and crafts of a working democracy” is extremely important. So is finding past examples where this occurred. I like your story of Lillian Weber’s Center at City College of New York where you experienced “for the first time an education that taught pedagogy and subject matter in combination with real-life skills in the politics of school,” which brought student teachers and practicing teachers together.

To complement the gritty, practical, everyday politics of making molecular change, we need a more fleshed out “change for what?” It seems useful to return to the question you asked last December 10, “What Is a Democracy School?” We need to root our discussion in the complexities and resources of American history.

I would argue that in America, democracy schools drew from the “commonwealth” tradition and its expressions in the “common school” movement. I see elements of this tradition in the Coalition for Essential Schools, which you helped to found. I’d like to think about overlaps and differences.

One aspect of commonwealth democracy was shared decision making, a strong emphasis in your schools and in the larger Coalition. The commonwealth meant, in a formal sense, republican or popular government (“republican” is from Latin, res publica, public thing). Four states are commonwealths (Massachusetts, Virginia, Pennsylvania, West Virginia). John Adams proposed that all states be commonwealths. Abraham Lincoln’s government “of the people, by the people, for the people” was powerful because it conveyed popular government. The large (if declining) number of local school boards is an example.

Commonwealth also meant things created through public work -- shared resources created by communities for public purposes. Common schools were a leading example. As people in communities co-created schools, they gained a sense of ownership and pride. The Coalition stresses students as workers. Did the Coalition ever talk about the role of communities in creating and sustaining schools?

The common school tradition had a debate about whether such schools were only government schools; originally they included religious schools.The term appeared in New England in the 17th and 18th centuries to convey educational institutions created by religious groups “as community funded instruments of education for all children of the region or neighborhood,” as Wikipedia puts it. A debate about whether religious schools should get government support - with accountability - continued as the common school movement took shape after the Revolutionary War.

In our own work we saw how Public Achievement, our youth empowerment initiative, deepened community connections of St. Bernard’s school, our flagship site. The school also had other democracy school features, like the sense students were helping to co-create their education and the school, and a strong emphasis on students learning skills of empowerment like power mapping. Augsburg College, descending from Lutheran free church traditions, is the new home of our Center. It has strong roots in Scandinavian popular education traditions, which were radically democratic, and today many have aspirations for Augsburg to be a democracy school.

What was the discussion about religiously founded schools as democracy schools in the Coalition?

The common school movement aimed at educating citizens to counter dictatorial power. “Where learning is confined to a few people, we always find monarchy, aristocracy, and slavery” wrote Benjamin Rush, a founding figure in education in 1786. There were also contradictions. Common schools emphasized deference to authority and middle class WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) values. I don’t see an explicit stress on citizenship (or the definition of citizen as participatory, co-creator) in the Coalition’s principles. It does stress inclusion, a democratic advance over the mainstream 19th century common school tradition.

The Common School movement also had ideals that pointed beyond parochialism and authoritarian pedagogy. For instance, its ideals animated the black freedom struggle’s emphasis on African American education. The struggle for education is told by the new Museum of African American Culture and History. The Museum also highlights the hundreds of citizenship schools during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s which were a radically democratic expression of the common school tradition. It celebrates their architect, Septima Poinsette Clark, whom Martin Luther King called “the mother of the movement.” These grassroots schools taught literacy, nonviolence, and basic organizing and connection to local communities. At their heart was civic agency, collective empowerment.

I plan to explore these questions in the John Dewey Lecture I’m giving for the John Dewey Society next spring. By the way, our “Educators for a Democratic Way of Life” manifesto which calls for a movement on these themes is now up on the John Dewey Society site. So, I’m eager to get your thoughts on connections and differences between the Coalition for Essential Schools -- or other democracy school efforts today -- and the common school and commonwealth tradition.

Could a 21st century common school movement help to revitalize commonwealth democracy? What do you think?


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.