Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.
Dear Harry and friends,
We agree and yet...
Yes, Harry, when defining democracy I start with governance, and yet I agree that without greater social equality, a justice system that promotes justice, and greater citizen agency, the definition is empty. What is needed to carry out the thousands of tasks that make government sometimes irrelevant, and sometimes meaningful where it would otherwise be meaningless, doesn’t rest on the rules of the game. Conservatives are right that in so many ways the best governance is the least governance, and one that rests on unwritten understandings. But...
Black parents have often been accused by liberals and progressives of child-rearing practices that undermine their children’s rights and strengths. They are too strict, rely too often on corporal punishment and thus limit their children’s opportunities to learn from their own mistakes. In short, they undermine agency as you and I define it.
But that’s because, I’d argue, they do not trust government or the legal system—they do not see it as democratic. In fact, for them there is/was no democratic government or legal system that sees/saw them as equal persons. This has changed very slowly but remains mostly true to a startling degree even today—even in Chicago and NYC. Their child rearing practices make good sense for a people who could not trust the world to treat them fairly.
My parents’ permissiveness, their relative lack of rules and regulations, and their encouragement of us to explore the world, redesign it where it seemed not to make sense, organize our friends in projects, and generally live with a sense of unbounded agency was based on their belief in our safety to take chances and occasionally even take risky ones. They thought the police would be on our side and justice would be fair. And, in fact, both would work with them to turn mistakes into learning situations. Lucky us.
My parents could, on the whole, raise us with a perhaps inflated sense of agency because they lived in a democracy. Most of the families whose children I taught did not, in all real senses of the world, live in a democracy of the sort I did. And most had themselves grown up in one that bore no resemblance to anyone’s definition of democracy.
Yes, they could occasionally “turn the rascals out"—on a limited scale. That’s better than nothing. And as a result, some aspect of the legal system might be sufficiently wary and thus treat them somewhat fairly. But the absence of money for legal help further handicapped their legal “rights”. And in many cases their right even to vote. In fact, it was residential segregation itself that was the one protection they had—because it’s that fact that allowed them to any representation in our democracy.
Now, I know that you know all this even better than I do, having grown up in the south and worked for years with Martin Luther King Jr. and the freedom movement, Harry. This is not written for you, but to explain my thinking to our friends.
We both entered our work in the belief that there was not enough democracy. Especially for poor people and people of color. Nor enough justice to make it worthwhile to educate children as though they could depend on it. We’ve known that in working with children without such assurances, they and their families needed to know that we’d be there for them when they perhaps took a step too far. When our high schoolers went off on their own to a protest march, we went along, just in case.
Yes, indeed, de jure democracy does not always work de facto, and not even for the privileged. But for the less privileged, it’s because they’ve been raised—at home and in school—to “get along,” “go along,” and not be troublemakers.
To switch my argument for a final thought, I was struck by a sentence in your letter about your belief in the capacities of very young people. Indeed, it was my experience in a Southside Chicago kindergarten in 1963 that gave me confidence in my radical egalitarian beliefs. I discovered there, even to my surprise, that the five-year-olds I was teaching were remarkable thinkers—intellectuals, and scientists. When I listened to their arguments closely and observed them in play with attentiveness, I was constantly amazed. The boy who insisted a rock was a living thing based this on evidence that was hard to refute.
We are, I realized, born theorists. It’s why and how we become speakers of our other mother tongue, can make sense of what’s near vs. what’s far, can recognize so many faces, can predict so much about the ways of their world. We kill off so much of this theoretical brilliance—partly because conforming becomes more necessary and danger is a reality once we get onto our own two feet, but also because we are taught to restrain our intelligence, to obey for our own good and for the good of others. Some of this may always be necessary, but much of it isn’t necessary and holds us back as a species, and endangers us as a planet.
That’s why they need the work you do.
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.