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School & District Management Opinion

Liberty Plaza, Wall Street, & Schools

By Deborah Meier — October 06, 2011 3 min read
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Note from Deborah: Thanks, Diane, for bringing up the troubling but critical issue of the parent role in schooling. It’s a big one and not one I want to respond to off the top of my head. So, next week I’ll give you my thoughts on this.

Dear Diane,

It’s easy to ignite optimism in people like me. That’s why I always felt lucky to spend so many years inside schools, and inside schools where we had the freedom to collectively respond to situations with our best judgment. I never despaired.

The schools I was most deeply involved in were also “horizontally” (a Wall Street-occupiers’ expression) organized, around each other rather than around a leader. The protesters’ language about “assemblies of people” making decisions together may sound absurd—and in some ways it is—but it is a fitting response in a climate that has more and more bought into (or just accepted) that the few shall decide for the many.

Democracy—as we explore the idea—is full of contradictions, tensions, complications, and yet ... compared with the alternatives, it’s an easy choice to make, although it will take a lot more serious self-education for us to get it right. One thing is clear: a ruling class needs security, leisure, and sufficient access to resources. Insofar as we don’t all have such basics, we are at a disadvantage as members of the ruling class. How much is sufficient? Sometimes human energy is the only resource we have. So then we need to use it. Overtime.

The language I hear from spokespeople at Liberty Plaza on Wall Street reminds me of our mission statement at Mission Hill (excerpted).

Our Mission ... public education ... aims at producing youngsters who can live productive, socially useful, and personally satisfying lives, while also respecting the rights of all others. The school, as we see it, will help strengthen our commitment to diversity, equity, and mutual respect. Democracy requires citizens with the capacity to step into the shoes of others, even those we most dislike, to sift and weigh alternatives, to listen respectfully to other viewpoints with the possibility in mind that we each have something to learn from others. It requires us to be prepared to defend intelligently that which we believe to be true, and that which we believe best meets our individual needs and those of our family, community, and broader public—to not be easily conned. It requires also the skills and competencies to be well informed and persuasive... "Democracy requires citizens who are themselves artists and inventors—knowledgeable about ... but also capable of producing, performing, and inventing their own art. Without art we are all deprived. ... "Our mission is to create a community in which our children and their families can best maintain and nurture such democratic habits. "Toward these ends, our community must be prepared to spend time even when it might seem wasteful hearing each other out. We must deal with each other in ways that lead us to feel stronger and more loved, not weaker and less loveable. We must expect the most from everyone, hold all to the highest standards, but also respect our different ways of exhibiting excellence. ..."

We accepted the idea that we didn’t have a shot at living up to our mission if we didn’t provide sufficient leisure to work together as a school community while also acknowledging that our members had obligations to their families, their other communities, and their own self-development—as artists, lovers, environmental freaks, or whatever! Ditto democracy writ large.

One of the amazing outcomes was our own growing awareness of all the trade-offs involved, the weighing of options, and acknowledging that there were unexpected outcomes—not always good—to the best of ideas.

Our five “habits of mind” perhaps needed the addition of one of the other “habits:" “What might the unexpected consequences (trade-offs) of any good idea be?”

Such as ... if we organize the already small school—as Mission Hill first did—into two K-5 sub-schools that fed into one 6-8 school, we created problems we hadn’t anticipated. So we changed that. Or, by designing a single set of school-wide themes, we’d inhibit some wonderful ideas bubbling up from the bottom. Or, once we created an “executive committee,” we’d make the committee of the whole feel second rate, but that without an executive committee we’d waste time on the wrong issues. Etc., etc.

Maybe that’s why Jefferson argued that we might need a revolution every so often, to go back to our roots and rethink. Schools can be a vehicle for such rethinking, if we use them that way. They can be labs for helping to rediscover democracy.

But I keep looking at the charts that the Economic Policy Institute has put together. They remind me how skewed our economy has become. And I worry that the deck is already too stacked against the 99 percent of Americans having the time and wherewithal to rethink. It’s data worth pondering.

So I’m feeling bit “up,” but also nervous. In Wisconsin, I had the feeling that even the cops were our friends so it pains me to see the police in lower Manhattan and on the Brooklyn Bridge so apparently personally angry and acting out. (While those who planned the action coolly observed what they wrought.) Does it require a threat to their own solidarity to create a bridge between the cops and protesters?

Patriotism—toward one’s neighborhood, school, friends, team, or nation—is an expression of solidarity. Being a Yankees fan can be a benign form of patriotism or... a nasty form. (And when I hear American businessmen say that they no longer believe in the label “Made in America,” I hear them with anger and want to call upon their patriotism! And yet it contains an element of healthy internationalism? (I’m giving them undeserved motives, I know.)

But, for the moment, my unambivalent “Hurrah!” to the protesters on Wall Street, to Van Jones’ effort to mobilize nationally, to SOS (Save Our Schools), and many more. The future looks, at least, interesting.


P.S. Just before I sent this, I received a message about “Occupy Albany.” For more information, go to occupyalbany.org.

Also, for those of you who would like to make donations to Occupy Wall Street, they are in need of hot, prepared food, blankets, and also the use of trucks. To order food, use this link. Their physical address is here.

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.