Equity & Diversity Opinion

Schools as Foundations of Democracy

By Deborah Meier — November 22, 2016 4 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Harry and friends,

We get back—in your last letter—to an underlying theme that runs through our discourse! Election vs. citizen action. Actually, Harry, I suspect we’d really both agree that we don’t have to choose between them. You can’t win in elections if you don’t have deep roots and connections with potential voters—especially if your goals are to empower “the people”.

There’s a considerable unfortunate tendency among the 18-21 crowd to prefer the latter (citizen action) over the former (election), and to simply not vote and then protest the results. I suspect it’s an exaggeration, but a recent news story claimed that three-fourths of the protesters arrested in Portland hadn’t voted, and that about half of the demonstrators hadn’t. While disdain for electoral politics is dangerous, it’s entirely understandable for two reasons: the kind of elections practiced in schools are clearly a bad charade, and the November ones don’t seem to make much difference to too many people who see them as a struggle between elites.

The absence of powerful, people-based political activity has unbalanced an already unbalanced power structure. The only thing available to “the people” who don’t have a lot of wealth is the power of numbers, organized numbers, who over time have developed a trust in each other so that they can act in ways that counter money-power. That, of course, also means that they need money, but the gap is filled, ideally over-filled, by actual human beings who man telephones, canvass, talk to friends, encourage each other, etc., etc., etc. And not only every two or four years, but over issues closer to home as well. The big new factor in American politics since the New Deal was the growth of the union government. It was a smart move by the Democrats (Dixiecrats must have gone along?) to pass the Wagner Act that made organizing unions on a grand scale feasible.

Unions were where people didn’t just vote, but talked and talked and talked, and argued. The union provided information not available in daily press (which were then—maybe still?—largely Republication or conservative Democrat). They were in a position to quickly get the word out when outrageous misstatements of fact occurred—not only to their membership but through their media and research departments.

They were also a continuous year-round year after year institution whereas many other people’s movements were focused on particular evils and went out of business or became quiescent when that struggle was over. Unions didn’t have ways to fund themselves easily during the dry months or years when their issues weren’t on the top of the agenda. Unions were built into America’s economy for a time and the dues check-off was important as well—since business has little trouble deducting political “dues” from its side of the fence. Citizens United has blown this catastrophe up in ways we never anticipated.

In some countries the labor movement and its allies had a political party—which was what socialists like me used to demand. I didn’t happen, in part, because working people assumed the Democratic Party was a stand-in for that. The Democrats, of course, were until WWII, hardly a bastion of civil rights activists given the alliance with the South and the absence of voting rights by so many blacks.

What was forgotten for a time was that racism was an element among Northern whites. (Note: NYC is as racially segregated as it was 60 years ago.) It was a fringe element we thought, just as anti-semitism may have been a fringe element in Germany in the 20s, and would inevitably die out. We may be right about anti-semitism (I wouldn’t count on it) but we were wrong about racism, and all those anti-foreigner, yellow hordes, dirty x’s and y’s that sort of went away after World War II. Sort of.

We need to rebuild, reconstruct alliances and to do that we need to build a mass equivalent of the Labor movement of yore. Maybe it’s even possible to rebuild the labor movement that is left.

I think schools can play a powerful role but I’ve come to believe it for somewhat different reasons. I still think pedagogy and curriculum matter. But even more important I now think is the setting that kids spend those 12 years in. Does it celebrate democracy or authoritarianism? Is it friendly to non-mainstream people and ideas? Is it a place where young people witness (ideally experience) democratic life at least? Amongst the adults? We progressives—and probably most others too—have long known that telling is not as powerful as experiencing.

Where in the world do the young experience the complexity of democracy, the the-offs, an understanding of how important collective decisions might be made? Nowhere.

If schools can’t be adult democracies, at the very least, why do we think it would work on a larger scale?


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