Equity & Diversity Opinion

The Hard Part: Defining Democracy

By Deborah Meier — November 21, 2013 7 min read
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The conversation between Deborah Meier and Robert Pondiscio continues today.

Dear Robert,

Progress: We have our slogan. Education for democracy and liberty.

Now comes the hard part of the challenge: defining both terms. Sometimes the best way to do this is by shifting gears entirely and starting with stories that help make our point. Two come to mind immediately from my youth.

One, best told with an NYC lilt, goes like this. A man asks his friend: “Who makes the decisions in your family?” The other replies, “Well, my wife makes the little decisions, and I make the big ones.” “Such as?” his friend asks. “My wife, for example, decides where we should live, what schools the kids should go to, who to invite for dinner, where we spend vacations, how to decorate the house.” His friend interrupts, “But then what decisions do you make?” “Oh, I decide things like whether we should recognize Red China.”

The second “story” consists of two quotes from my youthful reading of Eugene V. Debs. “I would not lead you to the promised land even if I could, because if I could lead you there, others could lead you back again.” And, “While there is a lower class, I am in it, while there is a criminal element, I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”

Exploring the joke and the quotes might get us far toward defining democracy. But first I’d like to hear what you make of them and maybe a few stories or quotes that best describe your definition of democracy.

As for liberty, I remember too what Diego Rivera supposedly said to Rockefeller when his murals for Rockefeller Center were destroyed. “I paint what I see.” I even rather like the New Hampshire slogan: “Live free or die.” A bit extreme since I also like the one about “living to fight another day.”

Sometimes stirring quotes don’t really tell the story. It’s in the details of life that we often demonstrate our personal and societal beliefs.

Our schools are one of those details.

The 18th and 19th century British “public” school is a case in point. These schools didn’t just accept the brightest of the upper class, because even the dumbest was destined to rule. They knew what it meant to be a member of the “ruling class.” And they were educated “differently” for just this reason. Even down to why Latin was taught: because it separated one from those who only knew the vernacular.

The “grammarians” still have a similar point in their fastidious attention to “standard” English. Professor Higgins knew what he was up to. Just as centuries earlier the lower classes were forbidden to wear certain clothing because it made it harder to tell who belonged to which class.

The common, geographically zoned school was one American invention that showed off our belief in democracy. It was never totally true—even in the North— but it was aspirational. And in our aspirations we tell a lot about ourselves. Which is why I avoid calling such aspirations merely hypocritical. When we cease to be hypocrites we will be living in utopia. Until then, a little hypocrisy is forgivable.

Learning to be a democrat is not easy—for the rich or the poor. It has to be experienced some of the time! It takes training. It takes examples. It takes crossing boundaries in terms of friendships and passions. It takes empathy. It takes challenging each other, calling each other out on occasion, having even fierce arguments, followed by fierce self-reflection, and humor.

We’re not natural-born democrats, but we are natural-born “intellectuals,” “theorists,” “jokers,” “reflect-ers"—plus possessors of plenty of grit, and more perseverance than many an exhausted parent might prefer.

Being a kindergarten (and Head Start) teacher, and then a K-12 “teacher” in low-income, largely minority schools, taught me one thing: All the above “virtues” go along with being human, and this is as true of the poor as the rich, black, brown, or white.

The children who came into my classrooms were also perceptive—they caught on quickly whether school was going to be a place where they should bring their whole selves, or leave most of themselves at the schoolhouse door. But if they decided it was a “safe” place, they were as smart, quick, lively, and full of rich language as my own. They had stories to tell, games to invent, friendships to make, and strong opinions and egos to defend. I still keep the stories they dictated to me from that first class, when I wrote a lot about my “discoveries.”

It probably also helped that I lived across from the field where many low-income African-American kids played. I observed. We had nothing to teach them about how to collaborate when it was in their interest to do so, how to make their point of view known, and how to be polite. They had the capacity to hold onto a lot of knowledge, including detailed facts about automobiles, basketball statistics, and how to push my buttons. They also knew how to hold back on a lot when necessary.

In short, they met all the qualifications for being a member of the ruling class. The one and only class we might hope all Americans would someday be. But until then, we had much to learn from each other’s “class,” ethnic, and “race” experiences.

Imagine my surprise when every single one of the 16-year-olds in my class agreed—and had chapter and verse to “prove it"—that Norman Lear’s “All in the Family” was an outright racist TV show. Or when the college students in a course I taught for District Council 37 (a public employee union in New York City) didn’t bother to read an assigned essay by a well-known liberal because it opened with a satirical story that proved he was a racist, too. It took empathy to imagine my reaction had I not “known” better. We both literally and figuratively sometimes live in different worlds—and with different words.

That’s why in the USA, the concept of public space—where all meet as equals—has been a tough, long-fought-over terrain. The ballot box is just one such place. It’s only perhaps in the last half-century that it’s come close to being a place where every citizen is welcomed. (It’s in trouble again, of late.) For a brief period the Army was another, although more so for some than others. Or public transportation. Or our public roads and highways. Or our labor unions.

It took the courts to declare that even privately owned stores were “public” space. And malls? We had to fight to ensure that we could enter these and many other public places with equal rights and equal power to assert our humanity.

But we haven’t made similar progress when it comes to wealth and power. In fact, we have in the same last half-century moved toward dramatically more inequality when it comes to the power that comes along with wealth. When I reached adulthood we were a far more equal society than we are today in terms of our power to influence the world. Money trumps.

So we can’t stop acknowledging the influence of class, wealth, the color of our skin, being privileged, and being well-educated.

And we have only one institution designed to do something about the last of these. Our public schools. Yes, we were often hypocrites about the classless character of our public schools, but it was at least an aspiration. Not for the sake of the so-called free-market economy—which has helped make us less equal—but for the sake of democracy and personal liberty that includes each and every one of us.

Now next week for the nitty-gritty details of what such schooling might be—if it were a place where we all educated each other, studied together, were respectful of each other’s budding voices, and forever complicated (nothing is “obvious” in a good school, or we’d all already know it). There wouldn’t be one “right” school, but many schools struggling to be “righter"—each open to their publics.

But we would also be wary of assuming that even at its best—which would take a different form of public financing—schools can overcome the odds. (Which is maybe why schools designed for democratic ends might teach more about probability than calculus). They’d be less “rigorous,” in the dictionary definition of that over-used word. Look it up (even in a contemporary dictionary); it unambiguously means harsh, rigid, and unbending. I actually think we are fooling ourselves when we claim it means otherwise.

We need to end a world in which very rich children spend 12-plus years in schools that spend $30,000 to $40,000 per student and where teachers have class sizes of 12, while other children attend schools that spend $8,000-$15,000 and teachers have loads of 160-170 different students per week. And this on top of the difference in what is spent on the 180 days when school is not in session! Or after school. We need also to end a system of schooling for some that insists on rank-ordering children (and their teachers) with tools known to best differentiate children by the wealth of their families.

We need to be more aware that sometimes “your” (impersonal) choice limits my choices, your liberty restrains mine, your safety endangers my safety. It’s complicated to figure out, but do-able if we had more equal educations in doing so! If my stories and quotations were part of the curricula as well as those of my students.

So, let’s argue, Robert.



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