Federal Opinion

Democracy Schools After the Election: Overcoming the Cult of the Expert

By Harry C. Boyte — November 10, 2016 5 min read
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Harry Boyte continues his conversation with Deborah Meier. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Deb,

After this election, your call for a “politics of democracy” in and around schools has urgency several orders of magnitude greater. We face multiple dangers, including “strong-man politics.” To recall Martin Luther King, we need a sense of the “fierce urgency of now.”

From the stance of the democracy school movement the election has silver linings. It was a wake-up call for educators to take the democracy school ideal to another level of focus. We need democracy identity not simply activity, democracy colleges, not simply democracy centers.

The election also dramatized the failure of what I have called “the cult of the expert” and its reliance on “Big Data,” sophisticated computer modelling based on processing an immense amount of information, both widespread among progressives. The democracy school movement challenges this cult because it rests on a different understanding of the person. Rather than conceiving people as needy consumers reducible to market niches and stereotypes, the democracy school philosophy conceives of humans as immensely complex and dynamic, aspiring to co-creative civic agency.

Barack Obama’s 2008 “We the People” campaign, which used sophisticated information systems and social media, also embodied elements of this democracy education philosophy on an enormous scale. The campaign was infused with civic organizing practices, growing from the philosophy developed by Obama as a community organizer in the 1980s. It taught skills of civic organizing like how to build public relationships, map power, how to understand public narrative—one’s own and others’ stories. It respected the creativity and initiative of participants. They in turn learned to respect McCain supporters.

As I noted in last week’s blog, Minnesotans United for All Families, a winning fight in 2012 against an amendment to the state constitution which would have banned gay marriage, built on Obama 2008. It engaged in a vast process of civic conversations, story-telling, and relationship building, not only in phone banks but in religious groups, workplaces, college residence halls and other settings.

Both Obama 2008 and Minnesotans United broke the pattern of the dominant mobilizing approach which demonizes opponents and conceives of opponents in fixed categories. Mobilizing approaches dominate because they fit the technocratic bent of our world. They also grow from today’s individualist, expert-knows-best, hypercompetitive and culturally uprooted system of education.

Professionals work “on” citizens. They do not conceive of themselves as citizens.

I know from firsthand experience that Hillary Clinton is a serious, decent, hardworking person, committed to the cause of social justice and equality as she understands these (we discussed civic action at length at the Camp David Summit on the Future of Democracy in 1995 before Bill Clinton’s State of the Union, described in Benjamin Barber’s The Truth of Power). But she has spent her career in the “cult of the expert” culture, a world view which predominates in the elite reaches of higher education and professions.

Thus her campaign embodied the mobilizing, cult of the expert mindset which imagines voters as locked into preset categories. As Amy Chozick reported today in the New York Times (“Hillary Clinton’s Expectation’s and her Ultimate Campaign Missteps”), Hillary and her advisors ignored the urgent counsel of Bill Clinton to engage working class whites, “reasoning that she was better off targeting college-educated suburban voters.” As Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic veteran put it, the Clinton strategy was “more money, more consultants, more polling, and more of a campaign based on what we thought we knew rather than what the electorate felt.”

Democratic education, in contrast, rests on a conviction that humans are creative agents, whose capacities are developed in dynamic relationships. Isn’t this the heart of the small school which you helped to birth? This was also the citizenship school tradition of the civil rights movement which shaped me as a young man, drawing on black educational struggles, Scandinavian folk schools and adult education, detailed in Katherine Charron’s Freedom’s Teacher on the life of Septima Clark, the architect of the citizenship schools which developed the grassroots leadership of the movement.

Septima Clark taught and organized for four decades in the segregated schools of South Carolina, learning the importance of drawing out students’ talents through empowering education. She counselled that “your creative ability is the thing you need to pull out of these children their creative ability.”

Clark came to understand that schools need to be part of the life of communities, not apart from communities. Churches and civic groups and PTAs provided opportunities for learning political and civic skills outside of school. She came to respect children’s families, outgrowing the condescending attitudes of her mother about rural poor people. Along with other black teachers, she learned how to practice what Charron calls “civic organizing,” understanding that local political change depended on sophisticated action on state and national levels. “A growing army of black teachers...forged an activist educational culture that had long-term political consequences,” Charron writes. “Shaped by improvisational pedagogical strategies and underscored by commitment to local people, [they learned] success depended not on confrontation but on driving a wedge, gaining ground an inch at a time and holding it.”

Such insights provide great resources for challenging technocratic, mobilizing politics in a time when we we face the urgent need of a successful challenge to technocracy, detached professional cultures in every setting. Education at every level will be key to this challenge. The democracy school movement needs to fill schools and colleges with the spirit of civic agency, stories and lessons of democracy as an empowering way of life. We need to undertake the long process of transforming technocracying into democracy.

Deb, that’s my take on the election’s lessons. 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.