Federal Opinion

The Egalitarian Mission Has Disappeared

By Deborah Meier — December 18, 2008 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

I’m not sure that it’s Red vs. Blue. (It’s still hard for me to realize we are now in an age when red is the color of conservatism.) The choice of Arne Duncan leaves me sad, but maybe he’s “purple”? I hope so. I’ll wait to comment until all the education positions are filled.

There’s another axis of ideas that may cross lines on some of the issues that most concern us. We’re lined up, for example, on different issues in different places; for example, with regard to “who should decide what?”

There are complicated balances embedded in this question that are increasingly being decided centrally. I think you worry more about the lack of expertise of those making decisions, and I worry more about even the wisest of educational czars telling parents, teachers, and communities what and how to teach. On this one I’m often allied with traditional conservatives! You seem split depending on whether it’s “how” (pedagogy) or “what” (subject matter). We’ll get back to this in 2009.

The idea of equity has a more obvious Red/Blue axis. Except that some of the new defenders of equity seem only interested in equalizing test scores. I just finished reading an extraordinary piece by T. Elijah Hawkes (a NYC school principal) in Schools Studies in Education, published jointly by the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago and the University of Chicago Press. He says it better than I can. I urge everyone to read it.

The egalitarian mission that I grew up thinking was as American as apple pie has disappeared. Entirely gone for the Reds, but not so much brighter for many Blues. We are no longer the land where working men and women are middle class in anything but a rhetorical sense and where the urban poor have disappeared; we’re no longer the most socially mobile nation on Earth. Making AYP has replaced all our other lofty goals.

(Incidentally, my old Boston school—Mission Hill—missed making AYP again. Not because of test scores, but because less than 95 percent participated. We do allow parent opt-outs, and one family too many exercised that right.)

The disproportionate editorial writers’ anger at high workers’ wages in the auto industry versus anger at the astronomical wages of the bankers and hedge funders is odd. You are right, Diane, it’s at least partially just old historic right-wing politics in its newest guise—fueling anti-unionism is all part of that. But it’s not Red alone.

We’re substantially gutting the basic idea of democracy—that those who make decisions be accountable to those they most deeply impact: “of, for and by,” especially the last of the trio. We all recognize that too many citizens think they have virtually no influence. This leaves many choosing to retreat from public life altogether. It lends credence to seeing wealth as the only form of power. It’s fed by an ideology that argues that the marketplace solves what imperfect political democracy can’t. (Virtually everything except modern war—and we’re increasingly privatizing that, too.) Distrust in each other grows apace as we see everyone as a competitor, not a fellow citizen. America vs. the World. My kids vs. everyone else’s. But yet—something holds us back. Something resists this trend toward privatization of everything. In that sense, the current crisis may have been a blessing, if we recover from it and learn from it.

There is a way to rebuild respect for democracy, and the proper balance of trust/distrust needed to make it work. Schools are one vehicle for rebalancing needed trust, potential building blocks for that task. Imagine if schools were community centers for intergenerational learning, focused around strong civic debate about means and ends. Imagine them as places where we’d be required to act “as if” we respected each other from 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m..

Our accountability to each other must rest less on obscure, convoluted data understood only by a small elite, and more on that amazing human capacity for “judgment.” Ordinary citizens need to be in a position to make judgments about institutions they can see, feel, and “taste.” Even experts need something more than test scores. We need schools that embody the virtues of cross-generational egalitarian communities alongside of various forms of monitoring that help alert us to serious abuses of local power in a still unequal society and in-depth sampled data that can serve to provide context and insight.

Power corrupts; but so does the lack of it. We’ve not yet tackled the balance of power needed to make schools safe for democracy. They are certainly not safe now. I look at every piece of legislation through a very narrow lens—will it enable us to pursue the work we began 35 years ago in District 4 in East Harlem? (Work that was replicated throughout the nation in small but stirring ways.) While it was “rudely” interrupted 15 years ago by other agendas, it persists in oases everywhere in this land. It’s not just “small” that matters, but where decisions are made. The change we need (call it reform or not) lies in policies that fuel the enthusiasm of those at “the bottom”—where adults and children connect. Small is only a means to that end.

NCLB, built on distrust of those close to the action and vast trust in those furthest removed, can’t get us to that better balance. It can’t unleash that enthusiasm. We need to start again with our eye on that prize: schools whose curriculum—both the open and the hidden one—is all about democracy.


My kids are all coming up to Hillsdale soon—and grandkids—and that’s a great blessing. May you and our readers all have a wonderful few weeks until we resume our conversation. (Following a short break, Bridging Differences will return the week of Jan. 4, 2009.)


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