Teaching Opinion

A Federal Initiative on Democracy in Schools?

By Harry C. Boyte — January 26, 2016 3 min read
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Dear Deb and Colleagues,

Your mention of Bernie Sanders’ campaign raises the question for me, “What should we ask from candidates in the way of policies to advance a democracy-in-schools movement?” Sanders’ proposals for expanded government benefits like health and education don’t yet have a civic side.

Today there is great deal of skepticism toward government. But people, especially young people, show eagerness to help make change.

Developing ideas for how government can be “of” the people not only “for” the people after the election would create a model of citizens as producers, not simply consumers.

We worked in this vein in our Reinventing Citizenship initiative with the Clinton White House from 1993-95, developing ideas to overcome the gap between citizens and government. A team led by Carmen Sirianni, our research director, created a proposal for a “Civic Partnership Council,” chaired by the Vice President, that would coordinate civic engagement practices across agencies. It helped to shape the 1995 Clinton State of the Union address and had support from William Galston, White House policy director. Polling by Stan Greenberg showed a lot of potential interest. But Washington maneuvers of the administration eventually thwarted the idea.

There are examples from the past of large-scale government efforts that catalyzed civic engagement, creating alternatives to government as simply a service provider. These could help overcome popular alienation from government and generate new ideas.

Jess Gilbert’s terrific new book, Planning Democracy: Agrarian Intellectuals and the Intended New Deal (Yale University Press, 2015) describes an extraordinary if little known case during the Roosevelt presidency.

From 1938 to 1941, a group of agrarian leaders in the Department of Agriculture worked with land grant colleges, Cooperative Extension workers, and community leaders to develop a democracy initiative built on continuing education and cooperative land use planning. Supported by Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, they included M. L. Wilson, undersecretary of agriculture, Howard Tolley, chief of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics and engaged intellectuals like the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, Charles Johnson, author of The Negro in American Civilization and others.

Against scholarship which has maintained that the US Department of Agriculture in the New Deal was led by condescending technocrats, Gilbert shows that the agrarian leaders were “organic intellectuals of the Midwestern family-farming class.” They created a counter-narrative that challenged the dominant American Dream where the ideal is making a lot of money. They respected local cultures, local histories, family farming, and the intelligence of ordinary people. Their philosophy, drawing on John Dewey, was education for a democratic way of life. “They believed that democracy required continuous learning, personal growth, cultural adjustment, and civic discussion,” writes Gilbert.

The agrarian leaders worked with farm groups, churches, farm unions, youth clubs, professional and business groups, and government agencies. They trained about 60,000 discussion leaders, and catalyzed tens of thousands of discussion groups on topics ranging from family farming and soil erosion to the meaning of democracy. They also organized schools of philosophy to educate educators in topics such as the challenges facing modern societies. They sponsored lectures for hundreds of USDA employees on democracy, with leading intellectuals of the day. All conveyed the idea that democracy is something people make together, not simply consume.

The initiative ended in late 1941 after Henry Wallace left the department to become Vice President and the Farm Bureau, the big farmers organization, mounted fierce opposition. But the effort, called the Program Study and Discussion, was immense. Three million farm men and women took part in local discussion groups across all regions of the country. Tens of thousands participated in 150 schools of philosophy. A key lesson for our age of dysfunctional us-versus-them partisanship: all materials included critics of the administration, from left and right, as well as supporters. This was a cross-partisan “different kind of politics.”

The effort also succeeded in launching a process of participatory land use planning across the country. Among other things, it helped birth soil conservation districts and generated plans for preventing soil erosion and fertility depletion and protecting family farms.

Could we propose something analogous for a new administration’s Department of Education?

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.