Curriculum Opinion

A New School Year: Democracy & Schools

By Deborah Meier — September 17, 2013 6 min read
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Deborah Meier returns to Bridging Differences today following the blog’s summer hiatus. Later this week, Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute will reply to her
thoughts. The two will blog together for several weeks this fall.

Dear Mike,

For 50 years September meant the beginning of a new school year for me and the chance to put into action new ideas and insights that had been quietly gathering force. I miss the excitement of starting “anew” as we tried to translate our ideas into miniature worlds for our children and ourselves. I still believe that if we don’t take advantage of the intellectual insights that reside in those closest to the action we will never get this right. Right for what? For bringing the elusive but powerful concept—democracy—down to earth where we can play with its trade-offs, complexities, and values. Schools for a democracy need to be sites of learning of the highest order, “labs” for trying our ideas out.

Since I am no longer working in a specific school, and part of that school’s lively debates, blogging has become my substitute! Maybe this blog can help us get a better handle on where we agree and where we part company by focusing at first on a discussion about the connection between democracy and schooling. Let’s aim for an imperfect and interesting discourse, which may disappoint some of my best friends who love (like me) to argue polemically in a style we learned in one or another sect.

Polemics are useful sometimes—for example, Diane Ravitch and I spent time many years ago engaged in polemical dispute. I found it useful. Incidentally, I think Ravitch’s shifting view is not the result of abandoning her old views, but rather of revisiting them with just a small difference in perspective about the impact of testing on actual classroom life as a starting point. (Just as I saw things differently as a parent rather than a teacher!) But a small shift in perspective—from “seeing like a state,” as James Scott’s book of that name reminds us, to seeing like a participant, can create a huge shift over time. It’s precisely that shift in perspective that will be required, I contend, if we are to have the impact that you and I want to have on all children. And it’s a shift that I think lies at the heart of democracy.

I suspect it would serve little purpose to carry on a dialogue with the 20-something hedge-funders who hope to make a profit from “public” schooling, But our exchange last spring suggests we can perhaps both benefit by exploring the education/democracy relationship (and maybe more?). I was especially reminded of this when I read the Lindsey Layton piece in The Washington Post where you describe your struggle about where to send your children to school (See “Schools Dilemma for Gentrifiers”). I struggled with this decision, solved it differently, but with many of the same concerns. (We sent our three children to their struggling neighborhood public schools, with all the pluses and minuses that entailed—including being lectured by the principal of their middle school that children like mine would do best to transfer out of his school. We didn’t.)

My political obsession with democracy may speak to the time in which I grew up (the 1930s and ‘40s). I assumed democracy was our shared American secular religion. I rested my anti-Communism on the same democratic standards I applied to my own country. My pro-union passion was part of those norms, too—as the only potential major contestant in the face of what inevitably is the powerful self-interest of organized “business.” Without such a force to balance the power of organized money we’re in for trouble, if (big if) democratic norms are high on our agenda (or even second or third place).

And if we can’t hold democracy high on our agenda in the United States, I feel very afraid. Because for all the forward/backward turns in our history we have had, perhaps, the longest continuous attempt to build a democracy—even though it’s not, nor has ever been, anywhere near a “perfect” finished product. But I believe democracy is in serious crisis today.

But even defining democracy is not easy. And we’re rarely required to do so. As a friend once said, it’s easier to tell when democracy does not exist than when it does. Partly because the latter is nuanced, changes with circumstances, rests on context, and involves lots of difficult trade-offs to maintain. It is not “standardized"—although it rests on standards. (Sound familiar?) Furthermore, what seems “common sense” to me is that without some degree of equality of power, democracy withers and eventually dies. So, creating conditions of greater equality is a big part of the struggle on behalf of democracy. In addition, and this is where schooling comes in, there are “habits of mind” that go along with democracy and others that don’t. The education of the ruling class was classically designed to serve the classical ruling class—not democracy.

John Dewey’s point was that public schools are here to make us all effective members of the “ruling class.” To do so we needed to rethink schooling, not just try (hard, impossible, or useless as that might be) to replicate the 18th century upper-class academy. While I wanted my students to have access to a school not so different from the independent progressive school I attended, one of those elite institutions that the rich, and wanna-be middle class, sent their children to in New York City, I knew it needed to have some differences. Exploring what those differences were became an unfinished lifetime work, not to mention figuring out how to make it persuasive to doubters.

Figuring out ways (note the plural) that all children might be educated, trained, accustomed to “using their minds well” (Ted Sizer’s term, and No. 1 of the Coalition of Essential Schools’ 10 principles) requires, I believe, at minimum, serious changes in school settings. For example, students should be accustomed to seeing adults disagree, make decisions—be respected members of their school society. How that translates into classroom studies and schoolwide behaviors may vary. But the absence of a democratic culture, first and foremost, amongst the adults is a major obstacle to students developing such “habits.” It removes a critical chance to explore “democracy in action.”

Students and faculty also need a curriculum that can be defended in terms of the life skills and knowledge needed to be a fully informed member of the ruling class of a democratic society—as a juror, a voter, a candidate, an op-ed author, etc. For example, maybe it would place expertise in dealing with probability and statistics before being able to pass a test in algebra or calculus. As Greg Lindsay wrote in a recent article in Next City, there is a culture in which “only those sufficiently armed with data have a voice in meetings—which typically doesn’t include the faculty.”

As long as we don’t tackle “learning” democracy with as much seriousness as math and literacy it’s hardly puzzling why in times of real or imagined crises the first victims will over and over again be democratic norms. This is as true on the part of the Left and the Right—and I think it reminds us of what’s missing from both elite and mass education as we’ve known it. This is particularly imperative at a time when few other institutions exist that might build such understanding.

Maybe we agree, maybe not. But I’d like to use the coming weeks (or longer) exploring the relationship between schooling and democracy.


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