Social Studies Opinion

Communities of Co-Creators

By Deborah Meier — October 14, 2016 3 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Harry and friends,

Well, the one good thing about being out of service for so long—with my peculiar eye condition—is that I think a lot about what to say.

Democracy is one of those topics that can be talked about substantively and operationally for ever, and has been.

This election reminds me about the limited value of being able to vote (better than not being able to)—and shout what you think from the rooftops or social media or even a letter-to-the-editor. It’s been a long time since The New York Times has published anything I sent them.

So democracies—so-called—can range from complete frauds to pretty strong and healthy vehicles for self-governance. The latter is always a compromise, since some good ideas contradict each other—or are fuzzy. If we want those who are most affected by decisions to have the most to say that runs counter to another idea—that everyone has a right to a voice and vote even if only partially affected. Should the school custodian have a voice and vote on curricular decisions? School schedules? Classroom organization?

Without democracy liberty is a joke, but with it it’s often pretty close to it—if we mean (as we mostly do) my own individual right to do what I want. Who decides when what “you want” interferes with others having what “they want”? I know of no perfect solution—but that doesn’t mean I’m not always seeking a better one.

Of course the greater the inequality—means of access of media, to hiring lobbyists and researchers to back-up one’s views—the harder it is to imagine any democracy having a lot of meaning. Still we’ve seen even in this unequal U.S. times when the rich and powerful have been defeated. But it’s rare and generally requires a division of opinion and self-interest among the powerful.

But in the sense that we use the word—it assumes the existence of a community with community self-interests that are shared, although of course arguable. It’s hard today to think about a community at all—some entity outside of our immediate personal circle—whose interests we would sacrifice for—if convinced.

A more full democracy assumes some locations where people easily get a range of information and opportunities to share what they think with others who think differently. Scale, of course, makes it harder. But even in small schools we had to devote more time than we imagined to create such shared conversation, and that would not have been possible if the participants didn’t usually get pleasure out of it—even out of arguments.

There is no need for democracy if we are only concerned with “getting along"—agreeing. We have to learn perhaps to enjoy arguments—from kindergarten on—if we are to do it well, and relish it. Maybe not quite to the degree that we did in my family—with a father who couldn’t bear agreement.

Schools must be—where else? Places that encourage discourse about anything anyone is interested in, and that means a certain degree of non-judgementalism! That’s hard? Where does civil turn into uncivil? Who decides? Schools also then need to connect with the conversation going out outside of school—among many different groups and communities that can interconnect. We all need to see ourselves, in your words, as “citizens” in whatever role we have. Citizen-students, citizen-teachers, citizen engineers.

Co-creators, as you say, strikes a good balance. We need a curriculum that provides time to consider the Tory argument in 1776 as well as the victorious one—to get in the habit of listening for “the other side”. Even while denouncing it when needed.

We need to rethink what body we are citizens of, and whether it differs depending on.....

Best, Deb.

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