Standards Opinion

Democracy Is an ‘Idea,’ Not a Recipe

By Deborah Meier — October 01, 2013 8 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Michael J. Petrilli today.

Dear Mike,

The two are inextricably connected: democratic education and education for democracy. But, you are right; they are not necessarily the same. Example: If my agenda were first and foremost to produce a generation of good carpenters, I’d be sure students were immersed in a culture of craftsmanship, keeping company with masters of the craft. It’s no wonder that so many musicians come from families of musicians, etc. It might be different if I were interested in providing carpentry or music as an “add on"—like a good civics course. Agreed?

If this is true of carpentry or musicianship, the same goes for the arts and craft of democracy. Defining the D-word is hard to do in words, all the more reason then to go beyond words.

The kind of give-and-take it requires to maintain an adult community of equals, respect for the need to make compromises, to negotiate, to be open to the possibility of ... being wrong are not innate. Not to mention the shifting alliances needed to keep the whole thing aloft. Our schools can be labs for learning all of the above, or we can hope these lessons are learned somewhere else ...?

So, if democracy is something that we want to pass on to the next generation, at the very least young people should be surrounded by adults who are practicing democracy among themselves. How they operate as citizens of a school community carries a lesson in democracy. Democracy is an “idea,” not a recipe. It’s not “raising your hand,” “sharing” “majority rules,” or any other number of civic virtues or platitudes that ignore issues of “who decides what and how.”

In addition, a democratic society—and perhaps this is your point—needs to expose the next generation to the ideas, information, and skills needed to sustain themselves and their community/nation/planet. It needs this more than a top-down dictatorship does! That’s why in a democracy we need more probability/statistics and less algebra/calculus. It’s why more time needs to be devoted to “playing” with our numeral system and maybe—as we did in the old “new math"—with alternative number systems.

Maybe we need to spend more time on size and scale—as we face the complexity of living within a planet and a universe where “knowing” millions from billions (in dollars, years, distance) counts. It’s why I’m concerned with helping young people develop passions and interests—sustaining that earlier stage of voracious curiosity that “incidentally” teaches the value of hard work, sometimes boring tasks, deadlines, and the need for colleagues. (Our students in Boston spent more than a month digging a hole in our school’s play area to see if ... .) Besides, it can’t all be done by the time one graduates high school—or college.

The reason teaching kindergarten was so exciting to me 50 years ago was that it reawakened my own intellectual fascinations—and in the process my definition of intellectual or academic. (See Clueless in Academe, Gerald Graff , Chapter 14.) I had to re-ask myself why it seemed “obvious” that the world was round. Why did I accept evolutionary theory, even when I couldn’t defend it? Why were the West Indies in the East (on my world map) and the East Indies far to their West? Do Canadians think of themselves as Americans, or is that exclusive to the USA? How could I convince stubborn little Darryl (age 5) that rocks were not alive? Or should I even try? Or should I just demand that he accept my rebuke and agree that rocks are an example of “non-living” things? What about the leaves I pluck off a tree, or find all over my lawn in the fall? Living, or non-living? (It was recommended by the Department of Education as a one- or two-week kindergarten topic.)

A look at a “common core” example of what a good 1st grade curriculum in English/Language Arts should prepare children for—as measured by an assessment tool given before and after a unit on “ancient civilizations"—made me gasp in disbelief. The whole school spent three months exploring ancient Egypt (at the time of the first Tut exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City) only to realize that despite timelines galore most 5-, 6-, and 7-year-olds thought Ancient Egypt was a place—like Disneyland or Paris. Their view was reinforced by the slides another teacher had of her visit to Egypt—standing before pyramids and camels. (A picture is worth a thousand words.) But it took NOT looking for 52 right answers (covering all ancient civilization) to uncover what these children were understanding of what we taught.

So it was with mathematics—which introduced me to higher math for the first time—as I realized how hard it was to explain how “I just knew” that these five things and these other five things were “equal” ... in number. Hmmmm.

Having “ideas” is at the heart of “critical thinking.” Having one idea is critical to exploring another idea, and still another ... and thus having to exercise judgment, examine context, and select between them for this or that purpose. It was a perfect segue into talking about “means and ends,” trade-offs, unintended consequences, etc.

Even more important was discovering how simple things were actually rocket science. That meant that my “enemy’s” arguments (regardless of age) might not be all that foolish. I tried different strategies. Sometimes, like the kids, I persisted with my view of what’s true as far and for as long as I could. Then sometimes over the next few weeks, or months, I took my own “common sense” both more seriously and with greater caution. Yes, we ought to abandon old paradigms with care and not flip easily from one to another without a struggle. (See Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.) Except where it really doesn’t matter—like which movie shall we see tonight?

I want some things to “matter” to students, their families, and the school community—and citizens writ large. Habit #5 of our “Habits of Mind” is: “Who cares? Why does it matter?” Some things aren’t worth worrying too much about—or can be answered with access to Google. But developing Habit #5 is problematic without being in the company of respected adults who are observed changing their minds. It requires not posing “school” ideas against “family” ideas—but taking both seriously. I like your description of Derek Thompson’s “two basic ways to improve the lot” of poor children: (1) Trying to make parents more irrelevant (residential schools, longer school days, years, or (2) making more home visits and more parent training.

Both have their limits, may be fiscally impossible, and can even do harm. Just imagine your reaction to a young teacher coming into your home to train you to be a better parent. I’ve discovered that poor parents are much like me—they resent such “visits.” I think you and I may have similar responses to Thompson’s duo. If not “wrong,” insufficient. But your third alternative stunned me: Teach them not to have children until they can be self-sustaining.

The odds that young women in poverty will find ways out of poverty are not great (above all in today’s economy and wage scale: e.g., most of the neighborhood paras in school fall in the poverty range). Nor is there a substantial chance that they’ll marry into a middle-class life. Close to zero if they are African-American. You are right about why having children is so appealing (I can well remember my own irrational, but voracious desire for a baby). Especially appealing to young people without good reasons to think the time will ever come when they can “afford” to have children—or will find Mr. Right. A good school probably reduces the number of young women who get pregnant before they’re 18—because they have other plans for next year or the year after, and because school and family are trusted allies, encouraging them to avoid such risks. For a while.

It was true for immigrants of my father’s and grandmother’s generations. They had “too many” children too early, too. It was the change in the external circumstances—job opportunities paying decent wages to their formally semi-educated parents—that made them middle class. Not vice versa. (See Colin Greer’s The Great School Legend).

Can schools make a difference? The young women who left Central Park East Secondary School 20-plus years ago—and whose children often become CPE students—are, probably “better mothers” because they have greater confidence in their own judgment, their ability to advocate for their children, find appropriate resources, join their children’s interests, build an alliance with other adults—who are not judging, but joining with them on behalf of their much-loved offspring. It’s relationships over time—authentic human to human—that make a difference, not only between two adults, but two communities of adults. As my friend Jeremy Engel (former CPESS teacher) noted the other day: “I still remember each and every student and family that were part of my advisories. We stay in touch to this day.”

But ... we created a school that provided us with the time, space, and size to make such a brag realistic ... for most.

The school became the place for several generations to join together and build common, shared institutional practices that strengthened us all. It became a place, over time, to deal with our racial, class, and ethnic differences. Maybe it takes more money, but surely it takes a lot more respect for each other than most of the so-called “reforms” smack of.

Democracy—whatever else it is—is a luxury in some senses of that word. That’s one reason why it’s not universal: “You’ve got to be taught.” It requires being able to carve out the space and time to learn from each other, and the power to implement your ideas. Modern technology is not a solution, but it can be useful in community-building. But in the hands of bureaucrats or powerless teachers no even well-designed script is of any use if the performers can’t “read” their audience.

That’s why I want the route into teaching to be gradual, not always aimed at 22-year-olds, well-paid, and respected as a profession with plenty of time and space for getting to know and be known by their colleagues, their students and their families. And with the power to put their growing wisdom into building a real-life community.

Where do we disagree, Mike? Specifically. Let’s tease out the assumptions or facts that send us toward different solutions.


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