Teaching Opinion

Democracy Schools and the Tradition of ‘Making Democracy’

By Harry C. Boyte — December 08, 2015 3 min read
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Dear Deb and Colleagues,

Your stories are great about negotiating your way through differences with parents and families on issues like homework and sexual orientation—the stuff of everyday politics. And your embrace of tension, conflicts, and sometimes sharp divisions—"it depends on how important it is to live together afterwards"—is the first premise of citizen politics.

Citizen politics grows from the sense that we have to “live together afterwards,” for all the differences and conflict. Politics in this elemental sense is the alternative to war and violence. In these days of deep divisions, fears, and fear-mongering, this is more important than ever.

So, your schools have been laboratories for such a politics! They’ve been laboratories for an even larger tradition.

I’m thinking a lot these days about how much examples of democracy are needed, given the rising tide of acrimonious attack, demonization, and bellicosity, especially from the Republican side. It reminds me of what I’ve read about the early 1940s. Henry Luce, the publisher of Life, wrote an influential essay in 1941 called “The American Century.” He accused Americans of vacillation in the face of Nazi dangers and said “the cure is this: to accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.”

This sounds a lot like many of the Republican candidates today. For instance Marco Rubio’s theme is “A New American Century"—intentionally bringing back Luce. But we need a response that is not narrowly partisan. Simply bashing Republicans isn’t the answer.

In the early 1940s, there was another kind of alternative—the vision of “the century of the common man” which Roosevelt’s vice president, Henry Wallace, articulated as the explicit response to Henry Luce in a prominent speech in New York, May 8, 1942. Wallace had been a Republican until he became secretary of agriculture and then vice president for Franklin Roosevelt. His family had deep roots in the populist farmers’ movement in rural Iowa, and Wallace saw the war against fascism as about democracy, not American supremacy. He envisioned an egalitarian, democratic post-war world in which colonial empires would be abolished, labor unions would be widespread, poverty would end, and the United States would treat others with respect. “We ourselves in the United States are no more a master race than the Nazis,” he wrote. “There can be no privileged peoples.”

Wallace’s Century of the Common Man speech drew on the widespread sense that Marilynne Robinson was describing in her conversation with Obama, published in the New York Review of Books—“democracy...was something people collectively made.” This created what she calls a culture of democratic respect. I was struck again and again by how people felt they were “making democracy” and building national treasures through work in the 1930s building the national park system when I interviewed veterans of the CCC. They said the work had changed their lives forever.

There were many other “citizen workers” in those days —including citizen teachers. Lisabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal describes how people felt that the whole society was responding to the Great Depression. There has been huge decline in the public dimensions of work and public respect for workers (including teachers). Susan Faludi, in her terrific book, Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man, describes the changing identities of men, from African-American shipyard workers to television executives and evangelicals, as work has been devalued as an end in itself. Men live “in an unfamiliar world where male worth is measured only by participation in a celebrity-driven consumer culture.” Older identities such as “contributing to communities” and “making democracy” largely disappeared.

This makes your schools doubly important. Educational reform has a very rich history of public work for democracy in the vein of Jane Addams, the settlement house leader, Alain Locke, the philosopher of adult education and the Harlem Renaissance, and of course John Dewey. Next year is the centenary of his classic, Democracy and Education.

Your schools and others inspired by them, it seems to me, are in this tradition and revitalizing it. Didn’t you describe students’ learning as “work”?

You were doing more than making decisions democratically—I would say you were making democracy.

Do you agree?

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.