Teaching Opinion

Democracy Versus Autocracy

By Harry C. Boyte — March 08, 2016 3 min read
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Dear Deb

I worry about anti-democratic trends -- the election is full of them -- so I love your blog the other day, “How Useful Is ‘Academia’?” You draw attention to the way education often squashes kids’ spirit by policing the way they talk and think with concepts like “academic.”

For many years, I have seen young people’s intelligence, seriousness, and potential for doing substantial democracy work, what we call public work, through the youth empowerment initiative Public Achievement. PA is now active in more than 20 countries. I know from such experiences that young people’s intelligence and capacity are vastly undervalued. Youtube videos on Public Achievement like “We the (young) people,” and “Public Achievement in Fridley -- Transforming Special Education” make the point.

In addition to highlighting young people’s intelligence and capacity, your blog has other resources for democracy in hard times. Here are five:

Democratic Deliberation

You describe discussion that is “noisy and maybe even on occasion rude, across generations, where adults and young people listen to each other and sometimes take each other seriously.” This is constructive deliberation. It involves learning a set of democratic habits. This is what I was getting in -- we need the public to be back in public education.

Serious, sustained deliberations can teach people to respect the intelligence and contributions of others. They counter anti-democratic trends. We also need such discussions to help reframe policy debates that are now narrow, polarized, and unproductive.

Free Spaces

You identify places where such deliberations can take place like schools community colleges, and libraries -- free spaces. I also mention others. In the civil rights movement beauty parlors and barber shops were often free spaces. So were churches.

In the deliberation I described earlier in the New Deal (“A Federal Initiative on Democracy in Schools?” January 26), with three million people discussing the future of rural America, land grant colleges and universities played roles through cooperative extension.


My colleague Margaret Finders, chair of the education department at Augsburg College, uses an idea developed by Kenneth Burke, called “terministic screens.” These are terms which hide some realities and emphasize others. Screens can squash the democratic agency of students and teachers. She sites “teacher effectiveness,” “achievement gap,” “accountability,” “standards.”

“Academic” is such a screen. It’s an individualistic, narrow idea of excellence which hides kids’ intelligence and capacity for serious discussion in plain sight, in the process dampening their spirits and disempowering them. Another, often used with the best of intentions, is “service.” Service can hide others’ capacities and talents under “meeting their needs.” The alternative to server is co-creator. A topic for another day!

“Democratic excellence”

We can only fight negatives with positives. You offer an alternative idea to “academic” which could be called “democratic excellence” -- outstanding work which contributes to democracy, giving the example of Jay Featherstone’s book, Transforming Teacher Education, which suggests ways teacher educators can work “in the real world” to help change schools. “Cooperative excellence” is a related idea. Lani Guinier’s book, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, is full of stories of cooperative excellence, minority and working class kids helping each other to do well.

Citizen politics

Finally, you argue that “democracy assumes ‘politics.’” This is the citizen politics we’ve been discussing - engaging “differences of opinion based on different stories and experiences.” Such politics revolves around everyday citizens, not politicians, parties, or partisanship. Politicians can play helpful roles but they are not the center of the universe. Citizen politics, like deliberation, depends on and develops democratic habits.

The other day in the Republican debate Donald Trump hinted at politics by saying that to get anything done you need give and take, flexibility, negotiation rather than ideological rigidity. The problem is that everything in Trump’s world revolves around Trump. He puts himself as the “top dog,” as Omar Wasow tweeted.

Autocracy is the top dog taking power. There are a lot of worrisome autocratic trends not simply Trump.

Democracy is our collective power, our ability to act, our collective and ongoing work, not someone or a small group doing it for us. We can only fight autocracy with democracy.

As your blog suggests.


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.