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Expanding Democracy With Schools, Commonwealth, and Citizen Politics

By Harry C. Boyte — October 27, 2015 2 min read

Dear Deb and Colleagues -

Our conversation is getting interesting. It suggests ways to push back against widespread discouragement about democracy.

As Margaret Finders and I detail in a forthcoming centenary issue of Educational Theory, commemorating John Dewey’s famous Democracy and Education, a reading of Dewey’s book makes clear how much concepts of both democracy and education have shrunk.

“Democracy” today usually means elections, education is a ticket to individual success, while citizenship has been reduced to voting and volunteering. Across academic literature as well as popular discussions and candidate pronouncements, schools, colleges and universities, religious groups, professions, businesses, and even government agencies are usually ignored as sites for active democracy.

Our dialogue raises possibilities for sustained conversation among democracy educators, in the efforts you have helped to put together over the years, and democracy organizers about how to expand democracy. This group includes community organizers, but as I’ve mentioned, approaches from community organizing can be translated into professions, schools, colleges and universities, government and elsewhere.

Responding to your blog last week, let me note two different meanings of “public.”

You are emphasizing public resources -- what used to be called “the commonwealth"-- like schools. Libraries, parks, transportation infrastructure, and government agencies can also be included, among many other things. These are resources “owned” by the general public, in some sense, and accountable to the public. The great work of the late Elinor and Vincent Ostrom and their colleagues, for which Elinor won the Nobel Prize for economics in 2009, shows that strong participation by communities and citizens in the governance of such resources is key to sustaining them. Meira Levinson, in No Citizen Left Behind, shows in the case of schools what the Ostroms showed in the case of the commonwealth generally. The more citizens participate in the creation and governance of schools the more public support there is for schools.

I’ve always been a commonwealth guy.

We also need another meaning of public, which I would call a different kind of politics, citizen politics, different than party politics. I worked with others to start the youth initiative Public Achievement many years ago so young people could learn the citizen politics I experienced in the freedom movement as a young man in the 1960s.

Citizen politics is owned by citizens, not by parties. It reclaims the meaning of “politics” as a horizontal activity among citizens, the method humans have created to work with others who are different, whom we disagree with and may even dislike, to get something done of public benefit.

Organizing in institutions, as part of expanding democracy, requires citizen politics.

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