Teaching Opinion

Experiential Education Should Be Apart from Schools and Colleges

By Harry C. Boyte — February 14, 2017 4 min read
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This is the third and final post by David Randall, Director of Communications for the National Association of Scholars and author of the new NAS report, Making Citizens: How American Universities Teach Civics. We have disagreements with the NAS report, but Deb Meier and I also believe that a robust debate and discussion of civic education is of crucial importance. We invited David to contribute to our Bridging Differences exchange.

Dear Harry and Deb,

I am grateful for the chance to make a third contribution to this conversation.

My conception of the proper forms and aims of civil society and education plainly differs from yours. I say “my conception,” but I write on behalf of the National Association of Scholars and my conception is, allowing for a range of minor variations, shared by NAS members and a fairly substantial cross-section of the American public that has never bought into the views embodied in Public Achievement. So the disagreements we are discussing are real, deep, and consequential--and just the sorts of things that should occupy the attention of active citizens in a republic.

To the matters at hand. Harry’s new post emphasizes the “traditions of civic life” and the “goods of common use” in a functioning democracy. His tone is irenic and welcoming. We surely agree that non-violence is a governing principle and the price of entry into civic participation. We probably disagree that the “skills of working across differences are best learned through ‘experiential education.’” I say probably, because much depends on definitions. Harry recognizes that problem too when he distinguishes between early and late Alinsky and takes exception to Kurtz’s and my similar characterizations of the links between Alinsky’s precepts and Public Achievement’s practices.

I don’t think there is a serious dispute that the Alinsky of Rules for Radicals favored a strategy of conscious deception to advance a socialist agenda for America. Harry makes a plausible argument that he personally moved beyond socialism, and he explicitly rejects Alinsky’s later views. A great many advocates of the New Civics, however, make no such distinction between the early and the late Alinsky. Moreover, the activism they promote embodies many of the tactics in Rules for Radicals. Thus it is not unreasonable--regardless of Harry’s finely drawn distinctions--to see the broader movement as a form of late Alinsky-style stealth socialism.

If that is an accurate assessment of the movement, Harry really ought to call to account those who look to his leadership. Many are less interested in cultivating the “goods of common use” in a functioning democracy, than they are in gaining political power to advance a vision of the redistribution of goods.

Which brings me to Deb, who offers a rather different argument. Deb writes of “preconditions of domestic life” and the “full expression of citizenship.” I don’t know exactly what these phrases mean in this case, and I notice Deb employs some classic Marxist phrasing, such as referring to the “contradictions” that arise from a democratic conception of “the ruling class.” She calls for a democratic citizenry, and concludes with a recommendation that school itself should “operate [as] if it were a democracy.”

My disagreements here are more pointed. The United States was, of course, founded as a republic, not a direct democracy. Moreover, democracy is a formal arrangement of government, not a recipe that applies to each and every social formation within society. Even in a direct democracy (which we are not) families, churches, symphony orchestras, clubs, businesses, and, yes, schools are not themselves “democratic” in their internal governance unless they choose to be. Many of us, moreover, would argue that democratic norms are inappropriate in those contexts. And they are dramatically inappropriate in schools. That is because schools inherently embody the authority of those who know over those who are learning to know.

We agree, I think, that civic learning can never be reduced to only those things that can be learned in a classroom. Life in a self-governing republic provides “experiential education” that complements the classroom. But there is no need, and in fact considerable peril in attempting, to regiment that “experience.” That is the deep, essential mistake of the New Civics and the crack in the pedestal of Public Achievement.

The phrase “experiential education,” like some of the other key words in this debate, is open to mischievous interpretations. If it means ‘what we best learn through experience, as opposed to formal instruction,’ I would agree that experiential education is fundamental. But if it means, ‘learning through the experiences organized and controlled by teachers and social activists,’ I would strongly disagree, because such organizing and controlling compromise the essential freedom of young people to learn for themselves lessons that in their very nature belong to the autonomy of free individuals. Those experiences should be outside state or quasi-state control. The New Civics transgresses the boundaries of personal freedom and, in that sense, undermines the spirit of democratic participation in our society.

Best, David

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.