Teaching Opinion

From Rage to Responsibility

By Harry C. Boyte — January 12, 2016 3 min read
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Dear Deb and colleagues,

In your last blog, you propose thinking about how to develop a coalition between the mom & pop charters and public schools seeking greater autonomy, based on a set of principles of democratic accountability alongside with sufficient autonomy. I also read Annenberg Institute’s “Public Accountability for Charter Schools,” which you suggested. Its examples certainly show how much public accountability has disappeared from many charters.

You argue that a coalition probably excludes the charter chains that dominate the discussion, which have even less public accountability or democracy. These define “democracy” as simple choice, even choice in a private free market system like New Orleans - a system LA is considering it. “We need to act fast,” you say.

I like the idea of thinking about concrete principles. My question is how to use this discussion to help shift people from thinking of themselves as angry shoppers in search of the best deal, to co-creators of education?

I just came back from South Africa, where I spent a number of weeks. It strikes me that people in the US are in an angry shopper mode.

The anger in the election is like a blast furnace. I’m also struck by the ubiquitous use of populism as a framework of analysis. “Trump and Sanders: Different Candidates with a Populist Streak,” reported Chuck Todd on NBC News. Most reporters use “populism” to mean rage-fueling rhetoric. This is the anger of populists as shoppers who don’t like what they’ve been getting.

I learned in the civil rights movement that populism can be something very different. The great populist movements, from the farmers’ cooperatives of the 1880s to the union and community organizing and educational reform efforts of the Great Depression, embodied a citizen politics of people’s power. Ordinary people claimed responsibility for democracy as a way of life, and believed it could work for them.

Martin Luther King told me he identified with such populism in St. Augustine, Florida, in 1964, as we discussed the possibility of organizing poor whites into an interracial movement. He asked if I would organize poor whites as potential allies and I took up his assignment and worked for seven years with southern mill workers in Durham, from 1966 to 1972.

I also saw this kind of politics at Duke, as a college student working in support of maids and janitors who were organizing a union, Local 77 from 1964 to 1967. Oliver Harvey, the janitor who spearheaded the effort, taught me that moral passion and sober politics are both necessary to make change - and that they are different.

Harvey framed the issue in ways that called on everyone to be accountable for education, through the leadership that nonacademic employees set. “Until there is neutral arbitration of these grievances...[we] have no job security, no dignity, no chance of becoming employees who share in the goal to make this a great and quality institution,” Harvey said in a debate with a professor about changing the university’s grievance procedure in 1966.

Workers acknowledged responsibility for making Duke a “great and quality institution.” Oliver Harvey, Hattie Williams, and other employees anticipated by decades the idea of “learning community” articulated recently on campuses. I don’t want to overstate the case. Duke was not transformed to a democracy university. Yet during my years at Duke, those associated with the effort rose to a higher level of public excellence and accountability. The stress on a “great and quality institution” called forth better thinking, livelier teaching, more probing questions from faculty, and more student engagement in education. Classrooms came alive. A never-ending argument moved across the campus about civil rights, democracy, and education. It shaped the identities and futures of countless participants. And organizing finally won a union.

So my first question is how to bring stories from today, conveying the messages of grassroots politics and empowerment in education, parallel to the Duke union story, in our our discussion of principles of accountability and governance in education? How do we make the point that we all are responsible and co-creators, not consumers of education and democracy? Maybe each principle we discuss should have a positive short story?

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.