College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

How Can We Create Schools of the People?

By Harry C. Boyte — May 17, 2016 3 min read
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Harry Boyte continues his conversation with Deborah Meier. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Deb and Colleagues,

I agree that democracy, in a full sense, involves rules that place decision making power in the hands of those most affected while also a culture that promotes agency and respect.

You say that histories of different societies make for different solutions. They also make for different stories. In the US case, a culture of collective agency is significantly the product of the people’s work in creating schools.

Alexis de Tocqueville, who wrote Democracy in America, is worth remembering. He traveled across the country in the 1830s, and marveled at self-organizing initiatives everywhere. “In democratic countries the science of association is the mother science,” said Tocqueville. He argued that the essence of democracy is people looking to themselves, not to great leaders as saviors. “In democratic peoples, associations must take the place of the powerful particular persons.”

There is a rich legacy of coming together to create schools. Though this history is not “democratic” in your sense of democratic decision making structures in schools themselves, the principle of federalism led to local school boards. And for all its complexity, it is definitely a story of developing a culture of collective agency.

David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation and former Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under the presidency of the Republican Gerald Ford, described this in his book, Reclaiming Public Education by Reclaiming Democracy. Mathews’ ancestors were leaders in the Alabama Populist Party in the 1890s. Ford needed a southern leader in his cabinet--- Mathews was president of the University of Alabama, and not a Democrat (there were few southern Republicans in those years).

Mathews tells the story of public schools in Alabama. “Nineteenth-century self-rule . . . was a sweaty, hands-on, problem-solving politics,” Mathews writes. “The democracy of self-rule was rooted in collective decision making and acting -- especially acting. Settlers on the frontier had to be producers, not just consumers. They formed associations to combat alcoholism and care for the poor as well as to elect representatives. They also established the first public schools. Their efforts were examples of ‘public work,’ meaning work done by not just for the public.”

Recalling stories like this, schools of the people, is crucial in a time when the people doubt their power. “We see vulnerability in this election,” observed Mathews in a recent Washington presentation to members of Congress and the media. Mathews summarized public conversations across the country which the Kettering Foundation has helped organize on issues of health costs and economic insecurity. Citizens were eager to shift from the focus on politicians to talk about what people can do themselves. “When we feel vulnerable we look for strength. That may be what this election is really about. Are we going to look for strength in others or discover the strength in ourselves?”

The media and the election process present the people simply as followers, looking for someone to save them. Trump poses as the classic strong man, as he did for years on his tv show. Clinton is “fighting for us” using government.

Interestingly, President Obama pointed beyond such an elitist world view at the White House dinner for Scandinavian leaders on Friday May 13. In his toast, Obama recalled the influence of the 19th century Danish folk school philosopher, NSF Grundtvig, who birthed the concept of people’s schools, not schools for the elite. These schools continue today. Folk schools are “of” the people.

Grundtvig also inspired schools in the US and fed broad popular education movements. Highlander Folk School in Tennessee, the key training center for the freedom movement was one. In his toast Obama talked about Grundtvig’s “ripple effects,” his indirect influence on movement leaders like Martin Luther King, John Lewis, and Ella Baker. There is another story, largely unknown and vast.

Highlander birthed a movement of citizenship schools across the south, taken up by King’s organization in 1961 in the Citizenship Education Program. It trained tens of thousands of community leaders and activists in nonviolence, literacy, and basic organizing skills. Dorothy Cotton, CEP’s director, said people’s mentality shifted from victim to agent of change on an enormous scale. Andrew Young, later US Ambassador to the UN, called it the foundation of the whole movement. People who felt powerless discovered their own strength.

We need to remember and tell such stories of civic agency -- and develop ways to enact them again.

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