Assessment Opinion

How To Get From Here to There

By Deborah Meier — July 03, 2008 3 min read
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Dear Diane,

It’s helpful in some way to know that I “have to” write once a week for some audience—including first and foremost you. It makes me set aside snippets here and there to possibly write and think about. I put an old essay that Florence Miller and I wrote together about a book you and Chester Finn wrote 20 years ago onto my Web site. (“What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know?”). I posted it in Florence’s memory—since she died a few weeks ago. She had a sharp wit, and I heard it in that piece. I still like that style, although I’m less convinced that it works. Given the change in our relationship, I felt uneasy at reprinting it. But it’s a useful reminder of where you and I disagreed—and probably still do.

Last week, I spoke at an “alternative school conference” in Troy, New York. Many of those attending were Summerhillian “free school” types. It was interesting to approach the curriculum debates from their extreme. But the common ground was our insistence that we find ways for adults and young people to meet together around interesting questions and projects—and the mutual respect that it assumes. It’s that “I, thou, and it” connection which David Hawkins wrote about that I find myself always going back to. It’s why I want strong adults, whose natural authority helps young people develop their own natural authority, whose passions inspire their passions, and whose disciplined “good work” lays the ground for novices honing their own self-disciplined work. It’s why I find it hard to agree with your focus on “what we know.” Especially in an age when just putting something into “Google” produces amazing results!

But there are those perennial trade-offs, dilemmas, conundrums that I realize seem critical to pass on to the young—in the name of democracy. In my keynote at the Alternative Education Resource Organization’s conference I addressed the idea that modern democracy was just as “unnatural” and counter-intuitive as modern science. It’s filled with traps and trade-offs. There is no way to perfectly solve the question of whose voice “counts”, especially at the ballot box. Or where and why some decisions must be made close to the action versus others in more distant but representative forums. Why age 18? Why should non-experts have the same vote as experts? Why should an 18-year-old’s vote carry the same weight as mine?

And if we agree that all votes are equal, then what else needs to change so that we all have somewhat more equal wisdom and power? Shouldn’t we all have equal leisure time to consider the merits, or the money to hire lobbyists to persuade our fellow citizens, or equal access to the media? And, at least, an equally powerful education?

One of our readers, Erin, keeps being disturbed at my attention to nonschool factors. Aside from sheer empathy for those whose lives are more fragile than mine, my quest for more just social policy rests on my obsession with democracy. Democracy presumes some—undefined—level of equality of mind, spirit, and condition (health, a place to sleep, food, etc). But just what level?

Then there’s the conundrum of conundrums—how to get from here to there. How to build a more egalitarian (and therefore more democratic) society in the absence of all those fundamental necessities? If one must create the future out of the stuff that the past and present offer us, is a more full-blown democracy a utopian dream? Efforts to get around this dilemma—vanguard parties of one sort or another—are not the answer. Yet the temptation is great to fall back on “vanguards”, and we all succumb to it here and there.

I spent many years trying to imagine how—if I had the power—I could design a test that would lead schools, teachers, kids, and parents to seek the kind of schooling I wanted them to have. As parent, teacher, school board member, and principal I was tempted to wish that the power rested with me. I gave up for two reasons: one, I doubted if I’d have sufficient power to do so, and two, because I kept seeing ways in which the unpersuaded could get around the ends I had in mind, but still pass the test!

But are there some “in-betweens”, measures that would increase the likelihood, the odds—on a broad and bold scale—that we could get schools to attend to creating a generation of motivated, creative, inventive, self-disciplined, and empathetic truth-seekers?


P.S. Remind me to get back to the 1967 civil rights agenda. That was the year I became seriously involved with schools and less with civil and economic rights. It was the start of an exciting experience in which I imagined we could change schools from below—and en masse—if only “they” gave us the time and resources. What were you in the midst of, Diane, during that period?

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.

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