Teaching Opinion

Inviting Policy Ideas for Democracy Schools

By Deborah Meier — January 28, 2016 3 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Harry and friends,

Speaking of Bernie Sanders, I just read a persuasively friendly piece in Bloomberg Businessweek (Jan. 7, 2016)! The author, Joel Stein, ends his piece with Sanders saying, in response to Killer Mike’s fear of growing soft as he ages: “That’s being human,” said Sanders. “If you see stuff that’s bad and you don’t respond with—what did King call it?—'the urgency of the moment,’ then you’re not alive.”

Well, he’s got hold of something important even if, like me, his passions run along the lines of politics rather than ... music? Mountain climbing? Poetry? Democracy depends on passionate musicians, mountain climbers, poets, and inventors having some passion left over to fix the state of the world. If not 24/7, some of the time.

And yes, we need places—as you suggest—where people find it easy and enjoyable to come together to swap stories, plan adventures, and discuss and argue politics. (Democracy depends also on our getting accustomed to view the word politics itself in a different and more positive light. The way we use it now suggests that we’re against it, which most oligarchs and dictators would be only too happy about.)

It’s amazing how little we (me) know about prior attempts to do these things. I knew, vaguely, that there was something called the Farmer Labor Party in Wisconsin and Minnesota. But not much more. Your phrase—"organic intellectuals"—is a great term for what our schools should aim for. I’d like to replace the term “academics” with the word “intellectual"—a topic I took up in some detail in The Power of Their Ideas, and what Dewey and Ted Sizer called the “habits of mind” at the heart of good schooling. The switch from Latin to vernacular is an interesting example of the importance of the change in the “dialect” that became legitimated.

But the habits of that help sustain democracy and the habits that assist oligarchy are different—in dialect and substance. The relationship between means and ends is one of those things that good schools should be exploring. The trade-offs. Add to that your quote from M. L. Wilson about the belief in the intellectual ability of “ordinary” people—of those thousands of ordinary people who you describe in your letter.

The belief that “ordinary” human beings are extraordinary was reinforced for me when I became a mother and then taught 4- and 5-year-olds. We are born theorists working out how the world works, persevering even when our hypotheses so often turn out to be wrong. Rare is the infant who gives up easily. This belief is now, for me, a fact, not just a wish.

But sustaining this work—the work you describe in the agrarian Midwest. Did it end with a bang or a whimper? Many of the best school have died with a whimper; we barely notice it. Such was the case with CPESS. My friend Diane Suiter is the retired principal of an amazing teacher-, parent-, and student-led K-8 school in Middletown, Ohio. After a decade or more of development, its staff is hanging in without her, but a change in administration has surely made it harder to deepen the work. And then—I hope not—it begins to fade. At its heart, she saw it as a place where adults and young people learned together to use their voices effectively, to be learners with respect and empathy for others, and finally to discover what a community is and how to be a member of one.

You and I are seeking new ways to imbed these ideas, reinventing communities, into the world of schooling and the often alienated community of citizens it depends on. Perhaps only schools that are the centers for 5- to 18-year-olds as well as adults can be sustained. (This is what leads me to be less enthusiastic than I once was about schools of choice vs. neighborhood-based schooling.)

You ask: What legislation could a city, state, or federal government invent that would, at the very least, shift the odds in favor of schools that are learning spaces for students, teachers, and the citizenry they depend on? At the moment, I can’t think of many. How can we give parents and teachers more time to talk together and parents paid leave to visit their children’s schools, maybe just as citizens? Money to improve facilities? The money to “waste” on lengthening the teacher’s day, but not the student’s? Funding for child care and after-school enrichment? Buildings that are free for community use? Exploring new ways to select principals democratically by the people who are its constituents?

Let’s get a lot out on the table and argue about their importance as well as their potential dangers.


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.