Social Studies Opinion

Keeping Democracy Alive Requires Practice

By Deborah Meier — February 17, 2017 4 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte and David Randall, director of communications for the National Association of Scholars. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear David (and Harry),

Actually, I never thought Saul Alinsky considered himself a socialist, nor did “we” (I have thought of myself as a socialist since about the age of 18). I suspect that your claim that Alinsky was for a “strategy of conscious deception to advance a socialist agenda for America” is seriously disputable. But then I come from the tradition of Eugene V. Debs, who said, “I would not lead you to the promised land because if I could, another could lead you back again.” Alinsky may have disagreed.

You (David) and I probably agree that democracy includes a system of governance for expressing the will of “the people.” No doubt democracy can never be perfect given the trade-offs of practical life. The American Revolution took a huge step forward by putting down some fundamentals (e.g. “free speech”) on paper as well as taking a stab at how it might best be carried out. There were those who objected to various Constitutional compromises, including the assumption that only certain people were ready to join the ruling class.

While we agree that no institution is a democracy unless “it chooses to be,” who chooses remains contested. Some disagreements were resolved over time by including more and more of the excluded. Some we are still fighting out.

Not all of the Constitution’s writers assumed that indirect governance was always essential. Some were aware of the virtues of direct democracy from New England town meetings. But the size and scale of America, even then, made direct democracy problematic for some purposes. Another solution to this conundrum is the Catholic idea of subsidiarity: those who do the work and are closest to it should have the greatest say. This fits my idea for school governance.

Direct or indirect, our founding fathers did agree that the governing class should be in on the governance. I’m still with them, except that “the governing class” has turned out to be every citizen older than 18. That’s the dilemma John Dewey is famous for tackling.

To govern is as hard as the founding fathers imagined. Enlarging the “who” makes it even harder. We’re a long way from solving this. Jefferson, among others, suggested the answer lay in education. But learning “about” democracy is probably even harder than learning “about” baseball—if the purpose is something other than properly answering a test question. You can’t learn to be a good baseball player if you’ve never seen it in action. Five year olds who have hung around their older siblings come close to naturally mimicking the players they admire. Watch them as they pretend being Hank Aaron, until one day it turns into a real game. Ditto for “playing” a democratic republic. We need “apprentice-citizens” gradually being introduced to democracy until they reach 18. Yes, I’ve seen it work in schools of every sort.

Learning and experience go together, including academic study. The best academic study occurs when novices accompany experts in exploring together some aspect of the world. That’s an old and honored—even Talmudic—style of learning

What does it mean when we say it won’t work in x or y institution? Is making decisions about domestic and foreign policy easier than making decisions about the schools we attend? Are the teachers, staff, family members and members of the community the school lives in or distant policy experts chosen by distant representatives the better deciders?

Yes, David, that still leaves the question of whether there are some activities that shouldn’t be undertaken under the auspices of the school. Some charter schools have no qualms about this. Perhaps because they see themselves as private? But like so much else, a democratically run school—designed carefully with its community—makes such decisions easier to make while also providing all the other school’s constituents with a rich experience in the myriad arts of democratic life and citizenship. To be content with the widely held view that “politics” is a dirty word is to give up on democracy.

There are other ways we need to prepare the young for adulthood. We can help them build a network of adults other than family members and teachers. They can experience what it’s like by keeping company with interesting members of society. It amazed me that our 6-year “community-placements” at Central Park East Secondary School served this purpose so well. The MET schools have put it at the center of their work.

Yes, like all good education, there are risks. Happily there are also “semi-political” issues that arise out of our shared experience as members of the school community that can come first. A school whose governance system includes families and community members is best suited for working out what is and isn’t the school’s role in politics and semi-politics. But to pretend that democratic politics doesn’t require both experience and study is a mistake we need to correct if we want engaged citizens who will keep the flame of democratic possibilities alive.


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.