Teaching Opinion

Our Democracy Is Weak Now, Let’s Fight for It in Schools

By Deborah Meier — March 23, 2017 4 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,

It may be less a disagreement then ... hmm. We’re talking about different issues. I’m exploring the basic “mechanics” that allow citizens to govern their government. What other “structural” elements must exist. My definition of structure is pretty broad.

For example. democracy requires that its citizens not be afraid to act politically on behalf of their own beliefs. It requires that they—or those they agree with—have sufficient resources and power to if not match those of any other citizen in pressing contrary beliefs, be in more or less in the same ball park. Which in turn requires a sufficient degree of equality of wealth and access to be a player in the contest between ideas, policies and candidates. This in turn requires that we all have been educated sufficiently well to make it hard to con us, bewilder us or overwhelm us with fake news! (I call those “habits of mind” compatible with democracy.)

Somewhere between democracy and dictatorship, we are at various stages of being in position to have more or less equal voice in the operation of our government. That’s of, for, and by.

But, there is an added feature that you’ve focused on. Citizens also need to see themselves as governors of their government, as active agents of change, or—what we used to call it in early childhood education—as “having agency,” or assuming that their voice (be it even a baby’s cry) matters in the world. Clearly part of this “sense of empowerment” radiates from their family’s sense of empowerment. And one can even belong to a powerful family who does not see their power as effective outside a limited circle. But the school in hundreds of big and little ways can solidify children’s sense of agency or undermine it. To start with, it’s an example, at best, of a benign dictatorship. And we take this for granted. Why?

The tone of voice we use in school, not only with the child but with their family, carries weight. The way the student’s community is spoken of, the way their particular language (including dialect) is viewed, not to mention the experiences and knowledge that they bring with them. Any rank ordering tends to do the same—even lining up by size or alphabet for very young children can seem demeaning to some children. Being anointed a “leader” early in life vs. “follower” has repercussions.

Conferences between family and teacher in which the student voice is not heard also carries a message, for example. Stories in which no one talks or looks or lives like you do carries a message. As do stories of history that focus only on leaders and heroes or distort how change is made by focusing only on individual acts. As well as stories that never discuss individual acts by forgotten heroes.

We undermine democracy when we suggest that there is only one right answer to most questions, as well as when we suggest that the right answers are always matters of opinion.

A world of atomized individuals who rarely meet face to face or meet in groups where each other’s opinions and ideas matter (about small matters or large ones) makes it hard to develop the qualities of citizenship described above. That’s why you and I are both alarmed about where we are headed: schools where teachers are replaced by machines who know all the right answers, and where equations and algorithms are viewed as an improvement over human judgment on matters big and small. Trying to figure out where and when we should rely on machines and where we should not is not easy. Elections should not be decided by polling or sampling. Juries should not be replaced by algorithms. Education should not replace families. Group-think can be dangerous (or it can be essential, depending on...).

The work you do in opening up spaces where human apprentice citizens can explore, argue, and act together is an essential part of learning how to be a citizen. It will take many experiences of such action for each individual to best see his or her potential. There’s no substitute.

Like all things, context matters and what may sometimes look like voluntary action must itself be queried. That is, as some of those who question our school tactics rightly fear, kids in school are far from voluntary subjects. They too (and their families and teachers) need to learn about how to be effectively insubordinate, when orneryness helps and when you have an obligation to say “no.” We have to be as good at saying no as well as saying yes, of gong along at times, and putting our feet down at other times. “Not me.”

Today I fear we are in a transition between an oligarchic democracy to a democratic oligarchy. The forms of democracy are weak enough now, but in four years I do not know where they will still matter—although they will, I’m sure, still exist.

But I think we can fight for democracy and acknowledge that it may not fulfill all our requirements, but still keeps open the way forward, the fight my grandchildren will make (they are all over 21), for a fulsome democracy, without the powerful oligarchy we’ve settled for most of our lives.


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.