Teaching Opinion

Preparing Students for the Political Fray

By Deborah Meier — May 12, 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,

Isn’t it absurd and telling that the two of us, with much in common in our political history, should have trouble finding the language to describe how we would define democracy and where our differences lie!

We’re coming closer. Try structures/formal rules that place power in the hands of those most affected while also building a culture that promotes personal and civic agency plus mutual respect.

Each of these requires not just more words but, above all, stories! The particular history that particular democracies came out of make for different formal solutions. The English kept a royalty, and did not create a constitution. The U.S. invented a supreme court whose members could serve forever; most created a single legislative body, some kind of party system, and divisions of power between local and central jurisdictions. Most had at least a semi-autonomous judicial system. They copied each other’s solutions sometimes and rejected them at other times. It seems odd today that the U.S. Constitution should have worried about housing soldiers in private homes. In 1787 it seemed important. Very few were a complete break from previous practices—and most were designed by powerful people fearful of democracy’s implications in varying degrees, even as they endorsed it (with fingers crossed).

As the formerly lower caste groups (un-propertied people, nonwhites, women, et al.) fought to break into the system as equals they invented new ways to interpret the constitutions or engaged in mini-revolutions—sometimes of the type Bernie is pressing for and some considerably more violent. We rightfully complain today about corporate power, but imagine how hopeless it must have seemed in a society accustomed to hereditary rulers to even imagine a future based on equality. We probably are even more unequal in wealth than during our early nation-building period, and Black lives are still far less precious than white lives. We’ve taken some giant steps, but....

We haven’t tackled seriously what it would mean for democracy to more closely live up to “of the people, by the people, for the people.” What might it look like? Just as parents need to visit progressive schools before they join it, so do people before they become citizens of a technically democratic community. Hard to do if we’ve rarely seen anything like it. Words alone don’t work.

There is virtually nothing about most schools that could be seen as preparing people to enter the “political” fray—to join with others to initiate change or to take a stand, speak out. Knowing how to read, write, and do numbers—as Dewey reminded us often—do not, in themselves, make for the knowledge or habits of mind conducive to democracy. Nor does the top-down hierarchical structure of schools focused on obedience make it easy to even imagine, much less critique, what democracy is “supposed to look like.” If anything, people think of democracy as practiced, voting for a class president or class color.

Where do pre-adults have a chance “to learn democracy,” much less get in the habit of expecting it? Nowhere. Few and far between are they likely to even observe institutions operating within a recognizably democratic framework.

Maybe that’s what the kind of work you’ve been doing, Harry, is part of—building a broader repertoire of democratic experiences—apprenticeships in democracy—for children and, ideally, adults as well. Even together, not just side by side.

The challenge is huge.

It’s exciting work—just thinking of all the conundrums. At our schools “we” had to decide, first and foremost, who “we” were! What powers the principal had and didn’t have, ditto the professional staff vs. the so-called support staff, parents, the community-at-large, not to mention the various State bodies. And students! This meant we had to take up all the tricky trade-offs. E.g., what powers did principals have? If working staff were involved in deciding important things, where were they to get the knowledge, skill, and time to take on added responsibilities? When does parental voice undermine needed teacher autonomy, and vice-versa? The tales we could tell about these many decisions are themselves the source of thinking about democracy at all levels: a curriculum that might easily occupy all 12 years of schooling—perhaps a lifetime.

More details on a few such “details” later.


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.