Social Studies Opinion

Rethinking Elections and Assessments Can Lead to a Democratic Awakening

By Harry C. Boyte — May 03, 2016 4 min read
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Harry Boyte continues his conversation with Deborah Meier. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Deb and Colleagues,

Your focus on the role of “structures” in a democratic way of life brings to mind my discussions with students at Lonestar Community College in Houston last week. They wondered how to think about the elections. Some had a candidate they were passionate about - Sanders, Clinton, Trump, or Cruz -- and thought that if their candidate didn’t win they might sit out “politics,” which they saw as elections.

I described what I learned in the freedom movement in 1964 from Oliver Harvey, the janitor at Duke who was organizing a union. I couldn’t vote yet, but I proclaimed there was “no difference” between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater with all the zeal and naivety of an 18 year old. “Johnson won’t desegregate the south!” I said.

Harvey replied, “That’s ridiculous. Of course he won’t - that’s what we’re doing in the movement. But who wins makes a large difference for the environment in which we’re organizing.” He went on to detail national discussion, media coverage, legislative possibilities, federal agency practices, protection of civil rights workers. I learned a lesson - structure (including elections) doesn’t substitute for agency, but it’s crucial to the larger task, which I would call a democratic awakening. This will require organizing coalitions across partisan divides -- Sanders and Trump supporters, for instance.

We can’t have a repeat of Richard Nixon’s successful “Southern Strategy,” which divided working people by race for a generation. We’ve found in our Public Achievement work at Lonestar and elsewhere that education can be a rare meeting ground across partisan and other differences, in our highly fragmented society.

You raise another way in which democracy in the schools organizing can contribute to democratic awakening. Changing the categories of “assessment,” in our bureaucratic, technocratic age, is a crucial task. I like your idea of developing a way to assess democracy schools that incorporates both agency and “formal democracy.”

Formal democracy seems a lot like a “constitution,” the way a community is constituted. There are many connections between agency and constitution, formal or informal. For instance, how much the constitution of a community - any community, including a school -- is seen to issue from “the people” makes a large difference in terms of ownership.

“We the People,” the opening words of the Constitution, are a brilliant moment in US history. “The people” were declared the authors of constitutional order, not kings or aristocrats or other elites. More, the widespread engagement of people in debates about the constitution (the Federalists versus Anti-federalists, and partisans of the Bill of Rights) deepened the sense of popular ownership, against anti-democratic trends (elites, for instance, sought to change “the people” to “the voters” early on, as the late political theorist Sheldon Wolin documented. “Voters” are a lot easier to control than “the people”).

This connection underlines the importance of keeping constitutional orders alive, and regularly revisited. For instance, if Hillary Clinton is elected, we should work for campaign finance reform -- a change in the ever-evolving constitutional order.

Assessing schools’ cultures for how they nourish civic agency is different than individual democratic habits, though they are related. And assessment of agentic cultures is tough to get at. In contrast, assessing structures by various quantitative measures is commonplace.

Assessing school cultures for civic agency is largely unknown in the higher education scene. The most widely used assessment tools, the VALUE rubrics of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), have advanced the adoption of what AAC&U calls “high impact practices” such as service learning and deliberation. As the civic engagement rubric title (“Civic Engagement, Local and Global”) suggests, the rubrics emphasize “local” and “global,” with no attention to students’ contributions to building a democratic society. The value rubrics neglect democratic habits generally and civic agency specifically. In fact democracy is not mentioned.

But there are signs of an alternative way to think about this. Margaret Finders, chair of the education department at Augsburg College, and Catherine Bishop, Augsburg director of student success, recently called for new attention to concepts and practices of civic agency at an AAC&U conference on assessment. They used the description of Adam Weinberg, President of Denison University, one of several universities which have begun to emphasize civic agency. “Beneath every facet of this work [at Denison] is a focus on instilling within students notions of civic agency--the ability of people to act together on common problems across differences--while also giving faculty, staff, and local residents more opportunities to work in their communities.”

Here are a few of the contrasts Bishop and Finders propose to get the conversation started

Traditional assessments Democratic assessments

Emphasis on independent work Emphasis on acting together

Defined by disciplinary boundaries Interwoven knowledge

Emphasis on written work Performative practices

They argue that “competitive metrics and dominant conceptual frameworks stress individual and competitive excellence, ‘knowledge acquisition,’ and preparation for narrowly acquisitive and individual achievement-oriented careers.” They ask instead, “How might we look at academic excellence through a democracy lens to move toward development of capacities for public work and civic agency? This is not a question of disadvantaged versus ‘mainstream’ students. We need new approaches to assessment to prepare all students for civic leadership in the rapidly changing world.”

This isn’t a finished process or product, but it is a good beginning.

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