Curriculum Opinion

Standards and Passing On the Idea of Democracy

By Deborah Meier — October 08, 2009 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Dear Diane,

On standardized standards: I’m a fan of disagreements and messiness—and maybe that’s beyond the call of Reason. But here’s a try.

If we all agreed on everything, or even came close, democracy would be an inefficient and cumbersome business and a luxury we could ill afford in tough times. Yet getting agreement is no easy matter. Democracy was “invented” to do that—when needed.

My default position: leave it to those most affected to settle it. Of course, that doesn’t work a lot of times. Sometimes what one individual or group wants requires collaboration, or interferes with what others want, or is unfair to a minority, e.g. unconstitutional! Then we have to go up a notch. And up. In today’s complex, interdependent world, all three reasons often come into play. Furthermore, to remain a self-governing people one needs to ensure that self-governance itself is protected, e.g. severely unbalanced power undermines its foundations.

Passing the idea of democracy on to the next generation is also no easy matter. It’s not intuitive, we’re not born democrats. Children need to see, feel, hear, and touch what “society” itself means; best of all in a setting in which there are diverse subcultures, viewpoints, and, thus, disagreements to be contended with.

I quote John Merrow: “In an era when many of us are embracing Twitter, Facebook, and other ‘virtual communities,’ we may think that walls are breaking down everywhere...but a new report by the Knight Foundation tells us that real (geographic) communities matter more than virtual ones.” 'Learning’ democracy can’t rest only on ‘virtual’ realities.

In small schools or communities, decision-making is often bitter and nasty—but there’s a better chance of being heard, of coming together on how to proceed. Under the best of circumstances well-intended and sane disagreements can produce heat. But also enlightenment.

In a political group I once belonged to, whose ideas placed them far from the center of power, we had fierce arguments and votes on who was “right” about all manner of big and small questions—carried out with all the trickery displayed on the U.S. Senate floor. I was the member of a faction that tried to remind us that we only needed to vote about how to spend our very limited shared resources. Meanwhile, the various ideas espoused were too important to be settled by a vote. I was unpersuasive.

I may be equally unpersuasive on whether we should vote or delegate to one national body of experts the designing of the ‘one right curriculum’ from K-12. It’s too important. At most, I’d like us to agree that, at least by 18, all our children should be strong and knowledgeable citizens.

I don’t even want us to demand we teach children that democracy is best. I’m prepared to put up with some students who defend dictatorship. Many highly educated adults, after all, agree. But I want young people to have a deep and engaged experience with the dilemmas underlying the democratic idea, its history, and its practice. I’d even like us to become experts on parliamentary rules—especially rules about attacking someone personally (ad homonym)—versus attacking their ideas.

I want them to reach adulthood as experts on democracy.

But even if we could all agree on that purpose, the way to go about it is a different matter. What form of curriculum this implies is a discussion that I’d like every school, school board, and community to discuss. I think, in addition, we should teach the old-fashioned 3Rs—ideally in a thoughtful manner. And then let many flowers bloom: provide choices between advanced math vs. advanced art, music, drama; between 19th vs. 20th Century literature; studying ancient Asian or ancient Mediterranean civilizations; woodwork or cooking. For their own sake. When kids get close to graduating, school and family can help young people explore all their future options (audit colleges classes, take apprenticeships, study the job market, job shadow), as well as demonstrate that they can seriously defend their work and their ideas—with evidence and reason.

Somewhere along the way kids and the rest of us should take a break—to work at long-term and worthy projects, put on theater productions, sing in choruses, make our own meals—in short, a solid “non-academic” communal experience. I’d pick age 13. (For reasons which may be obvious.)

Then comes assessing our work. Linda Nathan’s marvelous and highly readable new book, The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban School is a must-read. She explains how she abandoned the “Habits of Mind” she had created at her former school (Fenway H.S.) when she started the Boston Arts Academy—because that particular faculty and board didn’t find the fit persuasive enough and designed their own. One size doesn’t... (Although a no-stakes, more traditional test, plus a sophisticated sampled test—NAEP plus—might be an okay add-on.)

The building of a curriculum is part of what makes being a teacher such a pleasure, and challenge. The school becomes a center of learning for everyone. I remember with a thrill how deeply the kids and I got involved in understanding the Supreme Court during the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas hearings. (And, what a shame it was that CPESS wasn’t studying the U.S.S.R. at the time of its collapse.)

A good subject to study has legs—in the present, the past, and the future.


P.S. I am also less sanguine than you, Diane, about who will be making these decisions, not to mention the compromises that leave us teaching too much.

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.