Teaching Opinion

Sticking to Democracy Is Hard

By Deborah Meier — June 13, 2016 4 min read
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Editor’s Note: Bridging Differences will be on a hiatus after this post. It will return in September.

Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Harry and friends,

Yes, the culture that enables us to maintain democracy is hard to create and sustain. Without it, the society seems always to be “returning” to one or another top-down structure. I use the term “return” because I suspect that some form of “patriarchy"—rule of the “strong"—may be the easier path, the one we too often fall back on in desperate times. “If only” there were a leader who could, we too often complain....

What makes it harder is that few places really believe in the mission of educating people for democracy. It would be odd indeed if schools to prepare cooks never did any cooking, or a shoe-makers training didn’t include the making of shoes. I find it equally odd that schools to prepare the young to assume the obligations of running their society—of being members of its ruling class, its citizens—have no opportunity to rule anything (except surreptitiously ruling those weaker than them), or to witness and experience what self-rule is like even for the adults in their world in precisely the institutions designed to prepare them to practice democracy. It’s so odd, one is right to question intent. Not even well-educated adults in schools can honestly say to their charges: “The rules in this place are here because we the adults have decided they should be.”

While required to argue in behalf of democracy’s virtue in running the city, state, and nation, we hardly explain even to ourselves why it won’t work in the far less complex setting of school x or y. In 1930 there were 150,000 school boards with significant authority. Today there are fewer than 15,000, while the population has doubled. That shift was man-made. In fact, the idea that those closest to the life of the school are provided with virtually no power and those furthest from the individual school are given substantial power is taken for granted today. What is taught, what is important and what not, how to assess it, how its members are disciplined, how long recess will be if at all, how to choose its employees and principals, as well as how to fire them, what and how families can or can’t be involved, etc., are not even in the hands of most principals, who in turn are accountable not to his or her constituents but to superintendents, mayors, legislators, powerful foundations, et al.

Democracy may be the greatest invention. But is it too complicated to expect it to work in an individual school?

It’s related to the difference between “organizing” and “mobilizing.” Even organizing rests essentially on to what degree the people have “organized themselves.” The term “self-governance” implies this, but does it represent what really happens? It’s why I’ve never liked the term “change agent"—and even find “organizer” suspect.

When one’s independence is fragile, if nonexistent, and one’s family’s safety dependent almost totally on others, democracy looks utopian. Solidarity is a response to such powerlessness. This too is risky. It takes a leap of faith that is not always easy to call upon. Example: A timid teacher asks me if I will present her grievance at the next principal-led meeting. I agree. But after I have presented her grievance the principal asks, “Who else is worrying about this?” Silence.

And this happened even though the formal rules of the game protected her from retribution. But it requires a “culture” of solidarity and democracy—in the union and the staff—that even schools, especially schools, discourage.

Designing and sustaining such a culture for a single school, within a system operating otherwise, is tough. This past month, having watched a small democratically designed NYC school being wiped out—even if sometimes for “good reasons” that do not, however, convince those on site—I’m reminded, Harry, of your other point. Over and over one has to start where people are, to get to know and care for each other, which is an advantage small schools like CPE have had. CPE, for example, was started without a principal position and with fewer than six to seven classrooms in mind. The city eventually demanded a licensed principal and a larger population. Still, it received flexibility from the union contract, e.g., with regard to staff decisions on many issues generally spelled out in a contract and from an unusual local district re: curriculum and much else. But its democratic internal life became ever thinner.

What such schools often counted on, alas, was a godfather with the singular power to give needed protection. A thin reed to rest on for a healthy democracy.

I’m watching the decline of schools like CPE after more than 40 years—endangered as well by gentrification, privatization, and standardization. But there are new efforts afoot to take back “subsidiarity”! (Look it up. It’s a useful concept for our times.) We will, I see it emerging, rebuild a force within our public schools, and maybe some of the mom and pop charters, on behalf of a simple idea: Education for democracy works when it’s for, by, and of the people.


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