Teaching Opinion

Teaching Democratic Politics and Other Habits

By Deborah Meier — February 04, 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,

Interesting, interesting. Which means your comments lead to so many disparate thoughts.

Safe space. Having never been able to stop myself from jumping into disputes a bit too easily and starting trouble that sometimes I later regretted, I realize that my idea of safe space is not exactly everyone else’s. What the young Black students in Missouri meant when they demanded what amounts to censorship is based on different life experiences. Maybe it would require a Dennis Donovan to help us build a safe space without imposing any form of censorship. What might have to happen for this to be resolved without censorship?

In formal parliamentary-style debate it’s against the rules to get personal, and if you do personal privilege can be demanded immediately. But what parliamentary rules didn’t have to tackle was what it meant to be “personal"—since they were invented for men who were all of the same race and class. A modern democracy faces a quite different dilemma—when racist and sexist remarks, for example, are personal even if no name is mentioned. Most of us don’t have a lot of direct experience within democratic communities, and almost none in which the members belong to such diverse “tribes.”

Schools could be the ideal place for us to learn how to engage in heated conversation, above all schools that include members of different SESs and races and ethnic histories. If we dared.

Maybe some of those heated encounters would even turn into quieter and more productive discussions if we had spent 12 years in schools practicing democracy.

My fierceness in debate was in fact partially a technique for testing out my own ideas for myself, and they often led to my changing my mind ... afterwards. I could have learned, however, to pay greater heed to those intimidated by my style. At best schools have tended to solve this problem by staying away from heated subjects, and/or pretending that we all agreed.

School are hardly designed to encourage “confrontations” over our strongly held views in ways that, over time, lead us to reconsider our own opinions. In the formal part of the school day we mostly either agree with the expertise of those in power or pretend to. And in the informal time we tend to cluster in groupings that don’t challenge us, or in which we follow the leader. Even in integrated schools, the relationships that develop are often segregated. We (mostly males) may learn to play together in rule-bound competitive games, but where we go after, to “relax,” is something else.

So—what makes for a safe school in this broader sense? What can we realistically do to create structures that help us deal with “touchy” subjects at least some of the time?

Politics and schools. Your comments raised for me the tricky question about what in an often polarized world we can do to introduce children to “politics,” including politics that might get heated. Confused as we all are about the connections between politics and democracy itself, how can we possibly pass it on to our students? What kind of living experiences encourage us to think and act in a democratic fashion? How can schools introduce the young to the “politics” of democracy?

Most of the time we try to solve this by creating schools that are, for many reasons, relatively homogeneous. Housing segregation and choice are both vehicles for decreasing difference. Tracking is another. Dare we deliberately seek serious diversity in order to encourage democratic habits rather than spending so much time teaching kids the “right” answers? Our standardized testing mania is hardly designed to imbed habits of respect for probing into differences of opinion. What else would be required?


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.