Teaching Opinion

What Is Democracy?

By Harry C. Boyte — March 15, 2016 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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

Dear Deb and Colleagues,

Your questions from your school experiences about how to implement democratic decision making are important. But I’d argue that voting and other decision structures are tools -- and when they work well, symbols people are proud of. They’re not the essence of democracy.

So, “what is democracy?” And related, why, in the American context, did democracy have overtones of immensity? “A word the real gist of which still sleeps, quite unawakened...a great word, whose history remains unwritten,” as Walt Whitman put it in Democratic Vistas.

Democracy means agency, citizen power, capacity of people to act to build a common life. In a time of bitter electoral division, when tools replace substance, remembering the larger meaning is crucial.

This brings me back to the “Citizenship Education Program,” CEP, in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Martin Luther King’s organization which I worked for from 1963 to 1965.

CEP organized “citizenship schools” across the south, informal learning sites drawing from Danish folk school traditions. Myles Horton, co-founder of Highlander Folk School which birthed the citizenship school movement, travelled through Denmark and was inspired by the folk school philosophy, “education for life.” N.F. S. Grundtvig, the Danish philosopher of folk schools, saw them as sites for “the fostering of all our vital efforts.” Grundtvig emphasized individual awakening and also the potential of all occupations to contribute to a flourishing society.

Citizenship schools, like your schools, were based on respect for the intelligence and other talents of everyday citizens. They included, of course, tools like elections for struggle against segregation. Restrictive voting disempowered people. But more broadly they emphasized developing agency, capacity of people of all backgrounds for action on collective problems of all kinds (at one point a group of poor whites led by “Preacher Red” attended the Dorchester training center in Georgia, as Dorothy Cotton, SCLC’s CEP director, describes in her book If Your Back’s Not Bent).

Thus citizenship schools taught nonviolence, community organizing skills, literacy to help people overcome restrictive voting procedures. They were full of singing. Like Grundtvig, they conveyed love of country built through the labors of ordinary people, strange to postmodern, cynical ears (“We love our land, America!”), while also identifying with freedom struggles around the world. They described figures in black history who made people proud. Overall, the curriculum stressed the potential of people to act. I have the SCLC Citizenship Handbook from 1964 and look at it often.

Septima Clark, an early teacher and philosopher of citizenship schools, said that the purpose was “To broaden the scope of democracy to include everyone and deepen the concept to include every relationship.” Here, the citizen is a co-creator of an empowering democratic way of life.

Dorothy Cotton sings a song which conveys this idea: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” Everyone has potential. There is no outside savior. Education is about “freeing the powers,” a phrase of Jane Addams. Citizenship schools are “freedom schools.”

Democracy as agency is radically different than the shriveled sense of “democracy” in today’s public discussion, where tools substitute for substance. The larger meaning is hollowed out. The collapse of content feeds a diminished view of human potential, a mood of scarcity, a sense that we’re in a dog-eat-dog fight for shares of a shrinking pie. All the candidates for president on both sides define democracy as elections, though there are hints at something more -- Bernie Sanders’ “political revolution,” John Kasich’s reminder that Republicans and Democrats are neighbors.

It’s helpful to go back to the Greeks. According to Josiah Ober, the Greek classicist, the Greeks saw democracy as the capacity to act (Ober’s book, Democracy and Knowledge, is one of my favorites). In his essay “The Original Meaning of ‘Democracy': Capacity to Do Things, Not Majority Rule” (Constellations 2008) Ober analyzes the roots of “democracy,” demos, whole people, and kratia, power.

In modern usage, observes Ober, power is assumed to mean “a voting rule for determining the will of the majority.” But he shows that for the Greeks “demokratia ...more capaciously, means ‘the empowered demos ... collective strength and ability to act...and, indeed, to reconstitute the public realm through action.”

We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Peter Levine, a leader in our movement called “civic studies,” based on agency and citizens as co-creators, has a book from Oxford by this title.

It will be great to see schools integrate democratic decision making into cultures and practices which have agency-building as their aim. What might schools - and societies - look like with a view of democracy that means human potentialities for action? And work to realize it.


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.