If public schooling is to be rescued from the clutches of an ever more aggrandizing, ever more unscrupulous, ever more insistent, ever more unAmerican global capitalism, the alternative must be clear and precise. Such an education must be perceived to be desirable and feasible by a goodly number - ultimately a majority. And by desirable meaning that students want to be part of it. It also must be sufficiently robust able to withstand the inevitable distortions by cacophonous loudmouths hired by Australia’s most famous refugee, Rupert Murdoch. O’Reilly and Beck as well as Limbaugh, et al who serve no other purpose other than to dumb down what passes for debate and thereby undermine democratic institutions.
Democracy? Ah democracy. If democracy is the solution, it’s a slam dunk. Everybody loves democracy. Even more than they love Raymond.
Yessss. Except there is no agreement to its meaning. Lots of folks embrace current corporate deform of education because they think it promotes democracy. After all, didn’t mediocre education devastate democracy? And didn’t patriots courageously take on unions and kindergarten teachers using only standards and accountability (code words for control and obstacles) as weapons to make our education great again and thus save democracy? Or they will, once unions and kindergarten teachers stop sabotaging the system. People have to understand, kindergarten teachers are like the heads of the Hydra, lop off one and two take its place.
If not already convinced that the US is now and forever and in every which way embracing democracy, remember, we invaded Iraq so it too could enjoy democracy. And it has been a party ever since.
Complicating matters just a little, while blissfully heralding the virtues of freedom and democracy, George Bush was busily undermining both at home, AND abroad. And sadly Obama seems to be doing much the same.
T. S. ELiot had it right, (some would say extremely right), but nonetheless true:
When a term has become so universally sanctified, as 'democracy' now is, I begin to wonder whether it means anything, in meaning too many things. (The Ideal of a Christian Society)
So if democracy is to have meaning and replace corporate education, it first must be ‘desanctified. Democracy in one sense is the triumph of reason. Reason provides a foundation but is insufficient as definition. In a continuum of theories the democracy we propose is strong. According to Benjamin Barber:
Strong democracy [formally defined] as politics in the participatory mode where conflict is resolved in the absence of an independent ground through a participatory process of ongoing, proximate self-legislation and the creation of a political community capable of transforming dependent, private individuals into free citizens and partial and private interests into public goods. (Strong Democracy)
Say what? No independent ground means that neither God nor science makes policy, and it is up to ordinary people to work together to solve unavoidable problems and thereby create a public good. What also must be understood if that doesn’t happen - problems go unsolved - and bad gets worse and worse gets terrible. Like global warming or health care, public education or war.
Our notion of democracy is also deliberative; meaning that it is distinguished by diverse opinions engaging in meaningful and penetrating interactions in an effort to arrive at a negotiated consensus. If consensus is not possible, and it rarely is, at the very least the contending parties gain the benefit of mutual understanding. For a deliberative democracy to work there must be: diversity of opinion, a place for deliberation, and sufficient time for ideas to be worked out. There must also be some negotiated ground rules – a willingness to listen, disagreeing without being disagreeable. Most important of all is the development of an understanding that arguments and differences are not settled by noise or preponderance of opinion, but by logic and evidence. For a deliberative democracy to work the electorate has to know how to deliberate. And that is precisely what a democratic education makes possible and what corporate education by its insistence on monopolizing time for test taking vigorously opposes.
. . . to learn genuine discussion should be considered an essential part of our education. Every child must be trained to meet the clash of difference -- difference of opinion, difference of interest -- which life brings.
Mary Parker Follett. The New State: Group Organization the Solution of popular Government 1923. (1998 ed) p. 365
Demonstrating the electorate’s inability to deliberate has been the recent Congressional town halls supposedly addressing health care. In place of deliberation was spouting of disinformation, bullying and a total absence of regard for opposing opinion. It matters little if the audience was infiltrated by paid disrupters from the health industry or merely a random group of disgruntled citizens, whoever they were they were not prepared for the responsibilities of democratic citizenship. Not helping were radio and television polluters of the airways that fed the frenzy. However, in truth, the Limbaughs, etc. are irrelevant. Those town halls are what education sowed. The town halls are the logical consequence of an undemocratic education.
Boiled down to its essentials, a democracy puts control of all aspects of society in the hands of an informed electorate. It requires that a serious effort be made for all eligible to vote are equally informed and equaled empowered.
Impossible! Of course, but then democracy is like infinity in mathematics, not to be reached but to be approached, ever nearer. Democracy is also the vision used to determine whether progress is being made. When as now, movement is ever farther away, we need not only to take notice but to take action. Restoring movement toward democracy begins with meeting the requirements of equal and informed. That of course brings us to education.
A democratic education accomplishes two things, Students learn about democracy by experiencing it in classrooms. And they learn how to be responsible citizens by practicing citizenship.
A necessary foundation for deliberation is an understanding of democracy. It is permissible in a democracy for persons to oppose it and actually use democratic processes to terminate it. Plato didn’t like democracy and he certainly tried to make a solid case against it. What is impermissible is to destroy democracy without ever knowing what it is. And that is what currently is happening.
Democratic education engages students in deep and penetrating conversations, has them: conduct meaningful research, discover rather than being told and utilize rather than store learning. Such an education has students work cooperatively in projects designed to produce some form of community development – a public good. Such an education encourages every student to become an independent thinker while at the same time helps the student understand that change in a democratic society requires collective action. Such an education has its goal not only a rich understanding of the complicated multifaceted rapidly changing world that the students live in, but also, the intellectual wherewithal to be effective agents of change. Such an education, the diametrical opposite of the corporate education designed to produce docility, empowers students, all students. And knowing math is vital if one is to not only understand the world but also be prepared to be a significant player in shaping its future. One learns that kind of math (and science, and language proficiency, and history and philosophy, and the arts, and how to make responsible personal decisions) while engaged in research, discussion, analysis and debates, to propose solutions to pressing problems.
National and state standards must be rejected for such an education. And while local control is no panacea, there is a much better chance to build a democracy from bottom up than from top down. As anyone who has spent time in classrooms knows the single most important agent of education is the teacher. If ever a truly positive educational reform is to be achieved, it will occur when responsibility is located in the classroom teacher. That is where education takes place. And there is where true reform begins. Teaching under current reform is compromised and constipated, restricted by prescriptive curriculums. Simply put, those intent on a corporate control of education took a system in desperate need of change and made it much much worse by closeting teaching.
But teaching if it is to be effective has to be guided by vision. Some aspects of that vision are simple. Good teaching instills in students the love of learning. If we accomplished just that, things would be looking up. Instilling the love of learning may not by itself embrace democracy, but it is hardly likely to destroy it. And instilling the love of learning is a fundamental principle of a democratic classroom. But we get ahead of ourselves.
Democracy is informed by seven fundamental principles. I present these as teaser. as a preview of coming attractions.
1. An environment that enables all to grow to fullest potential, an
2. Legitimate authority – consent of the governed.
3. Inclusion- all equally protected and equally empowered
4. Equal access and capacity to use knowledge on which all important decisions are based
5. Development of the skills necessary to participate in collective decision-making
6. The inalienable rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights, and
Any serious discussion of democracy brings in all of the above. All in differing degrees can be incorporated in classrooms or in any association or agency. If we understand these principles we can move the never-ending, never quite completed democratic project forward. If not, well it was nice knowing you.
Where to begin? Begin as I began by trying to alter the learning environment. There are two possible explanations why students fail in school. The first is lumped under a broad umbrella called the “deficit thinking.” Or to put it bluntly, it is the kid’s fault, his genes, or his single mama, his neighborhood or culture.
The other explanation places the onus on the school, a student fails when insufficiently encouraged to succeed. A student fails when placed in a hostile learning environment. That means students go to different classrooms together. One student in that class is encouraged to learn, while another student in the same classroom is discouraged from learning.
At the time I was engaged in analyzing learning environments. Arguments were raging about deficit thinking. Deficit thinking is deciding in advance that some students will not succeed because of factors outside the classroom. The argument was not about whether deficit thinking existed but what was the important deficit. The prevailing opinion had been genetics, that is, success in school was largely inherited and that a greater percentage of white folks inherited a smart gene (intelligence was considered by most to be a “g” for general factor) than black folks or brown folks. One guy got knighted for insisting that more of the upper classes inherited a smart gene than did the working classes. Honest, I am not making this up.
... the wide inequality in personal income is largely, though not entirely, an indirect effect of the wide inequality in innate intelligence. (The data) do not support the view (still held by many educational and social reformers) that the apparent inequality in intelligence of children and adults is in the main an indirect consequence of inequality in economic conditions
Sir Cyril Burt, Ability and income.1943
One problem with the data was that Burt made up at least some of it, that is how most studying the scandal surrounding him have concluded. The idea of an inherited intelligence did not sit well with some liberals and they came up with another explanation - accumulated environmental deficit. Students didn’t fail because they inherited the dumb gene they were dumb because of the lack of intellectual stimulation during early formative years. That became the basis for Head Start and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Still others blamed an anti-intellectual culture, Ruby Paine is making big bucks selling her spin on that.
Virtually no one was saying maybe some students were failing because the learning environment was insufficiently encouraging. I flashed on three features of a learning environment that could lead to differential academic performance:
Competence – Encouraging students to believe that they could successfully master the school work
Belonging - Students welcomed into the classroom and made to feel each had an important role to play; and
Usefulness – Students find immediate use to what they have learned, or visualize many ways in which what they have learned has utility.
In a few, not very well controlled experiments finding ways for students to feel competent, useful and have a sense of belonging seemingly had remarkable results. Hundreds of low income, African American and Latino students got degrees at the University of Oregon in programs that were based on providing these kinds of encouragements. As these concepts were infused into the classroom, additional concepts were added to the first “CBU’s”, the ideas of comfort, security and meaningfulness. How many students today suffer extreme discomfort everyday they approach their classes? How many students are terrified as they trudge in fear toward the insecurity of the classrooms, hallways and playgrounds of our schools? And once in the classroom are fearful of expressing themselves? And after being subjected to a brutal round of tests, finding nothing to connect to real life situations?
Real life is about work and a career, it is about making serious, sensible, decisions in personal life, and sometimes life or death decisions in one’s political life, real life is music, social relationships, knowing a wide variety of people from a wide variety of cultures and life-styles, and real life is about making intelligent decisions about how to save the earth.
The “what” of education should be directed toward learning how to make intelligent decisions in the most basic arenas of our lives – war, economics, governance, race, ethnicity and gender, and ecology. Corporate education does not want anyone to make intelligent decisions in these matters, Only a democratic education that probes and searches collectively for solutions to overcome war, violence, discrimination, poverty and ecologic destruction can begin to move us toward real and positive change.
Next Blog Learning about the world of Work in a Democratic class.