Undemocratic Schools, Undemocratic Citizens

shifting-conversations-logoAt last count, there are 69 days left until the interminable presidential election in the US comes to a close. I’m not sure I even want to know what will begin after the voting ends. I doubt it will be pretty either way.

In the last month, I’ve travelled to Australia and Canada for presentations and school visits, and invariably, the conversation turns to the election. (I’m going to Russia in a couple of weeks…) And while in previous trips the questions centered around predictions for the outcome, what struck me on these most recent visits was that the questions were more around “What the heck is going on over there?” (or “down there” in Canada’s case.) It’s gone far beyond just being a chuckle and a shake of the head to a look of real heartburn when trying to square what got us to this point.

I’m feeling that burn as well, believe me.

6904685720_7dae8e5f09_bOf all that I’ve been reading, (and I’ve been reading a lot,) one of the most compelling pieces around the “whys” of our current situation comes from Timothy Egan in the New York Times last week in an essay titled “The Dumbed Down Democracy.” Consider the whole thing, but reflect on this:

The dumbing down of this democracy has been gradual, and then — this year — all at once. The Princeton Review found that the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858 were engaged at roughly a high school senior level. A century later, the presidential debate of 1960 was a notch below, at a 10th grade level. By the year 2000, the two contenders were speaking like sixth graders. And in the upcoming debates — “Crooked Hillary” against “Don the Con” — we’ll be lucky to get beyond preschool potty talk.

Egan goes on to cite a number of reasons for this race to the bottom in campaign rhetoric but points most clearly to our inability, or perhaps our unwillingness to engage in much of any “crap detection” with what we’re hearing. We’ve become a nation of dull-witted consumers of whatever partisan drivel we might subscribe to, preferring  just to cement whatever worldview we already have rather than engage in some type of reasoned conversation that negotiates where the “truth” might actually be.

And this is a scary thing. It’s no wonder one candidate for president proclaims “I love the poorly educated,” because that’s a great way of getting elected these days.

Pushing back on supposed “truths” or at least critically examining claims of truth is a part of being a citizen in a democracy, isn’t it? Seeing the world critically and not simply accepting what is is a fundamental part of what democratic societies need their citizens to do. And I’m not just talking about right pushing against left and left pushing against right for the sake of pushing. I’m talking about “reasoned conversation” of an intellectual type that I don’t think we’ve seen at all this year in the primaries or general election. In fact, at least in politics, I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen two candidates just sit down at a table and have a conversation about something they disagree on with the intent of understanding the other side more fully.

But it should surprise no one that this democracy is being described as “dumbed down.” We’re not being trained very well to be engaged participants. I mean really, can you think of a more undemocratic institution than schools? Ok, maybe prisons…but other than that? One of my favorite authors Russel Ackoff may not even cede that, writing in Turning Learning Right Side Up:

One would think that our schools would be the most persistent and vigorous expounders of the American dream. After all, what is the ultimate goal of education, if not to prepare the nation’s youth for a lifetime of responsible, mature citizenship? And who is charged with implementing this goal, if not the nation’s schools? How tragic, then, how ominous for our future, that our educational system is the most un-American institution in this country today. Students in our schools, from prenursery to postgraduate levels, have virtually no individual rights. They are almost entirely at the arbitrary mercy of teachers, staff, and administrators in everything they do at school. A student has no right of free speech, no right of dissent, no right of peaceful assembly, no right to confront his accuser, no right of privacy. The list can be extended to cover any and all of the traditional rights. During the entire formative period of their growth, youths are committed by law—and, after age 16, by economic and social pressure—to serve time in educational institutions that, like prisons, simply do not recognize the existence of individual rights (67) [Emphasis mine].

That was written in 2008. Perhaps that “ominous future” has arrived.

And then there’s another of my favorites, Seymour Sarason. Robert Fried, who edited Skeptical Visionary: A Seymour Sarason Education Reader, summed up Sarason’s feelings on schools and democracy like this:

The democratic principle, while celebrated in America, is undermined and ignored in our school and school systems. This nation was founded on the revolutionary principle  that those who will be affected by a decision have a right to be included in helping to shape that decision–except, evidently, in schools, where the exclusion of parents, students, and teachers from responsible roles in decision making continues unabated (5).

How, really, can any of us be shocked that it has come to this? How, really, can we expect to ready our kids for a participatory democracy if we send them out into the world without having, um…participated?

As I alluded to here earlier this year, technology has a huge role to play in this as well. It’s becoming easier and easier to just hear and watch and read what you want without any consideration for the conversation. In this way, tech is adding more complexity, not making our lives necessarily better.

There are many schools that treat kids as full-fledged citizens with voting rights on everything that happens in the school. Sudbury Schools are one such example. Kids are an integral part of hiring and firing of staff, of deciding where budgets will be spent, and everything else. In the process, they develop many of the skills and practices of citizens. It’s not just play acting.

We could and we should do more of that in every school. No pressure, but the future of the country may depend on it.

(Image credit: Feral78)

3 thoughts on “Undemocratic Schools, Undemocratic Citizens”

  1. Terry D

    Deborah Meier was doing this work long ago and is still one of the best to show us the way and the why.

    1. Without a doubt James Beane’s work is among the finest in this arena. Read his one of his many works, eg; A reason to teach,(2005) or Democratic schools.

      1. Lyn Hilt

        Thanks for sharing and reading, Nancy!

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