Democracy in Crisis

          August 2008

Dear readers,

I have been mulling over all the many ways in which democracy and education could intersect. At present there are amazingly few instances where they do. This is due in part because we think of “process” questions as boring; they do not arouse mass passion—or at least not until they very personally interrupt our lives.

Yet the necessary balance which enables democracy to be better than all those other forms of governance, despite its flaws (to paraphrase Churchill in the 1940s) is not guaranteed to survive the number of crises we appear to face, crises that all require “instant” solutions.

In times of crisis, democracy begins to appear to be a luxury, as it has many times in the past. We did some pretty awful things in every war we fought. But, as Orwell reminded us, in a permanent state of war these luxuries can disappear permanently too.

These concerns have led to my recent (45 years) obsession with both democracy and schooling. It is worth our all spending more time trying to put them together. I think I have the right question, but I am still unsure I have the right answer, or better, answers.

To help me think about this I have started with two problematics…

A. Assuming that the average human being could be far smarter at making sense of the world, is it possible to do anything to make this happen? Would such a state of well-educated “intelligence” enable us to better sustain and extend democracy?

B. Assuming that you can only build tomorrow with who and what exists today—and that includes the people and their state of education—then how would we go about creating the intelligence we need for tomorrow with the citizenry of today?

In short: we have a conundrum. If it requires a better educated citizenry to protect and nourish democracy, how can democracy be used to get us such a citizenry?

It might be that it is not do-able, even if desirable. Or it might be do-able but undesirable. Or it might be that the best we can do is just muddle through with what we have and hope good luck and smart leaders will keep us on course.

The usual answer for solving this very old conundrum lies in one version or another of “poppa knows best.” The vanguard party; the vanguard class; philosopher king; or divine rule; or, of late, the free market! Some proponents of these solutions promised an eventual “withering away” of the Vanguard, but in vain. We have all, I would argue, had occasion to defend, in times of emergency, one or another of the above. So I am not going to write about what’s right or wrong with them. I can also see why the “market place” attracts people who have seen the others first hand. The trouble is that I see the “market place” not as an alternative but as just another form of secular “dictatorship.” Governance—under whatever name it goes by—quietly becomes the direct hand-maiden of the market’s winners—even if sometimes utilizing other mediating forces to soften the impact.

When IKEA recently defended its private chain of schools in (of all places) Sweden they defended it in eerily Marxist terms. It works for hotels and airplanes, says IKEA, so why not for schools. They stoutly boast that standardization is the key—that kids are much like other commodities. In the name of high profits and high quality it works whether one is talking about hotel rooms, furniture or future citizens. Does there seem something scary about this vision?

Next month, I am going to try to think up some alternatives that might lead us out of this conundrum–democratically.


© 2008 Deborah Meier

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