Schooling for Democracy

          September 2008

The citizens of a state should always be educated to suit the constitution of their state. The type of character appropriate to a constitution is the power which continues to sustain it…. The democratic type of character creates and sustains democracy; the oligarchical type creates and sustains oligarchy. – Aristotle’s Politics, Book VIIII

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has gotten the upper hand . . . has left no other bond between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment” … and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade.” –Karl Marx and Fredrick Engel’s, “Manifesto of the Communist Party”2

Generally speaking, all freshmen are either now or soon to be voters. Does not the University owe them a duty as such? “Reorganization of Undergraduate Instruction,” – Stanford University, 1923

Dear readers,

Grace Roosevelt starts a provocative essay about the fate of the liberal arts with the quotes above (Teachers College Record, Nov 7, 2006). I think they suggest an argument well worth taking on by proponents of school reform. Roosevelt’s thesis lauds all three of the above versions, up to a point. But I enjoy their juxtaposition, suggesting between them their different contexts. Aristotle wrote in defense of a state that was far from our ideal of citizen-rule; Marx and Engel’s words were for many years used to defend a state that practiced virtually no democratic processes; and Stanford is the home ground for a small selected-elite with tons of resources gained through free-trade.

But the message outlives the messengers, and calls us to rethink how education and politics connect—and their relationship to the liberal arts.

I grew up with the conviction, largely unconsidered, that democracy was the natural outcome of high thinking and liberal-minded ideals. The thinking went that it all started in ancient Greece with American democracy as its latest and greatest exemplar. Democratic socialism was, in my family’s lexicon, merely the next civilized stage of democracy, when greater economic equality and democracy would bring the liberal arts dream to every man and woman. We, too, were passing over, to some degree, those still excluded from even the semblance of political rights within our own midst.

It seems naïve today; but there’s still a kernel of truth to that story of democracy—one I hold onto romantically. It’s that romantic ideal that connects with my passion about the potential role of education for democracy.

There are, indubitably, social and economic analyses of what makes democracy more or less likely. They cannot be ignored. But the idea itself has not ever been more popular rhetorically than it is in modern times, even as it remains neither widely nor deeply practiced. It is in this contradiction that I propose school reform to put up its flag—to exploit the chasm between the ideal and the practice. I propose we seriously imagine what schooling might be like if its one and only purpose were to prepare 100% of its members to think in ways—not ends—compatible with democracy.

That’s where I’d start. Once satisfied we’ve done our best, we might look more broadly at its potential to, say, teach advanced algebra. There might, or might not, be contradictions—except in terms of the time and resources required

I think any fair examination of the 13-17 years young people currently spend in public institutions would convince us that democracy is nearly the last goal of such institutions. Young people have very little time devoted to its explicit study, or to studying the problems as they might be approached by a future policymaker (citizen). Almost none involve students living as observers of a democratic institution in progress (their school or department), much less their local community. Their own personal exposure might go no further than voting on favorite colors, teams or classmates. Students have a very cursory attention span toward State or National politics, and virtually no understanding of the rules of its deliberative bodies. At best they have “heard” of the idea of “balance of power,” but they have no feel for it as other than an arrangement of countervailing vetoes of executive, legislative an judicial bodies. Students are rarely obliged, or even invited, to think about public priorities—except in the abstract task of answering opinion polls. The connection between formal equality and ordinary equity, between justice by law and the ideal of fairness, all these are at best a few paragraphs in a history book crammed with far too many other important matters—and only one course among many—to seriously interfere with life.

Interfering with life is not a comfortable role for schools. Education for troubled waters is dangerous, risky, and seen as best resolved through neutral paper-and-pencil right-and-wrong tests. Or formally well-structured essays.

But how else might it be? What would we have to give up if we took teaching for democracy more seriously? Would there have to be dangerous trade-offs? Is it a matter of teaching less rather than more? Teaching differently? Or re-conceptualizing the ideas at the root of democracy in ways that enhance all proper democratically taught intellectual disciplines?

The academic disciplines weren’t invented for democracy. Nor is democracy so naturally inherent to human experience. But that doesn’t mean democracy, academia and humanity can’t be useful to each other. If the core of democratic thought is not a task that will occur overnight or without struggle, shouldn’t schools themselves be one of the laboratories for such conceptualization, and experimentation? Shouldn’t “academia” prove its worthiness precisely by taking it on, along with the ABCs?

Might this be at the heart of serious school reform? The most traditionally organized school or the most progressively oriented can accept such a challenge. Until we have “proof” (which may never happen) that one or another approaches guarantees a more democratic future, we better not construct obstacles to these different paths—however superficially local a case we can make for it. Differences should be highlighted, cherished, enjoyed—as well as the long-term study of their possible impact on the future of America. That future can include more than democracy as an outcome worthy of study. But couldn’t democracy be the one common goal that all publicly funded, and perhaps even all publicly accredited, schools agree to keep in the forefront of their “reforms.” Such funding and accreditation could be based on how both the pedagogy and the content of young people’s schooling increased or decreased the democratization of society.

Let’s weigh in.


p.s. I urge readers also to buy Charles Tilly’s Democracy, Cambridge University Press, 2007.

© 2008 Deborah Meier

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