I spent three days last month in Texas with the North Dakota Study Group (NDSG) in its new form—much younger (maybe a dozen “oldsters” of whom I think I was the oldest), probably half or more people of color (more Hispanic than Africa-American this time). While we were kept too busy to reflect together on our experiences than I would have liked, the conversations we did have were both reassuring and insightful. I came away bursting with questions to explore. And with new colleagues and friends.
One thing I was thinking about was how my views about “small, self-governing schools of choice” has held up since the early 1970s when the NDSG was formed. I think I would exclude the last—choice. It is not that I am now opposed to choice, but I see that my position is really “it depends.” “It depends” is my latest position on many things. But small and self-governing remain—although self-governing has gotten more complicated. Who are the constituents of that “self”? I have discovered a new word—subsidiarity—that Catholic friends introduced me to. It means that decisions should be made by those most affected by them!
My central purpose through it all has been figuring out what best supports democracy versus what makes it easier to undermine it—while simultaneously educating each other. Inequality of power is our greatest enemy.
It is on the firm ground of communal responsibility, in which all have had equal voice—that democracy rests. When community members know each other and share some critical common spaces—like schools, post offices, libraries, etc.—and some critical common interests—such as what happens to your kids happens to mine—that democracy has a fighting chance. Without such mutuality democracy can simply become a fight over who can win an advantage without regard for the losers.
Is this too idealistic? Maybe, maybe not. We have to recapture, I believe, the spirit of democracy writ small until we can truly start re-installing it writ large. That is why I have always supported small schools. Small schools make easer that face-to-face communal spirit and realistic communal responsibility for those besides oneself (and those most closely connected). It does not magically cure selfishness and greed, but it gives generosity and trust a chance to take root.
Those “communities” ideally should cross typical racial and class boundaries; but equally important, they need roots that outlast this or that single cause. In today’s world “communities” are too often built on a single interest, be it recreational, occupational or political. But those communities hold together only as long as that single interest holds. ”Home turf” can be a stronger shared turf—which neighborhood institutions (libraries, schools, playgrounds, et al) reinforce. Whether schools should be integrated at the expense of neighborhoods is a complex issue and I am leaning the other way of late. In a largely society, spreading kids—especially Black and Latino kids—around in other neighborhood seems disruptive of democracy and spreading middle class white kids around largely Black and Latino schools seems hopeless.
I am hoping we can do some thinking aloud about this dilemma. In the meantime “choice” has taken on a largely market-place meaning which inevitably increased class and race isolation. Is there a third alternative—since choice has so many obvious attractions?