It is as if students occupy a dichotomy in society where their voices are either completely worshipped or totally dismissed, and worse still, sometimes fully repressed. Mainstream media frequently place student voice on a pedestal, highlighting the “outrageous” things kids say or making the opinions and ideas of students into the flavor of the day in advertisements.
At the same time, mainstream news sources regularly demonize students, labeling students as “super predators” who are apathetic about society, incapable of complex mental functions, and perpetually failing in school and throughout society.
Really Valuing Students
Truly validating what students have shared with educators requires that educators get past their preconceived ideas of what should happen and respond as authentically and genuinely as appropriate, and as possible.
Validation alone can provide very rich rewards for students who say they do not feel acknowledged by educators. It provides a fertile ground for educators to show students that they see them, they matter, and that student voice affects them.
In a variety of institutions throughout our society educators rarely want to know what students think, feel, act, and understand. When it does happen, well-meaning educators often seem stuck in their assumed role of sage advice-givers and secret knowledge-holders.
In addition to those behaviors, other educators automatically assume that validating students means just saying yes to them all the time. This type of permissiveness is disingenuous at best, as it can actively disable the ability of students to respond to adversity and challenge, and incapacitate their natural survival mechanisms that promote resilience and adaptation.
More Than Yes Or No
This means validating is more than just saying, “Yes.” Sometimes it means saying, “No.” Sometimes it means asking inquiring questions. One way to get to the core of any statement is to ask 5 Why’s.
It could look like this:
“I want to eat a slice of bread.” “Why?” “I’m hungry.” “Why are you hungry?” “Because I skipped breakfast this morning.” “Why?” “I got in a fight with my little sister.” “Why?”
“I spilled her bowl of cereal on her by accident. She was wearing her new outfit, and I was in a hurry to get food from the kitchen, so I rushed by her in there and bumped her by accident. I was running late for a meeting at school where there’s a boy I really want to talk to…”
…And so forth. The 5 Why’s can provide a useful “drilling” technique in situations where you really want to know what students are thinking. There are other techniques, too. However, blasé or indifferent attitudes defeat student voice. Students frequently intuitively sense when educators do not authentically care about their perspectives. The idiom, “Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answers to,” applies here.
Listening to students and validating what they have said is just the start to the Cycle. The next step is authorizing.
Listening to students is something that anyone who has regular contact with students thinks they do every day. Asking students when the last time was they actually felt heard can reveal some different opinions though. Listening is the first step in the Cycle of Meaningful Student Involvement.
Separately Students and Adults
This happens for many reasons, not the least of which being that we routinely separate students from each other, and we keep students away from adults in their communities. Classrooms, student programs, and extracurricular activities all demonstrate how this type of separation occurs.
Keeping different age groups in different areas throughout different times of the day effectively implants and reinforces the inability of adults to empathize with students, and causes students to stay away from one another. In turn, people throughout education and across society can lose the ability to serve as appropriate role models, engaged educators, and purposeful co-creators of the situations and solutions we operate in all of the time.
Really Listening to Students The first step to alleviating this painful reality is listening. When educators listen to students they demonstrate their commitment to the children they serve. When students listen to educators they show the power of personal connection by defeating the negative stereotype about their inability to relate to people who are older than them. Listening is not just for one type of students, either: while streams often seek out the path of least resistance when running downhill, educators to students do not have to do the same. This is the matter of seeking “convenient student voice” versus “inconvenient student voice”. Convenient student voice happens when educators seek students who say what we want them to, how, when, and where, and why we want them to.
Unfortunately, this does not usually turn out well students who have been historically disengaged throughout society. These students frequently share inconvenient student voice, whether through actions such as fighting, graffiti, or engaging in other negative behaviors; or through resistance in which they refuse to engage in activities designed to engage them.
Ways to Listen to Students Challenge this negativity through deliberate activities designed to listen to students:
Personal conversations, such as one-on-ones, email exchanges, phone calls, texting, personal counseling sessions, and instant messaging.
Small groups, including group meetings, Google groups, student panels, classrooms, and small training sessions.
Large groups, like social networking websites, conferences, student forums, and large training events.
Challenges to Listening to Students It is easy to see how manipulation, tokenism, and alienation can defeat these avenues for listening to students. Some of the other challenges to listening to students include:
The belief that “Kids are better seen and not heard.”
The presumption that students are already listened to enough.
Filtering, in which educators reword what students say to “make it make sense” to other educators
The practice of picking on the voices that we want to hear, rather than those we do not.
In order to engage students these challenges have to be addressed. There are several ways to overcome them. However, the most important thing that educators can do is continue on the Cycle. The next step is validating.
Introduction to the Cycle Listen, validate, authorize, act, and reflect. These are not radical concepts unfamiliar to seasoned educators. However, while it is true that educators intuitively go through these steps with students every single day, it can be challenging to keep them in focus while going through the daily functions of running a classroom or school.
This cycle is designed to illustrate a clear process everyone can use to engage students. The most important consideration here is to consider student involvement as more than student voice. It requires more than simply hearing, checking-in, or talking to students. Meaningful Student Involvement is deep; going through the cycle gets to the depth.
The Cycle of Meaningful Student Involvement provides a pathway educators can use to create sustainable connections with students. It can seem very familiar, and that is one of the advantages of using the Cycle for learning, teaching, and leadership.
The five steps acknowledge both the simplicity and complexity of truly substantive relationships between students and the educators who work with them. This tool can serve as both a planning guide and as an evaluation tool that anticipates what lies ahead and looks back on what has past. Following is an examination of the different motions of the Cycle.
Being the autocratic, adultcentric environments that they are, public schools today are not democratic. They are existent within a society operating on democratic methods, and they (mostly) publicly allow every young person to enroll in them. However, on the whole, public schools are not led in a democratic fashion, are devoid of democratic teaching methods, and do not teach democracy in a systemic, deliberate fashion.
School leaders and educators routinely tell students that schools aren’t democracies, too. That pronouncement alone is terrible. It makes student voice, student leadership, and student engagement activities something other than democratic: tokenistic and belittling, some students see through them and are justly cynical or resistant to participating.
Because of this, the argument that student voice is democracy in action is flawed at its core. In my experience working with hundreds of schools across the US and Canada, I’ve found that, relatively speaking, students who are chosen to share their voices in school leadership are generally not representative of the majority of learners. They generally have privileges that others don’t, including the academic achievement and fiscal background needed to allow them to participate, and to ensure their successful experience sharing student voice.
These students are generally what I call “traditional student voice”; that is, their voices are generally predictable and acceptable to adults. Through gross over-exaggerations about schools and the inability of education to meet their needs, many student voice representatives today don’t even address the basic concerns of low-achieving students, students of color, or low-income students in schools today. To the chagrin of many of my compatriots in the student voice movement, I regularly see and admit that the majority of traditional student voice representatives merely toe the corporate education agenda sold by mainstream media and the vast majority of politicians (as do their parents).
While all students’ voices have value for improving schools and transforming education, when adults hold up one set of students’ voices and make them reflective or representative of the whole education system that it becomes problematic. That’s true of nontraditional student voice as well as traditional student voice. While some educators pedestal convenient student voice, there are nonprofit organization programs that do the same with inconvenient student voice. They routinely uplift the voices of students of color, low-income students, underachieving learners, and others, offering those students’ critiques as a singular focus for school improvement.
In reality, this isn’t democracy either, as both position one group of students above others. While I readily acknowledge that all student voice is not created equal, I believe that in democracy all people ARE created equal. That’s an essential distinction, and shows why public schools aren’t democratic.
This is me facilitating a parent workshop in Yakima, Washington, in 2011.
When parent engagement is supported, students can truly succeed throughout education. Parents must be empowered to be fully partners with educators and students if education is going to meet the needs of the modern era. These Rules for Parent Engagement in Schools offer those guidelines.
5 Rules for Parent Engagement in Schools
1. Seek authentic engagement.
Keep it real: Open the door for real parent engagement right now.
Learning to listen, validate, authorize, mobilize, and reflect on schools is important for parent engagement.
Seek nothing less than full parent-student-teacher partnerships for every learner in school.
Expecting action action means not letting any member of the school community be apathetic.
2. Foster mutual respect.
Respect is mutual: You give it, you receive it.
A culture of respect shatters stereotypes based on roles in schools.
Parents respect educators who listen and engage in challenging action.
A culture of respect provides all people the opportunity to act on their best intention for students and learn from their mistakes.
3. Provide constant communication.
Listen up: An honest and open exchange of ideas is crucial.
Parents are best heard when educators step back and parents speak up.
Educators are best heard when they are straight up and explain where they’re coming from.
All people’s ideas and opinions are valuable and must be heard.
4. Build investment.
It takes time: Investing in the future is accepting that parents can be more engaged right now.
Parents and educators must first set their fears aside and take a chance on each other.
Educators must provide parents with the information, education and support they will need to succeed. They must also develop their own ability to engage parents.
Strong parent/school partnerships require patience and courage.
5. Promote meaningful involvement
Count us in: Decisions about students should be made with parents and students.
Educators need to support parents in taking on responsibility based on what they can do, not what they have done.
Reflection helps everyone appreciate the importance of schools – for themselves, for students, for their communities.
Parents and educators must hold each other accountable for all their decisions and actions. Everyone should continually challenge the impact of schools on students.
Where These Rules Came From
For all these years that I’ve had the privilege of advocating student engagement in schools, I’ve had a more important job that I’ve wrestled through too. Well, at least for the last ten years. The most important thing I’ve ever done with any of my time is be a dad, and that my most important job.
An vital part of being an active dad has been my daughter Hannah’s education. Being raised by two people who are passionate about learning, teaching, and leadership in schools, Hannah has had very strong advocates for her education since she entered preschool, and before. Her mother and I have constantly worked at keeping Hannah in learning situations that are not only safe, healthy, and whole, but vibrant and relevant to her specific learning style. This has meant a lot of personal wrangling and negotiation, but always with Hannah at the center.
For all these years I’ve been concerned with the reality that for as deeply vested in our daughter’s education as we are, the schools Hannah has attended have mostly been less-than fully capable of engaging us as parents. In the past, we have been pointed about not revealing our professional stakes as Hannah’s parents. That said, there are many missteps that I’ve experienced from Hannah’s teachers, school leaders, and other parents attempting to promote parent engagement.
That’s where these rules of parent engagement in schools were born – my work as a guerrilla researcher in human engagement, as well as my experience as a parent. Thanks for reading them, and let me know what you think!
Another spectacular example of Meaningful Student Involvement comes from Ontario’s spectacular SpeakOUT program. Part of the program, the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Student Advisory Council, shared this graphic today to show their ideas about the future of education.
Taken from the graphic above! See the image to understand how these phrases relate to each other!
Students Imagine the Future of Ontario’s Education System
Future! Our place, our vision, Ontario education
Happy people learn better!
Teachers should be open to talk to!
More humor – Ha ha ha!
Safe to ask questions!
Why would I want to learn from someone who doesn’t want to learn from me?
More help for everyone online!
More games – “Gamify learning” – More games instead of textbooks
All school documents and resources online
Teach music… sports… props…
A place to LISTEN to music!
Every student should have an IEP
Teach a student how to teach themselves!
Should be allowed to fast forward academically in high school!
More time in class
Teach students to become active citizens
Discovery based learning
More one on one
“What do you think?”
“How does this apply?” “Ah, I get it!”
Tell students why they’re learning something!
Re-evaluate curriculum – should focus on life skills
Activities focused on Meaningful Student Involvement and Student Voice reflect two distinctly different routes to engage students in changing schools. Meaningful Student Involvement holds student voice carefully and respects its sentiment while honoring its sensibilities and enriching its possibilities.
Student Voice is any expression of any student anytime related to education.
Doesn’t require schools to change
Doesn’t require students to change
Doesn’t require adults to change
Doesn’t necessarily change education
Meaningful Student Involvement is a process for engaging students as partners in every facet of school change for the purpose of strengthening their commitment to education, community, and democracy. It focuses on:
My child has attended learning environments operating with democratic education principles for the last seven years, and as her dad I believe I’m a partner with her in her learning. As a line-level youth worker, I worked to infuse democratic education principles into my own practice for more than a decade, and as a consultant, I have assisted more than 100 K-12 schools across the US and Canada as they’ve wrestled with these principles. As a student myself, my bachelors degree is from The Evergreen State College, a widely renowned democratic education institution. For the last several years, I’ve been an advisor to the Institute for Democratic Education in America (IDEA), and have worked to help grow this movement nationally in many ways, including presenting several workshops at the International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC).
It is from this place of warm interaction, deep investment, and soul-filled appreciation that I share my concerns about adultism in democratic education.
Goals, teaching styles, rules, curriculum, budgeting, building design, behavior expectations… All of these things are determined by adults, for students, throughout schools and nonprofits. Even in well-meaning democratic learning environments, adultism often runs rampant and unchecked. Like the wildly fast undercurrent of a river that looks slow and smooth on the surface, adultism is deep throughout work done by adults for children and youth.
When they read this, some people will automatically dismiss it as an attempt to cast aspersions on their work. I don’t mean to demonize anyone. Instead, I want us to simply acknowledge the basis from which so much of this work operates, including democratic education in all its myriad forms. Understanding this basis can help people attempting to work within democratic education to truly create democratized spaces that are so woefully absent in our society today.
Where Adultism Surfaces in Democratic Education
It is important to recognize that there is no one, single, androgynous form of democratic education that all people everywhere adhere to. If my experience with IDEA has taught me anything, its that democratic education means many things to many people. Inside of that reality, I don’t want people to harbor the sentiment that simply calling something democratic education automatically means it is safe, free, and/or holistic. Just that notion alone makes democratic education adultist, as it reflects an adults’ perception of what young people want, rather than asking fully informed, fully invested young people what they want.
In some forms of democratic education, adults create specially isolated spaces for kids to “learn in freedom”. This is adultist on many levels. One reason for this is that learning environments that isolate young people from “real world” interactions by creating isolated experiences where young people have the capability to do whatever they want in the name of learning are actually expressing the will of adults. In our society today, we are installed with an inalienable number of rights because of our age. Intending to rectify a perception of diminished rights for youth, there are educators both in schools and outside schools who seek to create rebalance by instilling similar rights in the young people they work with—to an extent.
In a number of gestures, adults in schools and community organizations who adhere to democratic education grant young people the right to voluntary class attendance, voting through class meetings, and in some cases, “all aspects of the school” are led jointly by participants in these meetings. This is A.S. Neill supposedly dismissed early efforts to replicate Summerhill in the U.S., because he thought they were granting license, not freedom. He was wrong; they were granting the right to self-governance, not freedom. As William Deresiewicz so powerfully showed, that’s a premise of American democracy that’s been lost to the years.
Neill’s fetishizing of freedom for children has become the premise for a lot of democratic education today. Unforuntately, as the next IDEC will inevitably show in August, it is an international movement that’s reaching in twenty-nine directions at once, all without a unifying focus beyond the well-intended adults trying to change the world. Not unlike much of the society many of these activist-educators are working to change, much of the work they do is deeply infused with adultism.
However, the right to self-governance, when applied to children and youth, is wholly adultist, as are all forms of governance. Let’s be absolutely clear here: Adultism is bias towards adults, and so far as history shows, no form of governance has ever been proposed and enacted upon by children or youth. Rather than how many philosophizers and theorizers would define it, adultism is not merely discrimination towards youth. Instead, adultism is bias towards adults, and it is not always wrong.
In the case of democratic education, adultism informs its very existence. As Neill showed in his refutation mentioned above, revealing the very premise of our understanding of freedom is adultist since it was he himself who determined its necessity rather than the young people he worked with themselves. In other democratic education settings this is true, too, as so many program workers, educators, community organizers, and activists form their opinions of the world and then impose them on young people, calling them democratic education rather than allowing young people to form their own conceptions independent of adults’ influence, guidance, leadership, or facilitation. All schools, all nonprofits, all groups, and all movements do this.
The final important distinction to make about adultism in democratic education is regarding the difference between capacity and capability. Capacity is the ability a single person has to understand information, use it in doing something, and foresee the outcomes of that thing. Because of the ways that each person evolves, the boundaries of an individual’s personal capacity are largely unknown throughout their life and can only be seen on a person-by-person basis. In an important difference, capability is a specific level of skill, knowledge, or ability relative to a task. It is a continuum that is best measured by degrees in order to allow for according, appropriate, and just differentiation between people. In these ways, capacity refers to what could be, while capability refers to what is.
As the natural world around us routinely reflects, young people are not born with the capability to operate in the world around them. However, every child and youth has infinite capacity to live according to their own terms. The dilemma is that well-meaning adults throughout our field seem to mix up these two words, capability and capacity. They assume young people are capable of leading themselves whenever, wherever, and however they want to, without working to intentionally increase the capacity of young people to do this. This is a deep expression of adultism, whereupon adults assume that young people have the same capability as them simply because adults have the capacity to do it. This is an unjust assumption at best.
Alternatives to Adultism
In his novel Turn Coat, Jim Butcher explains, “No one is an unjust villain in his own mind. Even – perhaps even especially – those who are the worst of us. Some of the cruelest tyrants in history were motivated by noble ideals, or made choices that they would call ‘hard but necessary steps’ for the good of their nation. We’re all the hero of our own story.”
I have found this is true of democratic education too, as with much of society’s work with young people in general. The fields of youth development, K-12 education, social services, counseling and therapy, and public health are all littered with heroes like this, people who are unjust villains trying to save the world. I am wholly responsible for this thinking myself, both as a line-level youth worker who held a variety of direct service positions with young people for more than a decade, and as a government administrator and consultant who has worked in all kinds of organizations across the U.S. and internationally focused on children and youth.
Democratic education, in all its myriad forms, can only be be anti-adultist by making young people fully equal partners. This means that in addition to the self-governance over educational operations, all children and youth of any age in any space has full ownership over fundraising, the mission, and higher levels of organizational operation through an equal or greater number of full voting positions on boards of directors for the schools and nonprofits that are practicing democratic education. In many states across the United States, those roles are fully against the law for young people to occupy. I am not saying that is right or fair, but that is the way it is. In other situations where young people can legally hold those positions, in organizations ascribing to the values of democratic education, young people are often thrown into these positions by well-meaning adults without the knowledge and skills (read: capacity) to fully contribute. This justifies adults’ rationale thinking that says young people have nothing of substance to contribute.
In the face of this discrimination, I have found that it is never good to falsely sooth ourselves into believing we’re being anti-adultist. Every adult practices adultism. By confronting the situations and naming what they are, I have found we can successfully challenge them from an informed place of critical awareness instead of a naïve place of self-satisfaction with status quo.
No Alternative to Adultism
From my own position of experience and privilege, I want to propose that there is no alternative to adultism. It is not one of the Big “Ism”s, like the racism, sexism, and classism. Most people define those “isms” as exaggerated beliefs focused on a group or category of people, and while we popularly refer to adultism this way, that’s not the right framework. As any bias towards adults, adultism forms a foundation of our social relationships.
There’s something askew in the thinking that all adultism anywhere ever is inherently wrong, bad, and eeeeevil. Nature habituates hierarchical relationships among many species in order to propel evolution forward. Given the absence of adults in their species, many animals simply die, while others live only to procreate. I will not abandon our young people to their own devices and defenses in the name of personal freedom, if only because I believe that with the rights I enjoy as a human being, there are inherent responsibilities I possess as well. One of them is to raise young people in ways that are just and fair, which is more important than free and unhindered. My adult privilege tells me so, and adultism informs that.
Rather than using adultism incorrectly to describe the discrimination young people face in democratic education, we should use the correct terms to identify why and how this reality is conjured, surfaces, lives, and sustains itself. Words like ephebiphobia, which is the fear of youth; pediaphobia, the fear of children; and adultcentrism, which is the belief that adults are better than young people; these words should be used throughout democratic education, instead of or along with adultism, which should only be used to describe bias towards adults. Paternalism, patriarchy, infantalizing, and even maternalism should be used accordingly, too, as each plays a unique role in democratic learning environments.
The continued usage of adultism without deep examination of its extended parts will actually be detrimental to the growth of democratic education. Using the misunderstood definition or applying it in a blanketed way across all discrimination facing young people reflects a lazy, irrelevant analysis that is inconsistent with the goals of what a lot of well-meaning adults say they want through democratic education practices and organizations.
The concepts we’re looking for, I think, are within grasp. We are on the brink of a social transformation that insists on recognizing the evolving capacities of young people, youth/adult equity and social justice for children and youth. Democratic education can claim youth/adult partnerships as a cornerstone right now, positioning young people in substantive, rich relationships with adults in strategic, intentional, and deliberate ways. Every day, each of us can strive and enact justice with young people in our personal and professional relationships with all young people of every age in all locations we find ourselves.
This naïveté is at the core of democratic education today, and it can be overcome, if we’re willing to learn. Understanding that adultism is deep in our work, but not the only thing worth learning, is essential to this fight. I have found that by directly confronting adultcentrism, paternalism, and ephebiphobia I am compelling society towards becoming more just and fair for young people -and- adults; by fighting adultism, I am merely spinning my wheels.
Are you ready to take up arms against semantics and engage in a real struggle? It is time we address adultism in democratic education.
We are selling students short. Many of the very organizations, programs, and agencies that are engaging student voice are oftentimes blindsiding their targets.
I say we are selling students short because student voice is often inauthentic. Students are incapacitated from participating fully in conversations about schools.
What Makes Student Voice Inauthentic
Little Adults: Pulled from their schools, in order to share student voice, students are expected to talk how adults talk, dress how adults dress, and act like adults act.
Taught their Opinions: Drilled in the importance of a specific issue that adults have determined they need to hear student voice focused on, adults teach students adults’ perspectives only. After that, they ask students to stand up for that issue in the ways adults agree with.
Little or No Room for Dissent. With or without being conscious of it, students whose voices are heard by adults eagerly comply with adults. Those who don’t comply aren’t given room to disagree, and are frequently railroaded out of student voice activities.
No Credit for Participation. Adult educators are often paid for their time to participate in extra-curricular activities. Students receive little or no credit for participating, whether in the form of money or class credit. Students who can’t afford to skip classes or attend at night are excluded from activities.
Working with many situations over the years, I have found these traits and a few others to be relatively consistent, and I believe that ultimately, it is selling students short.
As I share regularly in teacher workshops, professional development seminars, and keynote speeches, Student Voice is any expression of any learner in any place about education. It is NOT only things adults approve of, and is so much more than what generally passes for student voice today.
Students deserve more than opportunities to share student voice. That is why I researched the field and worked with students and adults nationally and internationally to develop my Frameworks for Meaningful Student Involvement. When students become interested in changing schools, we should work our hardest to position them as active partners in transformation, and nothing less than that.
A decade ago, I first that public schools, which are the heart of our democratic society, are by example teaching students nothing about participating in a democracy.
That was at the beginning of the age of No Child Left Behind, or NCLB, the draconian federal school funding law which mandates standardized teaching, learning, and evaluation across the United States. That law continues today relatively unabated by the Obama administration.
Today, more than 12 years after the instillation of NCLB, a revolution is working against the anti-democratic nature of the process of public education. It is completely apt and necessary, and more people are getting on board with it every single day. This revolution has many sides, and the one I’m rallying against today is the demonization of public education brought about by advocates like John Taylor Gatto, who wrote, “When you take the free will out of education, that turns it into schooling.”
This little revolution actually began back in the 1990s, with peak teachers of that era coming from the 1960s and early 70s. They were the last of the “free” teachers, grinding their idealism into their students, who are today’s parents.
Their idealism enabled the parents of students today to see for the first time exactly what schools are doing to their children. Because of this, like never before, we as parents can see our kids pushed out of learning by overly-rigorous, anti-creative, dehumanizing educational practices.
The parents who don’t share that particular analysis or outcomes are leaving simply because it doesn’t seem right for children to experience non-democratic learning in a democratic society.
In turn, adult voters whose children have graduated or who never had children are divesting in public education by routinely voting down public funding levees and electing anti-public education candidates. Students are responding too by dropping out, either physically or mentally, by simply completing school without ever attaching to learning.
At the same time, corporate profiteers have raided public education by jury rigging curriculum and testing to meet standards set by politicians who are owned by corporations who are driven by profits. The extensions of this corporate-political-industrial complex include the school-to-prison pipeline and the American service industry, both of which are reliant on schools to fail.
All of this says little or nothing of students themselves, who are responding en masse. Growing up in routinely racially segregated learning environments with vast inequities according to their race and socio-economic statuses, well-to-do white students from wealthy families are systematically set up to succeed, while their counterpart students of color and low-income white peers are tracked to failure – routinely. With a small proportion of students set up for that success, the vast majority are mired in measures of failure, all the while more enticed by the fruits of a free society than any students in many generations.
“Successful” students experience access, ability, and engagement through modes of technology that have no place within public schools today, while the “unsuccessful” students struggle more against falling in the holes created for them than ever before. I know all of this not only because I have studied it and lived alongside schools during these transitions, but because I have experienced it, first as a student and a brother, then as a state education worker, then as a school consultant, now as a dad.
AND there’s more to the situation than all of that.
The situation is cynically ironic: these places, which are the heart of our democratic society, are teaching young people nothing about democratic living. And yet, they are, and we don’t notice. Its actually what we don’t notice that we’re not advocating for, and without that advocacy we’re loosing democracy right now, if only because corporations want it that way because they stand to make more money from our divestment in public schools and our disinterest in educating in a democracy.
On the whole, we don’t notice that public schools are the bedrock of democratic society: politicians don’t refer to them as such, teachers don’t embrace them that way as a whole, and students don’t learn that without the very presence of a free, universal, and public education our democratic society would cease to exist. We don’t remember what FDR taught when he said, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.” The preparation he spoke of was not specifically teaching young people through democracy; it was simply the practice of education within a democratic society.
On the whole, we don’t recognize that the situation of “democratic” in schooling for a long time was simply defined by those three terms I used above: Democracy meant FREE, as in accessible without cost; UNIVERSAL, meaning that all young people could attend, not just the ones who were selected at will; and PUBLIC, meaning that there was a system of voting by voters which established, ensured, and sustained the free and universal components of schools. That’s the only way that democracy was seen as relevant to public schools for a very long time (both before and after John Dewey, if you’re an education nerd).
By these three criteria, the backlash that educators, education leaders, and politicians are beginning to sense, squelch, and plainly resist is apropos, if only because they thought they were doing their jobs, and rightly so, because they were.
But when that definition of Democracy changed to mean broad personal efficacy, active participation, and systemic transparency, schools simply couldn’t keep up, and its being made more challenging for them to catch up. That isn’t to sound apologetic for schools or the education system, either. The ways they’ve behaved in response to these transformations, including becoming highly autocratic, obfuscating public knowledge, and colluding with corporate interests, are deplorable. They necessitate critiques by people like Sir Ken Robinson, who said, “Our education system is impoverishing our spirits as much as fast food is depleting our bodies.” This is absolutely true and evidenced in the responses of public schools to transformations in the world around them.
In the meantime, technology is leading a cultural transformation which is mandating social transformations which are [going to] drive institutional transformations in the United States and elsewhere. One of the transformations is that public schools must reflect modern conceptions of democracy.
President John F. Kennedy, who constantly reminded Americans to be active in the world around themselves, challenged that, “The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.” The ignorance of people who would work to eliminate public schools on the backs of them not being democratic enough undermines the entirety of this democracy.
So, while we’re tearing at the infrastructure and teachings of the public education system, we should keep the purpose, intent, and ability of schools in mind. We have to remember that Democracy is stronger and more aligned to the cultural transformations we seek than any other system of governance. Schools can, should, and must continue to be the greatest purveyors of that understanding. THAT is what I’m fighting for in schools, and nothing less.
The question of WHY public schools today are so compromised isn’t particularly addressed here, beyond noting that corporations benefit from them. Dewey gave two answers that expand on this. The first was obviously related, “As long as politics is the shadow cast on society by big business, the attenuation of the shadow will not change the substance.”. The second is the premise for all my work: “Every thinker puts some portion of an apparently stable world in peril and no one can wholly predict what will emerge in its place.” Socially, culturally, economically, and morally conservative people work to maintain status quo constantly; Dewey’s contention shows why exactly they fight against the empowerment of young people, and why I fight for it.