My friend Melia just wrote a great blog entry about the challenges to democratic education in public schools. Five years ago Melia co-founded a nonprofit in the Bay Area that engages students in apprenticeships to explore professions; it looks like an innovative program, and Melia is a top-shelf young nonprofit exec type. We connected a few weeks ago in Vancouver at the International Democratic Education Conference, where I didn’t get enough time to talk directly with her. Alas, I do have her blog, and her latest project, to respond to.
A little background: democratic education is a powerful ideal that gives students the right to learn in freedom with the responsibility of governing themselves. The idea was originally put to paper at the beginning of the 1900s with John Dewey leading the call for teaching about democracy within the walls of public schools, and A.S. Neill locating democracy within the learning experience. Neill’s school, Summerhill, was founded in 1921 and still continues today. Dewey’s theories about education revolutionized schools and youth programs worldwide, and carried weight into the 1980s, with limited effects continuing still today.
In Melia’s blog she succinctly lays four reasons why “the values and practices of democratic schools” aren’t more prominent in public schools. Her answers are large classes, standardized curriculum and testing, lack of exposure, and lack of practical methods. Unfortunately, if it were as simple as this reasoning I am afraid hundreds of schools across the U.S. have missed the boat, as they have already met the criteria Melia proponents: They have learned practical methods for integrating democratic education throughout their curricula and classrooms; they have been exposed extensively to democratic education; the have broke away from standardized curricula and, while completing standardized tests, have learned how to democratize even those experiences; and have reduced their class sizes. Those schools have been participants in any of a number of programs, each of which have a small percentage of truly democratic learning opportunities, but almost none of which could be called a “democratic school” per Neill’s conceptualization. Coalition of Essential Schools, Big Picture Schools, First Amendment Schools, and my own work through SoundOut and with Youth On Board embody these notions. Unforunately, while many of these programs reach far towards meeting Melia’s challenges, none truly fulfills the objective.
I think there is a much more incidious force at work against the very question of democracy, let alone democracy in schools. Starting with the 1930s charge of George Counts’ Dare the School Build a New Social Order? a few academics have been brave enough to consider the question of why democracy fails in schools today, public or otherwise. (We must remember not to place charter or private schools in a different league, as these are often among the worst proginators of anti-democratic education.) Along with bell hooks, Ira Shor and other critical pedagogues, Henry Giroux has offered a thorough examination of why schools fail democracy, and it goes far beyond Melia’s explanation. I will expand on that in the next blog post.