When I first started working at a Just Community school, I had know idea what the model meant. I knew the school gave students certain voting rights. I knew the students had various opportunities to discuss issues of justice and fairness that arose within the school; I also knew that the school had a constitution, which designated the rights and responsibilities of community members. These were all physical, tangible emblems of democratic education that I could see in action. But the ideas undergirding the Just Community, and its relationship to moral development more broadly, were foreign to me. And to some extent, even now, I’m still familiarizing myself with the philosophy of the Just Community approach. But one thing I knew on my first day, and on my last day, is that the model worked. The students who experienced the Just Community were some of the most reflective, conscientious, democratically minded students I had encountered. But they also emanated warmth, love, and energy; whatever it was that “happened” to them during school, it made them good hearted, caring, morally sensitive, deeply self-confident, and super self-motivated.
The Just Community, first and foremost, is an educational tool (click here for a brief primer on how the model specifically functions). The school is not meant to simulate actual democracy, as a school is not a political system. The Just Community model, instead, is an effort to achieve specific educational goals that are consonant with democratic experience. Though Town Hall is a common feature of small democracies, in a Just Community, Town Hall is an opportunity to engage in public discourse about issues of moral, political, or social consequence. It is an opportunity for students to practice public speaking, exercise rights, assume responsibility, propose solutions, solve problems, reflect on community norms, and debate real issues. Town Hall may result in specific democratic changes, but its ultimate goal is directly related to learning; learning to care about others, learning to exercise moral judgment, learning to assimilate different view points.
The same logic applies to the Fairness Committee, which is designed to mediate fairness through moral deliberation, reflection, and group problem solving. As with Town Hall, the mechanism of mediating disputes is only informally related to rules and rights; the key is addressing even the most serious issues in an ethical manner, and proposing consequences that derive from principles of justice and fairness. It is of course much easier to dispense punishments and consequences through administrative fiat, in the same way that it’s much easier for the school administration to determine policy. But this approach not does create the type of inclusive learning atmosphere that make kids feel like they matter; it treats kids as spectators, subject to a paternalistic authority that “knows best.” And this has damaging long term impacts on their futures.
In a school that espouses genuine self governance, educators (and students) must be able to live with bad decisions. And here is where moral development is essential. If a student’s moral development becomes increasingly sophisticated over time, then we can’t possibly expect a 9th grader to appreciate the notion of a social contract, or the importance placing one’s own self interest, before the needs of others. Moral judgment is not something your simply learn; it develops in relationship to the types of experiences which require you to think ethically, and reflect on your own behavior. This is intuitive enough, but I’ve been in many situations where a teacher or administer mocked a Town Hall decision, or cringed when a student expressed a boorish, selfish point of view in front of the school. In fact I’ve been in this situation myself. It is much easier to correct the answer.
But taking into account the developmental nature of moral reasoning, it’s important for adults to trust that the community–especially older kids with more experience in the Just Community, more familiarity with more advanced ethical norms, more sophisticated conceptions of justice, fairness, and the common good–will eventually correct or address the faulty opinion organically, through argument, rebuttal, counterproposal, etc. It is nurturing this kind of engagement within the student body, that helps kids see their peers as exemplars of the values of the Just Community. It prepares kids to be role models, who embody important principles, and convey the value of those principles to others.