I recently had dinner with a good friend who, after listening to me champion the virtues of democratic education, called it ridiculous and unserious. He didn’t use those words exactly, but he was quick to check my enthusiasm for a model of education that empowers and entitles students any more than they are already. This opinion is easily justified, and difficult to discount. Because regardless of whether a school adopts a democratic model like the Just Community, the students (and their parents) already have a certain degree of leverage over teaching and programming in a private school setting. This leverage is not direct; it derives from the tuition families pay, which mostly subsidizes teacher salaries, and the prevailing attitude among teachers that their authority is already heavily circumscribed by the emphasis on student centered learning, and a self perception that they exist as service providers.
There is a lot to unpack here. First, it’s absolutely true that the economics of private school education don’t correspond with democratic principles (democracy and capitalism always form an uneasy relationship). Like the political system, private schools resemble oligarchies more than democracies. Here is the caricature; there are full pay families, financial aid families, and families that exist somewhere in between. A board of trustees is responsible for financial governance; how they allocate the most important resources is not up for public discussion or popular vote. And because private schools must always fundraise, they inevitably make decisions that are expedient and market driven; in many (but not all) cases, they give admissions preferences to children of wealthy families, spend more money on gala dinners for donors than professional development for teachers, invest in superficial technologies that create the appearance of innovation, and treat the most frivolous complaint about teaching, as cause for immediate intervention and review. How, then, can we expect teachers to get behind democracy in schools, when real equity is a pipe dream?
Yet this is the way the system is. There are so few examples of pure democracy; most efforts to invest power in the people, must do so in the face of huge disparities in wealth, income, and access. The choice is whether you abandon democratic values because the system is rigged, or you keep pressing democratic ideas to make an entrenched system more open, transparent, and accountable. I think the only pragmatic choice is the latter. We live in the actual world, not a theoretical one. We use high principles to inform our behavior, but we act within our powers, pursuing incremental reform, achieving progress where we can, not abandoning confidence in the possibility of change. And we don’t hold structural problems against young learners, because it’s precisely our belief in their potential that makes education such a fulfilling enterprise. We are here to open their minds, not punish them for privileges they haven’t chosen, adopted, or maybe even considered.
But more importantly, we need democracy in school because it’s good for learning. We want students to think for themselves; we want them to develop as community persons; we want them to act morally; we want them to embrace complexity; we want them to care for each other; we want them to learn by doing; we want them to appreciate diversity; we want them to exercise leadership; we want them to exercise responsibility. We want them to develop into self reliant learners, who develop their capacities free from constraint. These goals remain true even if we’re overtaken by a zombie apocalypse, or Trump wins the Presidency.
It’s also important to note that when we say we empower kids, this does not mean literally giving them more power. In a Just Community school, a teacher doesn’t relinquish all authority, giving students the license and discretion to do anything they please. Nor does a teacher use their authority to impose mindless discipline. Instead, a teacher should embody the principles of both justice and caring, thereby extending the philosophy of the school into the classroom. In practice, this means that a teacher maintains authority for the general structure of the class, while opening those structures to examination, review, and change. Where class policies seem unacceptable on a spectrum of fairness, the students may discuss and vote on the possibility of a more reasonable and inclusive policy. As always, the discourse is less about policies and rules, and more about creating shared understanding that reflect the broader norms of the school community. The teacher nurtures a philosophical dialogue with students based on the principle of reciprocity, where all interests are represented and dignified, so long as the interests are grounded in reasons and and values.
In my experience, once there is justice, trust, and caring in the classroom, then there are very few conflicts that can’t be resolved through reflection and discussion. Once the moral culture of the classroom has been established, policies and rules are moot. The quasi legalistic framing of expectations serves only a symbolic purpose when an authentic, internalized, and uncoerced commitment to vales and norms already exists. The symbolic purpose of expectations is not to be discounted; the democratic culture of a school hinges on specified rights and responsibilities that the community publicly and officially affirms. But recall, the goal of a Just Community is to perpetuate a certain kind of learning environment, one tied to moral development and democratic participation as educational values. The political value of democratic education, embodied in a Just Community model, should certainly develop certain political competencies, but these competencies (learning about self-government, elections, law making, legislation, etc.) are not its ultimate end goals, in the same way that the ultimate goal of a History class is not the content delivered, but the understanding developed. And the emphasis is always on that process; on the “slow growth of powers,” to quote Dewey.
It is also important to note that democratic content on its own, as well as the contents of moral education, have no value if they are not applied and practiced. Let us take Kohlberg for a moment. Kohlberg viewed the first stage of moral reasoning as pre-conventional; the child acts according to rewards and punishments. As the child matures into adolescence, he develops conventional morality, embodied in a respect for authority, and a commitment to social conventions. What follows is a final and post conventional stage of moral reasoning; as a young adult, the moral agent grounds his or her behavior in universal values, rather than rigid edicts. It is this final level that corresponds with Kant’s categorical imperative, where every action is an end in itself, every human possesses a fundamental dignity, and all behavior is grounded in a pure form of justice.
But there’s nothing about moral development we can take for granted. If virtue was simply the product age, experience, and education, then corrupt politicians would embody the moral and democratic ideals they apparently know so much about.
What is important is actually exercising and testing ethical judgment throughout your education, so that behavior and action are increasingly linked to values like justice, fairness, and caring. When these qualities form the basis of our public discourse, we benefit socially, intellectually and democratically. Our thinking becomes more flexible, and our understanding expands, as we interact with new ideas, and subject our own beliefs to respectful scrutiny. We learn that engaging with our disagreements, even when we don’t get what we want, leads to progress and solidarity. We also come to see ideology and tribalism as harmful to the social fabric, because these tendencies lead to compliance, and a surrendering of critical thought.
Where but the school can students learn these essential democratic and moral competencies? Where better than a setting dedicated to learning from experience, and a community commited to caring?
It is important to note, where school is concerned, that a spirited public discourse must take place within a specific learning context. There is not much value in simply complaining about authority, or criticizing the establishment. Anybody can do that.
What is needed is responsible debate, where students freely express their positions, while listening respectfully and civilly to opposing views. Students frame their contributions in terms of reasons, and where possible, values and principles. The discussion is moderated in such a way that a plurality of view points are represented, and conflicts are resolved through compromise. Where the discussion involves issues relating to school policy, the moderator may invoke the methods of parliamentary procedure. In this way, the community partakes directly in the robust interaction of big ideas, rather than clashes of personality and exercises in brinksmanship.
Of course, this can be a messy process. It is much easier for a teacher to assume the traditional role as the authority figure, armed with the knowledge, expertise, and know how to address complex challenges and community concerns. Here we can be sure of the outcome, because the teacher knows it in advance. But democratic education is not a matter of obeying or complying because a teacher says so; it’s a process of learning responsibility and leadership by practicing responsibility and leadership. Public discourse in a democratic school–a Just Community school–is fundamentally experimental, in the same way that democracy it. At all times, “we have to wager our salvation upon some prohesy based on imperfect knowledge,” to quote Holmes.
It is a system based on trust; we give students the tools and resources to think through problems, knowing that the long term benefits (increased self confidence, greater feelings of social belonging, commitment to the common good) outweigh the short term costs (inefficient decision making, endless deliberation, etc.). What matters is the process, even if that process produces the “the things we fear most…fluctuations, disturbances, and imbalances,” as those are “the primary sources of creativity.”