The educational value of the community meeting was put into clear relief by A.S. Niell in his book on the Summerhill School; he notes that “whether it worked or not is a subsidiary matter; the valuable part is that children keep trying different ways and means to keep the community together, to keep it social.” He then later observes that “one weekly [community meeting] is of more value than a week’s curriculum of school subject. It is excellent theatre for public speaking, and most of the kids speak well and without self consciousness.” Niell’s observations dovetail with my own experience working in a Just Community school, where the weekly Town Hall gave students powerful feelings of self-efficacy and self-confidence. The ceremony deepened their commitment to the school, and strengthened their connections to the teachers, administrators, and staff. The students felt trusted, valued, and invested. Teachers learned to see students as leaders in the making, and students learned to see teachers as guides, mentors, and support systems.
Niell says that “a school that has no self government should not be called a progressive school.” His observation is as much true now as it was then. For all the talk of autonomy, responsibility, and leadership, so few schools allow students to develop these skills in real situations that bear on the culture and community life of the school. Leadership is reduced to a watered down version of student government (i.e., a “playground democracy”) where students press their rights in some limited way, by coordinating activities, acting as ombudspeople, or managing a limited treasury. But the community rarely comes together as a single, diverse entity to examine issues of justice and fairness, discuss the “hidden curriculum” (i.e, the norms, values, and beliefs conveyed in the classroom and the social environment), and engage in group problem solving. These activities are essential to learning and essential to democracy, but they don’t get much play in schools professing to be progressive.
See, when we use the term progressive, we are referring to a form of learning that empowers students to direct their own learning. We are referring to learning as process of cultivation. We satisfy these goals (which are really ends in themselves) when we resist the temptation to impose our standards of moral judgment on students, and instead allow students to learn from each other. This is a difficult process; I’ve sat through many Town Halls, where younger students would stand up and make sophomoric arguments about the importance, say, of extending the lunch period to permit more free time. Likewise, I’ve heard younger students stand up and proclaim capital punishment necessary because the threat of violence solves all problems. There have been so many times where I wished, as did my colleagues, to put an end to all the clumsiness by correcting things once and for all. But these concerns instantaneously dissolved when one of the juniors and seniors would stand up, and address the shortcomings of a poorly considered idea from one of the younger students. The junior or senior might say; OK, interesting point about extending the lunch period, but think about how this affects teachers, have you considered that some of your peers think we have too much free time? Another student might say, yes, but this is a democracy, and a longer lunch period is what we want, to which another student might say yes, but what about parents? Are they paying for an education, or an extended recess?
During these interactions, the responsibility of the teachers and staff is not to stay silent, but rather, to help pose questions that encourage more reflection, more cognitive dissonance, more grappling with competing values. Any constructive discussion about sophisticated issues requires some degree of scaffolding, so that students can deepen their understanding without feeling disoriented. Here, a teacher’s delicate intuition matters most; recognizing when a discussion might benefit from subtle redirection, deepening, or diversification. Recognizing the developmental nature of moral reasoning means understanding where moral growth can be sustained, enhanced, or extended.
On the topic of capital punishment, a teacher may ask the students to ponder, from an ethical point of view, whether death by lethal injection is any different than death by beheading. If we grant the state the authority to levy the death penalty, why should it matter what form this penalty takes? Here, the students may pause for a moment, frustrated by a new complexity that discomfited their original positions. Suddenly the matter becomes knottier, less conclusive. That is, the matter acquires a richer and deeper aspect, and students see that even the most obvious commands of the law don’t fully address deeper questions of justice, fairness, and morality. And even if students maintain their original positions on a moral dilemma, their perspective broadens, and they become familiar with claims that test and challenge their own views. But at the same time, it would be counterproductive to direct the students to broad and big philosophies right at the moment when they’re grappling with a topic on a more local level. Students need to recognize openings and achieve realizations themselves, gradually expanding the scope of their moral consciousness in ways that seem authentic, real, and self generated.