Why Schools Fail Democracy

Okay, so to continue from the last post, here’s one reason why schools today are not democratic. Remember, this is why, not how.

  • Schools in a capitalistic society are going to be… capitalistic. Working with an elementary school in Tampa, Florida, I learned about the reality of 3rd, 4th 5th and 6th grade teachers having to stuff standardized tests with vomit and blood on them into plastic bags to ship them back to the state education agency. Performance anxiety isn’t isolated to schools; it is what motivates workplace, family, and neighborhood violence everyday. This anxiety is the outcome of a society which places emphasis on production and consumption, rather than process and experience. The resultant situation of “haves” and “have nots” enforcing isolationism, segregation and polarization. In turn, democracy withers on the vine. That means for every single classroom teacher attempting to have classroom elections to support the creation and enforcement of rules, there are 30 others in her building who are conforming to history models.

It is not true that people cannot see beyond horizons that they haven’t traveled to. As human beings we have limitless capacities for imagination and creation, despite the obliterating effects of the hegemony of mind suffered upon us by empirical forces that dominate our lives. That means that the Lost Boys of Sudan can be our heroes, much the same as the students of the Freedom Writers or the Freedom Riders, or the teacher down the hallway who tried “that thing, that time, with those kids.” While this sounds contradictory to what I just wrote, it is not, for to give up hope in the face of this adversity would be to succumb to the very forces which we’re attempting to give up on. However, it does challenge us to get to the core, rather than skimming the surface, of the challenge of democracy in schools.

Which brings me back to my friend Melia’s post in her blog: rather than suffering the regular complaints of liberal educators who’ve been fighting capitalist hegemony with simplistic rhetoric for so many years, I believe the challenge of any educator dedicated to democracy is to move beyond the platitudes of Rethinking Schools and towards the lenses of critical democracy, with its concern for radical democracy throughout society. Only then can we provide an effective critique of modern education and offer effective alternatives to the heinous criminalization of democracy that is going on today.

2 thoughts on “Why Schools Fail Democracy

  1. Hey Adam,

    I’m interested in where you are going with this. I too believe we need to get to the core of the challenge of democracy in schools. There is so much there to consider, and it is essential if we are to create any real headway on bringing democratic education practices into schools.

    I’m curious what you mean by the “simplistic rhetoric” that we need to get beyond, and your view of “critical democracy.”

    I’m especially intrigued by your comment on democracy throughout society, as I have thought for a while now that we cannot think only about schools if we are to radically (as in, “to the root”) change the practice of education and the treatment of young people to being based on human rights, respect, freedom, and participation.

    Framing our educational work in larger terms that speak to the direct connection between education and society is a start, as well as pointing out the lack of our basic societal value, democracy, in our schools and for our young people. A civil and human right issue, no?

    What do you think?

    Thanks for your continually insightful posts…

  2. I think the simplistic rhetoric revolves around the continuing criticisms that are thrown towards schools because of NCLB and standardization. It seems that funding, curriculum, testing, teacher salary and student apathy are the default arguments for anyone who is concerned about education today. There are much deeper reasons for the demise of public schooling particularly, and they are insidious to the core, not the least of which is the orgy of salacious capitalism that has led to the wide-spread mythology of failing schools and failed students.

    Dana, you and I both know that the dilemma of modern society is that its based on exclusion. Exclusions based on race and gender are widely acknowledged. When there are lenses lent to age, they focus on the discrimination faced by older people. Younger people, not so much.

    Critical democracy moves beyond the platitudes of modern democratic government, like voting, representative leadership and whatnot. Instead critical democracy incorporates radical self-reflection, tolerance, power sharing, critical thinking, responsibility for self, social responsibility and connectedness.

    Moving these values towards a central role in an educational experience would require a deliberate re-envisioning of the basics of schooling, either traditional or democratic, as you and I know them.

    Unfortunately there is a plague of gross oversimplification striking the hearts of even the most liberal educators today. We have to move beyond that and into the a deeper analysis. I am afraid that civil and human rights conversations themselves are largely passé, particularly within educational contexts. Unfortunately the groups that do use those arguments, namely the Nat’l Youth Rights Association, aren’t taken seriously. The majority of organizations that proponent youth involvement focus on the benefits to youth themselves, rather than the effect of youth involvement on democratic engagement, civic well-being or the fabric of society as a whole.

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