Democratic Education: Form or Function?

Yesterday I had the spectacular opportunity to sit down in State College, Pennsylvania with a group of heroes and allies, old and new, and I want to share a slice of a super wide-ranging conversation that was really exciting to me. Pulling us together was Dana Mitra, an internationally-recognized researcher and professor at Penn State University whose work includes focusing engaging student voice in school reform. She brought along her colleague Stephanie Cayot Serriere, an assistant professor who has an interest in questions of voice among the youngest of students, in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade. Jackie Hook, the Executive Director of an organization called Child Friendly Initiatives in Pennsylvania, joined us. Jackie and I have communicated several times, with her serving as a muse for my blogging more than once. Our conversation was rounded out by Donnan Stoicovy, the principal of Park Forest Elementary School in State College. Her school is a highly-democratized environment, and is a member of the League for Democratic Schools, which is a program of John Goodlad’s Institute for Educational Inquiry.

Between the five of us sitting in a cool tea shop called East West Crossings, the conversation volleyed around a multitude of topics, challenging my grand assumptions and propelling my imagination to spectacular new places. It was exhilerating. One of the many topics we breezed through was the notion of where action should be situated in relationship to conceptualizing democratic education. 
My friend and colleague Dana Bennis of the newly-formed Institute for Democratic Education in America has written about different parts of this conversation in many forms over many years, as have many others. However (as usual), I’m not satisfied with where the conversation is right now. I have found educators frequent rely simply “doing” democratic education without actually teaching democratic education, or moreover, creating democratic environments where young people learn democracy as a behavior of mind as well as a function of the body.
This brings the subject of this entry: Should democratic education focus on function or form? The form of democratic education includes the activities and processes used to teach students democratic habits such as voting, dialog and “voting with your feet.” The function of democratic education answers the questions: Why should democracy exist? Where should democracy exist? Who should democracy benefit? How does democracy detract? What is great about democracy? What fails democracy? But it does more than that, too: the function of democracy education in a democratic society is not to merely examine democracy; rather, the function is to enable individual actors within that society to challenge, critique, recreate and rexamine democracy and the functions of democracy, which beyond voting or protesting include schooling, policing, media, religion or the absence therein, and so forth.
I believe that students should be engaged in these larger pursuits focused on the utopian vision of democracy from the first days they enter schools, and from my conversation in State College I take hope that this is happening, even with some frequency, in more corners of this country than I know about. I’ve explored this idea frequently, and if you’ve read my blog before you might be familiar with  some of my many reflections.
Let’s think about and engage in a conversation about the form or function or utopian idealism of democracy, democratic education and beyond.

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