Democracy in Schools — The Need for a Larger Strategy

In my weekly conversation with Deborah Meier on Education Week, Meier asked last time, "At what point does one go from flawed democracy to one not at all?"

Meier is raising questions of larger strategy. If we understand democracy to include not only governance structures but also empowering cultures, the question is, How does such culture develop?

As I learned in the freedom movement as a young man (the "civil rights" movement) it's a mistake to make overly sharp contrasts between "democratic" and "undemocratic" communities, just as it's mistaken to contrast "good" and "bad" people. It's more or less, not either-or.

All communities have elements that "make for democratic action" and elements that "oppose democratic action," as the community organizer Saul Alinsky put it. In community organizing, the first job of an organizer when entering a community is not to identify what she or he thinks is wrong with it, but rather to get to know that community and its values, histories, power dynamics, conflicts, and leaders. Democratic capacities are developed from the inside out.

Beginning where a community is, not where one would like it to be, and developing democratic capacities, civic agency, is the strategy of "organizing." It contrasts with both mobilizing and also a human rights stance. Mobilizing, rallying people against injustices, often overlooks developing democratic capacities. Human rights, articulating ideals of equality and dignity and seeking protection usually through the courts, often is advanced as an alternative to popular agency. Both mobilizing and human rights play important roles in democracy. But the question needs insistently to be asked: How do they build civic agency?

In this vein, Martin Luther King assigned me to organize in poor white communities, though he knew full well that they included KKK members, a story told on the Civil Rights Movement Veterans website. We had some success, beginning in a white mill village in East Durham, N.C., as I've mentioned. I don't want to exaggerate. We also had many challenges and made mistakes, but we also saw changes and new interracial relationships.

My other point: it's important to think about building democracy schools in historical context.

I didn't know this at the time of King's assignment but later discovered that he and others were thinking about the movement's "next stage," which they believed needed to involve alliances between blacks and white working people.

Bayard Rustin, a political mentor of Dr. King, had argued for such alliance-building since the 1940s. By the mid-1960s he was making this argument with urgency. The battle against legal segregation was largely won. He saw the movement's next stage as much more difficult, tackling many-sided, complex problems, "wicked problems," such as chronic unemployment, failing schools, lousy housing, drugs, and antagonistic relations with police. All are still with us. The strategy Rustin proposed is still relevant.

In his 1965 essay "From Protest to Politics" Bayard Rustin proposed three elements. The first was electoral coalitions to win over middle America. Robert Kennedy's presidential bid in 1968 was in this vein, successfully appealing to white blue collar voters who had earlier backed the segregationist George Wallace. Cross-racial community organizing of the kind I was doing was the second. Here and there across the country, it was proving highly successful, but it never went to full scale. Institutional transformation, including transformation of schools, was the third. Deborah Meier helped show the way in this through the schools she founded in New York and Boston, which is why I see her work as so exemplary, but most neglected this approach entirely.

Rustin contrasted this, what could be called a sober democratization strategy, with the purist tone he saw among many young activists and white professionals, whom he called "moralists." Moralists looked at white working people with condescension and prejudice, seeing them as the enemy. This continues to be a problem. Today in education, a focus on consciousness-raising about injustices continues to substitute for the citizen politics which Rustin advanced.

Rustin, King, and others anticipated what would occur if alliance-building did not happen on a large scale: elites would drive a wedge between blacks and white working people. Divide-and-conquer was central to Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy" in 1968 and 1972. It reached new levels with Donald Trump. This is our context and our challenge.

"Trumpism" is much bigger than Donald Trump. Bill Doherty, a family therapist and pioneer in the movement called citizen professionalism, observes that Trumpism includes scapegoating groups; degrading rivals; and promoting the cult of the strong man. The cult of the strong man appeals to resentments, scorns reasoned discussion, champions narrow nationalism over respect for other societies, incites violence, and calls for people to trust in the great leader. Whether it is resurgent fascism or something new is beside the point. Trumpism is profoundly dangerous. It threatens existing elements of democracy, like protection of human rights. It threatens future democratic possibilities. It is emerging not only in the US but also around the world.

Bayard Rustin, like many around Martin Luther King, was shaped by the 1930s, in a time with parallels to our time, when the world faced rising dangers of totalitarianism. In response people created an international movement against fascism which not only defended democracy but also deepened democracy, showing connections between many issues. Rustin brought this perspective to the sixties.

The international movement was a seedbed for unions, cooperatives, culture change, anti-racist struggles, and organizing in and around education. It birthed successful anti-colonial movements. Overall it built civic agency on an immense scale, even with all its contradictions (like the manipulations of the self-proclaimed communist "vanguard").

Today, again, we need to develop something parallel.

Building democracy in schools is inextricably connected to building democracy everywhere.

Elections and Assessments — A Citizens’ View

In our "Bridging Differences" conversation on Education Week, Deborah Meier raised the role of "structures" in a democratic way of life in her last blog. She brings to mind my discussions with students at Lonestar Community College in Houston last week. They wondered how to think about the elections. Some had a candidate they were passionate about - Sanders, Clinton, Trump, or Cruz -- and thought if their candidate didn't win they would withdraw from "politics," which they saw as elections.

I described what I learned in the freedom movement in 1964 from Oliver Harvey, the janitor at Duke who was organizing a union. I couldn't vote yet, but I proclaimed there was "no difference" between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater, with all the zeal and naivety of an 18-year-old. "Johnson won't desegregate the south!" I said.

Harvey replied, "That's ridiculous. Of course he won't - that's what we're doing in the movement. But who wins makes a large difference for the environment in which we're organizing." He went on to detail national discussions and media coverage, legislative possibilities, federal agency practices, protection of civil rights workers. I learned a lesson - structure (including elections) doesn't substitute for agency, but it's crucial to the larger task, which I would call a democratic awakening. This will require organizing coalitions across partisan divides -- Sanders and Trump supporters, for instance.

We need to avoid a repeat of Richard Nixon's successful "Southern Strategy," which divided working people by race for a generation. We've found in our Public Achievement work at Lonestar and elsewhere that education can be a rare meeting ground across partisan and other differences, in our highly fragmented society. You raise another way in which democracy in the schools organizing can contribute to democratic awakening. Changing the categories of "assessment," in our bureaucratic, technocratic age, is a crucial task. I like your idea of developing a way to assess democracy schools that incorporates both agency and "formal democracy."

Formal democracy seems a lot like a "constitution," the way a community is constituted. There are many connections between agency and constitution, formal or informal. For instance, how much the constitution of a community -- any community, including a school -- is seen to issue from "the people" makes a large difference in terms of ownership.

"We the People," the opening words of the Constitution, are a brilliant moment in US history. The people were declared the authors of constitutional order, not kings or aristocrats or other elites. More, the widespread engagement of people in debates about the constitution (the Federalists versus Anti-federalists, and then the Bill of Rights) deepened the sense of popular ownership, against anti-democratic trends (elites, for instance, sought to change "the people" to "the voters" early on, as the late political theorist Sheldon Wolin showed in his essay, "State of the Union" in the New York Review of Books. "Voters" are a lot easier to control than "the people").

This connection underlines the importance of keeping constitutional orders alive, regularly revisited. For instance, if Hillary Clinton is elected, we should work for campaign finance reform -- a change in the constitutional order.

Assessing schools' cultures for how they nourish civic agency is different than individual democratic habits, though they are related. And assessment of agentic cultures is tough to get at. In contrast, assessing structures by various quantitative measures is commonplace.

Assessing school cultures for civic agency is largely unknown in the higher education scene. The most widely used assessment tools, the VALUE rubrics of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), have advanced the adoption of what AAC&U calls "high impact practices" such as service learning and deliberation. As the civic engagement rubric title ("Civic Engagement, Local and Global") suggests, the rubrics emphasize "local" and "global," with no attention to students' contributions to building a democratic society. The value rubrics neglect democratic habits generally and civic agency specifically. In fact democracy is not mentioned.

But there are signs of an alternative way to think about this. Margaret Finders, chair of the education department at Augsburg College and Catherine Bishop, Augsburg director of student success, recently called for new attention to concepts and practices of civic agency at an AAC&U conference on assessment. They used the description of Adam Weinberg, President of Denison University, one of several universities which have begun to emphasize civic agency. "Beneath every facet of this work [at Denison] is a focus on instilling within students notions of civic agency--the ability of people to act together on common problems across differences--while also giving faculty, staff, and local residents more opportunities to work in their communities."

Here are a few of the contrasts Bishop and Finders propose to get the conversation started:

Traditional assessments Democratic assessments
Emphasis on independent work Emphasis on acting together
Defined by disciplinary boundaries Interwoven knowledge
Emphasis on written work Performative practices

They argue that "competitive metrics and dominant conceptual frameworks stress individual and competitive excellence, 'knowledge acquisition,' and preparation for narrowly acquisitive and individual achievement-oriented careers." They ask instead, "How might we look at academic excellence through a democracy lens to move toward development of capacities for public work and civic agency? This is not a question of disadvantaged versus 'mainstream' students. We need new approaches to assessment to prepare all students for civic leadership in the rapidly changing world."

This isn't a finished process or product, but it is a good beginning.

Conversations on Democracy — The John Dewey Society and Civic Studies

In our weekly conversation, Bridging Differences, on Education Week, Deborah Meier and I have been discussing and debating democracy and education. The issues emerged at the John Dewey Society conference in Washington earlier in April, where we both participated.

Leonard Waks, the JDS president who presided over the 100th anniversary of Dewey's classic Democracy and Education and edited the special issue of Educational Theory on the book and its impact, wrote to me that he sees our conversations as on the "cutting edge" of issues about democracy and education.

"Dewey says that the most important element of elections is that they encourage a richer communicative exchange among diverse groups," Len said, identifying Meier with the Dewey community. Len adds, "But Dewey does not have much to say about how that broadening and deepening of community is to be directly channeled into collective action, so the civic studies folk have much to contribute."

Len Waks wants to have "deep exploration of the issues" between Civic Studies and the Dewey community. I agree that this could be highly generative.

So here let me further develop the "Civic Studies" side (or at least the public work strand -- Civic Studies may be more diverse than the Dewey community). I call this strand the politics of co-creative agency.

Power, in its root meaning, does not mean "who decides what." The Spanish form, poder, gives a more accurate rendering. It means to be able, or can. Put differently, power is the capacity to act. I agree with Deb Meier that formal decision making structures are part of the picture. But the skills, capacities, and ways of thinking -- including what she calls "trust in one's own judgement in the face of authority" -- which generate such capacity are not "indirect" power, as she proposes in her last blog, "The Roles of Direct Versus Indirect Power in School Communities." That's like calling flesh and blood secondary in the body, while the skeleton is the "real thing."

I live part of the year in South Africa. My wife, Marie-Louise Ström, was a democracy educator across Africa for two decades. We often worked together in South Africa. South Africa is usually described as having "achieved democracy" in 1994 with the famous election that ended apartheid and elected Nelson Mandela.

The new government put in place all sorts of new participatory decision making structures, in local government, schools and the police. These have turned out to be hollow without independent centers of citizen power, people's power, where people develop skills, habits, confidence, and concepts of civic agency.

I've seen again and again how energized and hopeful people become when they come to see that they can actually make change and that democracy is an empowering way of life, not simply elections. They realize they don't have to wait for elected officials, or participate in formal structures to make change. A civic agency/public work approach reframes the 1994 election as a milestone but not achievement of "democracy." I've also seen how much the African National Congress claims to represent "democracy" because they have been elected.

In fact, Africa has rich, ancient traditions of what we call public work -- self-organized communal labors. These are crucial foundations for a democratic way of life that existed long before Europeans brought the term to the continent. But language makes a difference. Some post-colonial governments have taken them over -- arguing that formal elections are the substance of democracy.

Elites mobilize people on collective labor days, drawing on the language of tradition (as you point out, authoritarian regimes have their own version of collective labors), but changing the meaning. They displace agency into "elections."

For instance, one of Marie's long time colleagues in the Institute for Democracy in South Africa, Jacqueline Nzisabira, describes how, in her native Burundi, communal labors, known as ibikorwa rusangi, underwent radical change after independence. "When I was growing up collective work was used to cultivate land in Burundi," Nzisabira describes. "Such labors empowered people and created a stronger sense of community." In recent years, she observes, "There has been a tendency for the government to control the process. The work shifts meaning when it is state-directed, rather than coming from the community."

In "Constructive Politics as Public Work" (Political Theory 2011), I contrast many such examples of self-organizing collective labors which cultivate civic agency, with collective labors controlled by outside elites.

So I agree with Deborah Meier that decision making is an element of democracy, but the way decisions are made is only one piece. It can't be called "real" democracy. We need to emphasize people power, capacities for collective action.

There are many strategic implications, and I look forward to the discussions of these questions among Dewey and Civic Studies communities, and beyond.