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The Difficulties of Practicing Democracy

Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Harry Boyte. To read their full exchange, please visit here.

Dear Harry and friends,

It is interesting trying to define democracy. You and I have each taken a different route into it but it's still not complete even if you put ours both together. Self-governance suggests our individual capacity to act upon the world, and self-governance also suggests our collective, communal capacity to do so. These are connected, but not identical for example.

It's easier to recognize what it looks like when democracy is absent than to describe any particular recipe for what it looks like in practice. So, it's hardly surprising that it takes hard and never ending practice to stay in the ballpark, much less the ideal. And since, as I mentioned last week, there are inevitable trade-offs, one has to keep shifting and fiddling depending on the particular context. What needs to be emphasized, especially because of the times we live in, is that democracy is not so ingrained that we can ever afford to take it for granted. The same issues arise within one's family, classroom, school, community, nation and world—authoritarian solutions always seem, when under stress, the easier answers. Unwritten rules and norms need continual reinterpretation. Not just by some Supreme Court but by parents, teachers and neighbors. The same means don't always enhance democratic ends.

Yes, democracy requires compromises. But more important is the fact that it's hard to practice. Period. And that's not meant as a criticism.

For example, democracy requires in its fullest form that all members are roughly speaking equals in terms of power, knowledge and leisure. That's why it seemed quite fitting for the ancient Greek ruling class to presume that only members of the leisure class should be members of the body politic. It would be foolish to expect a slave or a woman to help make decisions because he/she was the property and totally dependent upon another, and without the freedom, knowledge and leisure to contemplate matters of import. It's a very new idea—at least in mainstream societies—that everyone should be included. In fact it was not until the 1960s—two hundred years after the Constitution was first written—that we even pretended that by law everyone was a member. And later still expanded to include 18-21 year olds.

It's the dilemma that motivated John Dewey as philosopher and educator: what kind of apprenticeship does every single potential citizen need to be an equal member of the ruling class? No one questioned that until recently the education offered to the children of rulers was different than the one offered "others." At the very least the number of years of schooling differed, and very often the ruler's children were separated out at a relatively young age and offered a different curriculum and pedagogy.

There are host of nations that have copied one form or another of what passes for democracy: voting, parliamentary procedures, legislatures, a court system of judges and juries, and something like a president, all of whom who are re-elected on some regular schedule. But, of course, some of these we probably would all agree are fake. As my friend the late Irving Howe used to put it: you know it's not a democracy if you can't get hold of the opposition through normal channels—like the phone book. But equally, there are small communities of people who operate democratically that have none of the procedures described above.

But, learning what those are cannot be resolved by a good lesson plan, or a perfect Constitution. And only by trying to practice it—transparently—do we begin to own our own definition, to imagine what it might be, if... Even this mind-set—"what if and supposing that?"—is not one of the habits thy K-12 education stresses. Opportunities to freely imagine, to play with different alternative "worlds" is part of what the young need if they are not to lose that essential human capacity for learning through experience and through imagining it could be otherwise: having a sense of choice balanced by accountability for one's actions.

Every community needs to be a participant observer in some such community—and our public schools are the ideal institution for safely trying it out. If not there, where do we expect to hone the democratic dispositions we are not necessarily born to—but must learn in the midst of imperfect life itself?


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