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Community vs. Democracy


Dear Diane,

We’re agreed about Summerhill, sort of... But I’m also attracted to it, and delighted by those children engrossed in their hammering. Incidentally, the kids turned out well. It appeals to the anarchist/libertarian in me. But then I’m also a democratic socialist, a liberal, a traditionalist and a communitarian!

These labels describe people who I hope can all live forever together on the same planet without doing each other too much harm. Somehow they live together in me, so, perhaps.

If we start another war in Iran, my hopes may have to be postponed a few centuries. I’m not confident that democracy will protect us from such a catastrophe. (This comes after reading Seymour Hersh’s gloomy and tightly reasoned piece in The New Yorker. ”Preparing the Battlefield”, July 7) Then I read Elizabeth Kolbert in the same New Yorker on “The Island in the Wind" about the devastating impact of climate change and energy misuse. For that, we need a kind of communitarianism—a worldwide concern for our shared future as a species—that seems even harder to hope for. It involves the task of persuading Americans (since we use nearly half the world’s energy) as an essential starting point. Unlikely.

It turns out, says Kolbert, that the science for doing “the right thing” exists. The knowledge base exists. And it wouldn’t require going back to cave-man status! She describes an island off Denmark, Samsø , that decided--”for fun”—to take on the challenge of living a “2,000-Watt” life. What can we learn from that small homogeneous little island? Perhaps only that in a democracy a willing public can do wonders!**

Reading about the summit of corporate experts meeting in Sun Valley this week, to decide education’s future (see NYC Education News) raises an interesting question about public discourse on public matters. What these folks have in common is almost no knowledge of the subject they are discussing. This may in retrospect have something to do with what happened to America’s productive life. For a generation or more we’ve been led by financial wizards, not folks steeped in a lore of making automobiles. Or schools. And a public that doesn’t take its own judgment seriously.

Since time is limited not everything can be learned that deserves to be learned. But knowing when and how to use people who do know something is wise. What would we need to learn before we’re 18 just to preserve democracy and the planet? What can we do without? What can we afford to side-line for the next half century—or maybe just until we become adults? It’s not an easy mind-exercise. Because we need people with the desire and sufficient trust to accept the claims of experts, those scientists and economists Kolbert quotes. One also needs people with a strong sense of life’s potential in order to work hard to protect it. For the Samsø ians, to quote one farmer, “it became a kind of sport.”

I think about my kindergarten class, Central Park East and Mission Hill and wonder, did we create the kind of communities that satisfied both the anarchist and the communitarian? Did we provide a glimpse of what it might mean to preserve individual freedom while also giving up some for the larger community? To be a solo mountain-climber and a community builder?? Did we teach the skepticism needed to recognize a sham crisis and the trust to acknowledge a real one?

What are the nuts and bolts of such an undertaking? What skills and crafts would need to be learned, what knowledge stored away, what habits internalized, what moral and ethical underpinnings lived by? In just 6 hours a day for 180 days a year. Daunting.

When I began teaching 5-year-olds in the mid-60s, I took to it, in part, because I abandoned the idea of remaking the whole world. I “settled” on the notion that each day was a day unto itself. I encountered each child and family with the simple notion--do no harm, and hopefully add a bit of “good”. In the process I discovered some things that could be shared with others. So from Day One, I wrote a lot about what I was learning. Also, it fit in well with raising children. With a loss like you experienced at just that stage in life, I don’t know what I’d have done. No one can ever imagine such a tragedy’s impact fully.

“Doing good day by day” sounds icky. I’m uncomfortable comparing schools to families, but they do share this in common. It was enough to keep me at it for more than 40 years. Yet I am also an impatient revolutionary—and faced with what needs to happen in the next few generations I wonder how we can use “education”—not just schooling—for the whole planet’s benefit? How can “remaking” some of our habits seem a task worth shouldering with all our hearts and minds? And what kind of schools would foster such needed habits? What can teachers uniquely add to this discourse vs. the CEOs who want to avoid responsibility for there role in America’s failing economy? (Maybe we need an “educators for economic reform”?)

As you can see—I’m still in the thrall of Kolbert’s words: “Just about everywhere there are possibilities for generating energy more inventively and using it more intelligently… We may decide not to make this effort.” But if we decide to make it, what role could schooling play?

Meanwhile, oops, I should turn off the lights in my bedroom!


** It’s fascinating to reread Freeman Dyson’s “The Question of Global Warming”, June 12, NY Review of Books, for a contrary view of the global warming “crisis.” Dyson is leery of the politics of “crisis” even in the case of global warming.



I stayed away from all of the Summerhill postings out of a profound sense of fence-sitting, which you today have help me to put into perspective. I think it is possible to learn from a Summerhill experience (and I confess, I have never read the book and have only a general sense of what it is all about), as well as others that might appear to be in conflict, without actually committing to either camp as a life philosophy.

I spent a couple of decades of my life working for a community agency that was guided by a profound commitment to philosophy and mission. I don't think that there was a single decision (from staff assignments to building materials) that could not be examined for its adherence to our philosophy and how it advanced the mission of the agency. It is probably true that as a group we were more liberal than conservative, yet we were able to accommodate conservatives in our midst, and their viewpoints.

This idea of Mission/Vision/Philosophy has gotten some play in modern management--and probably most schools and school reform efforts. Like many great ideas when brought to scale, few actually believe or follow. But I will wager that most districts and schools--particularly those who are undergoing some attempt at reform--have gone through an excercise of creating these documents, and given time can find which drawer they were put into.

I would also suggest that most, if they dared to take it out of the drawer might actually find guidance in even the simplest and hokiest of these statements [maybe a few of those that were written with a deep mistrust that someone would someday expect that they be acted on or measured might have to be recast so that they actually make a statement of some kind], if they were used as a daily barometer for decision-making. I think that the problem is less one of being able to agree on a few big ideas and more one of being able to use that agreement to guide our action.

The folks at Summerhill were certainly able to take a set of beliefs and "operationalize" them, by applying them widely across their decision-making process. This is a great take-away (as is their deep trust in the innate attraction to learning). I am intrigued by your Danish islanders, and suspect that they have done something similar--in committing to a set of ideas, and then acting on them.

This is not a sense that I get from much of American education today--whether at the building, district or global levels. If there is any single unifying belief, it may be some profound adherence to individualism in its least socially responsible sense (mountain climbers with disdain for community building)--the sort of "let me just close the door and teach," sort of thinking (which overlooks any knowledge or responsibility for the closed door across the hall, or the hallway in between).

As a parent, I have grown increasingly likely to raise questions not only about how my child is doing, but also how this fits into the overall progress of the school. This grows out of a firm belief that my child cannot do well until all of the children are doing well. I realize that this puts me at odds with some parents, but even more so with educators. I cannot tell you how many versions of "mind your own business," I have heard, from "this is not the place to have that discussion," to "I'm not comfortable talking about that," to "I can't talk to you about that."

Even "doing good every day," if espoused seriously by a group of educators couldn't help but guide improvement if taken seriously as a guide for action.


You write: "What are the nuts and bolts of such an undertaking? What skills and crafts would need to be learned, what knowledge stored away, what habits internalized, what moral and ethical underpinnings lived by?"

And I answer with another question: To what degree should we be asking this question moment by moment, and to what degree should we make lasting decisions on the matter? We need a combination of both, but what kind of combination?

I just finished reading The Power of Their Ideas and What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? The juxtaposition is fascinating and enlightening. Both books are curiously moving. This could turn into a long essay, so I will touch on a few points.

You write (on p. 41 and elsewhere) of the five habits of the mind: concern for evidence, viewpoint, cause and effect, hypothesizing, and relevance. William Torrey Harris wrote of the "five windows of the soul": arithmetic, geography, history, grammar, and literature. I believe the five habits and the five windows are essential to education. And I believe that knowledge has a soulful quality: it connects mind with matter, it shows the relations of things, and it keeps our conscience alive, as we see what we do and don't know.

You write of the importance of respect in schools: of creating a genuine community that makes room for celebration and mourning (p. 113). The chapter on respect is beautiful and troubling to me, because I have been in environments that were less than respectful. You give the telling example of the principal yelling at the students (in their teacher's presence) for crossing the line in the hallway. I agree with you wholeheartedly that "schools must create a passion for learning not only among children but also among their teachers."

Now, when it comes to your argument for small schools, I start to disagree. Yes, I see the benefit of an intimate community, where many decisions are in the hands of its members. Yet I also see beauty in excellent large schools: take Murrow, for example. And I am not sure that schools necessarily benefit from making all of their own decisions.

You set up an opposition or dichotomy between an authoritarian and a respectful model of school governance. On page 35, you write: "Without a radical departure from a more authoritarian model, one strips the key parties of the respect that lies at the heart of democratic practice and good schooling." I think we have to be a little more specific. We all dislike the "top-down mandate"--but what kind do we dislike, and why? I dislike mandates from people who don't know much about the subjects we teach and who don't appreciate education. By contrast, I appreciate recommendations from people who are immersed in history, literature, and other subjects; who know more than I do; and who have put together excellent curricula. I will still approach it with a questioning and lively spirit; but I cannot reject something that is excellent just because it comes from "above" or "beyond."

Is democracy the act of self-government, or is it the act of making intelligent choices of representatives, and evaluating their actions? Or both? If it has even some of the latter, then it makes sense to adopt a curriculum that someone else has written, provided it does not dictate everything we do; provided we have room to supplement it and offer suggestions; and provided that it is subject to review, discussion, and change over time.

I have many more thoughts, but will turn now to What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? by Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn. The authors make no bones about the limitations of the test that they administered, yet there is much of interest to be found in the results, analysis, and recommendations.

I like that for each of the questions, there was only one correct answer. The student was not forced to choose between two possible answers, as so often happens on multiple-choice tests. Also, the authors present a compelling case for the option "I don't know," which was not included on the test.
(More about "I don't know" later.)

It is disturbing that so few of the test-takers could identify the Renaissance (39.3 percent), Reformation (29.8 percent), or Magna Carta (30.6 percent). It is upsetting thatonly 38.5 percent knew about Prometheus' punishment, and 39 percent of Antigone's defiance (and how many of these were guessing)? But there is much more here than bad news.

One of the most interesting details for me came up in the analysis. There is a discussion on p. 139-142 of top-quartile students whose parents did not go to college. Two-fifths of them were not even in academic programs. How did they do so well? They seem to have studied more history--and it's also possible, according to the authors, that many gifted students have been placed on general ed or vocational tracks.

The recommendations seem to have a lot in common with some of the principles of The Power of Their Ideas. You write, on page 161, "The goal is educating, and that means knowing what we're educating for. (Yes!) Ravitch and Finn write, on page 205, "Facts are very important, but they must be used judiciously, so that students are able to understand what happened in the past and why they should learn about it. The basic facts of history are meaningless unless they illuminate a significant story."

I have many more thoughts about both books, but will stop here. I might write at greater length about it on my blog. It seems to come down to the questions: to what extent is democracy self-government, and to what extent is it representative government? How can we foster both a local school community and a national culture? How can we bring history and literature into children's lives, in a meaningful and lasting way?

Now back to the soulful aspect of knowledge: I see so much that I need to learn, of history, literature, and more. I see it more clearly when I read about specific historical events and works of literature. I want never to pretend to know more than I do, or to shy away from saying "I don't know." It is when I say "I don't know" that I reach for a book, or I learn from someone in conversation.

Diana Senechal

When I finally got off the blogs and opened my New Yorker, I was in a hurry to get to the two big stories and I almost skipped the article on G.K. Chesterton.

Had I done so, I would have missed the two comments that may be most relevant to our discussion. Chesterton, for all his flaws, wrote "we often hear of grown-up people complaining of having to hang about a railway station and wait for a train. Did you ever hear of a small boy complain of having to hang about a railway station ...? No; for to him to be inside a railway staion is to be inside a cavern of wonder and a palace of poetic pleasures. ..."

He also wrote, "An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvience is only an adventure wrongly considered."


Thanks for reminding all of us that what a child may find interesting, adults may not.

Plently of life/education is novel to the child but ordinary to the adult.

Surely, when we adults think of education, what/how a child thinks should be foremost in our minds.

Erin Johnson

I am again compelled to express having had many similar experiences to Margo regarding parental involvement and school systems. The disrespect prevalent in parent communication may be a function of the 'individualism gone awry' mentality that Margo discusses.
To Diana, in my opinion social studies is not emphasized enough in our schools, leaving students grappling in the darkness for context across disciplines. As someone has said before (I still want to know who to cite on this), perhaps our curriculum is disabled, and not necessarily some of our students.
And I am not so sure I disagree with a national curriculum. Diana has discussed the importance of identifying with the culture of literacy as an important part of learning. Though controversial and seemingly conservative, I believe we need to emphasize the what of learning first, and then work on the how.
Finally, in my opinion until we quit scapegoating teachers (who have much in common with other non-dominant and oppressed groups--it's likely not a coincidence that teaching is a mostly female profession), we will continue to struggle with making positive systemic changes in education. Oppressive environments are unsafe and not conducive to promoting the risk taking behavior necessary for true learning to occur, much less to flourish.

Here's another argument for establishing a curriculum (national or otherwise): it can protect us from petty local censorship.

Schools are far too afraid of "controversial" literature. They shy away from Huckleberry Finn. Some are even afraid to teach Shakespeare because of its upsetting themes. They won't even mention religion, let alone read religious texts. Their fear is that if one kid is upset, the parents can sue. They would rather stick with the bland teen novels that take up most of the shelf space in the classroom libraries.

This is one of the reasons why literacy suffers. Students need contact with vital language in order to get interested in books. Vital language is not always pleasing or tame. Of course, we do need to consider students' ages and maturity, and we do need to listen to parents' concerns. But individual schools should not be vulnerable to petty lawsuits, and principals should not be fearful.

In The Language Police, Diane discusses the widespread adoption of bland textbooks that stay clear of anything that might upset or excite the mind. I think many would agree that this is a troubling situation. Sadly, without a curriculum that actually includes literature, we will only see the blandness continue. These textbooks are marketable precisely because they do not offend, and principals do not have to be afraid.

A curriculum of excellent literature gives schools the right to teach it. It's official. It's what we do. The public will not complain as often as we fear--and when they do, we can debate it out. We would actually discuss the literature in detail, in public. That in itself would help us.

Diana Senechal

Reinhold Niebuhr used to disappear every autumn and enventually he was asked where he went. Although not a fan, he would attend the World Series because he just loved "excellence in any endeavor." Margo, Erin, and Diana, the lessons I take from that will always leave me straddling between your positions. But since I teach social studies, it is much easier for me to CYA on virtually any issue because we always have Standards that cover any intellectual mountain I want my class to climb.

I can understand a parent's frustration with the individualistic mountain climber/teacher. When things go wrong, one of the best indicators is teachers who say explicitly, or through their actions, "I'm just shutting my door and I'll teach my own class." Except during the absolute worst, I keep my door open because I want the younger kids to be curious about what is going on in my class. We are creating a tradition in my class, with nothing to hide from the adults, but the real issue is that our class was created by both kids as well as me. And they know that the adults will sometimes challenge us, and if they do, I fight like a mother bear to protect our autonomy. I make compromises like requiring the kids to have a text on their desk in case of a central office visit, but I want everyone to know that an effort to make me adhere to some specific curriculum alignment schedule would not be good for anyone's career. I've got a reputation as a team player and I'm always laughing and joking, and I'm always teaching the Standards, even if I'm reteaching Standards that were not mastered earlier, but everyone from the counselors to the top of the central office knows that if they want to challenge my autonomy in the classroom, they had better bring their lunch. And in typical baby boomer fashion, the soundtrack for my approach comes from the Grateful Dead, "I feel that I owe it to ... someone."

This morning as I was about to change the dial from New Dementia to Morning Edition I heard a teacher recount the old Chicago study that I used to recount as gospel. The key to school improvement is trusting relationships. Relationship trust has been under siege since NCLB. The teacher spoke of the borderline malpractice that has become so common. Teach to the test violates my own personal creed and I won't do it. But I won't allow myself to criticize my fellow teachers who believe it is good to teach to a good test. After all, they are almost all young, and they we be carrying on the battle after we Baby Boomers retire, and it would be awfully hypocritical of me to silently question their judgments.

We need to coax the mountain-climber individualists to join the school team, but we don't want a cure that's worse than the problem. If we are going to improve urban schools, we need the talents of people with all types of personalities, and we can't write off any approach that conflicts with today's favored policies.

Just as important, educators need to do some soul-searching before they barge into a colleague's room. How sure are we that we are right, and right enough, to big-foot it into another educator's autonomy?

Where I personally draw the line is sarcasm and disrespect for students and parents.

But we also need a reality check. Yes, we aspire to be professionals. In poor districts like mine, though, we are a lot closer to blue collar workers doing a stressful job. Having plenty of experience in hard, physicaal, dangerous work, I mean no disrespect. My coworkers there were just as smart, articulate, and deep, as my coworkers at school. Mostly, people will teach based on the way they were taught, or based on their experiences in church or in sports or in the performing arts. We can advocate change, but change on that front is going to be slow.

That's why I want a learning culture that welcomes all type of personalities and beliefs so that kids with all kinds of personalities and beliefs benefit in two ways. They can find a mentor that suits their individual needs, and they can learn to deal with people who have different attitudes. In my experience, the kids are a lot more open than the adults, more respectful of differences, and more appreciative of adults who share their own core self.

Kids today see less conflict with being a Social Dem and a Dem; a civil libertarian and a Communitarian; a liberal and a disciplinarian; and a team player and an individualist.

Folks might be interested in this article comparing the group authoring the "Broader, Bolder Approach to Education" to the Sharpton/Klein group and their "Education Equality Project."



There are not enough "mountain-climbers" in the world to fill the need in our schools.

Additionally, consider the future of "mountain climbers" in our schools by looking at Anna Quindlen's latest commentary in Newsweek:


In this era of "testing and accountibility" the era of "mountain climbers" is not long for this world.

Without a viable alternative to the "testing and accountability" school refoms being tossed about in the political discussion, there is little that will slow the degredation of our schools into a test-prep factory.

Quite a horrible thought.

Erin Johnson

I have read the Newsweek article recommended by Erin. Thanks, Erin, for making me aware of this piece.
I am not surprised; in fact, this story is all too common in school systems. Beurocracies perpetuate the status quo, and do not encourage (or tolerate) excellence. Research on bullying (aka systemic oppression, the cycle of violence) has consistently revealed that compentent and caring individuals are bullied out of systems. In fact, again research validated, one of the reasons these individuals are targeted is their competence (see Tim Fields, Olweus, Gary and Ruth Namie, others).
The long term implications for our schools and communities, as well as what we are really teaching our students by modeling oppression, are disturbing. In my opinion, not until we create a culture of support, rather than punishment, will we begin to see powerful systemic changes. Also in my opinion, this must start with our leaders. We need to re-evaluate what qualities we are looking for (and reinforcing) in our school leaders.


I completely agree regarding school systems perpetuating the status quo.

But the system needs to be changed first before any cultural changes of support have any hope of being encouraged.

Erin Johnson

Hi Diana, Erin, and Margo/Mom,

My point in posting the mission statements is to point out that they are inherently vague. Often they are “wish statements” reflecting the political interests of the year, as reflected by school boards and administrators. How do you evaluate whether your graduates were able to adapt to the “changing global society” which they themselves will create? I can think of alternatives which are much worse. For example, some school systems have had as goals the elevation of a master race or religion above all others. In this sense such statements are a good thing. They can also be evaluated qualitatively.

As Erin said, there always intangibles. But instead of looking for a new way to measure such things quantitatively (e.g. by inventing yet another Likert scale and more elaborate regression equation), isn’t better to recognize as a statement of purpose, and evaluate them qualitatively? Plenty of good techniques are emerging to do this in valid and reliable fashions. Albeit, there still is no one perfect solution.

Left Back is a good source about the coming and going (and coming) influence of business models on school evaluation. So is Larry Cuban’s recent book The Blackboard and the Bottom Line: Why Schools Cannot be Businesses. Business has the advantage that a quantitative measure of worth is readily available, i.e. profits as measured by money (the bottom line). Evaluation of what a worker or process means for profits is fairly easy to calculate in a business. But schools don’t work that way, for a variety of reasons. However, business leaders tend to push them in that direction because that is what they are familiar with.

James Q. Wilson published a book Bureaucracy: What Governments Do and Why They Do It in 1989. He makes the point that the nature of public bureaucracies are different than private corporate bureaucracies, and that different type of public bureaucracies. If you are real ambitious, you can also have a look at what classical sociologist Max Weber and his followers wrote about the differences between public and private bureaucracies. The bottom line is that business models do not work well in the development and supervision of public tasks, including education.

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