How do we save our democracy? Or, how do we create a truly democratic nation? We are learning, now, that too many people in the U. S. either never understood or never cared about democracy. Or they had become complacent and hopefully now realize what they might lose. So, how do we change the state of our government?
A democracy is a government of, by, and for the people ⎼all the people. The power rests in the citizens, who exercise that power according to laws and principles set out in a constitution that all know and have access to. Each person must be valued, and each person’s viewpoint heard.
To do that, the government needs to foster a sense of community. Caring relationships and a sense of shared humanity must be at the core of the process by which decisions are made. How we live our lives schools us in how to participate, with everyone around us, in the work of running a government together.
We need to make political action a normal part of our daily lives.
Without this depth of understanding, it is too easy to give up on democracy when it becomes difficult. It is too easy to sacrifice participating in the rewarding but complex process of making decisions with others in exchange for letting someone else do it for us. It is too easy to get so focused on what we think is the only answer that we forget everyone else can also think their answer is the only one. Compromise becomes impossible. Those who differ from us become enemies.
It is also important to study history, to understand what happens to the rights and well-being of citizens under other forms of government, like Fascism or Dictatorship, and what happens when a democracy is destroyed.
For all these reasons, a democratic nation needs a democratic and public education system. Our schools need to model the quality of relationships we want in society in general. Democracy and forming caring relationships must be at the core of the school curriculum and of how a school functions.
A Democratic and Public Education
This understanding is at the heart of a book by Dr. Dave Lehman, A Principal’s Notebook: Lessons for Today from a Pioneering Public School. His book describes the educational structure of the Lehman Alternative Community School (LACS) in Ithaca, New York (a school that he founded ⎼ and where I taught for 27 years). It provides a pedagogy of democratic schooling and of relationships—students with peers, students with staff, staff with colleagues, and everyone with the material being taught and the world we live in.
Democracy can’t be taught just through research and reasoning, certainly not by testing the memorization of data. It requires experience and practice. It has to be lived.
In order to realistically learn how to relate in a caring, cooperative, and educational manner—and make decisions democratically—children need a structure that prioritizes and develops healthy, caring relationships. Especially in today’s world, marred by increasing hatred and divisiveness in our government and anxiety in our children, where young people often spend more time with digital media than they do with breathing beings, this fact has never been clearer.
As Dr. Dave describes in his book, at LACS “everyone has a voice, and a vote, from the newest sixth grader to the oldest high schooler, from the most recently hired teaching assistant to the most experienced teacher and the Principal.” Most decisions concerning everyone at the school are made democratically, either by a weekly all-school meeting, or weekly staff meeting. Staff makes most decisions consensually.
To help the school function, there are committees that meet twice a week. The committees maintain the school building and recycle. They plan and run meetings, mediate disputes, support LGBTQ and students of color, develop an overview of where the school is in terms of its goals and where it would like to go, to plant and care for trees and flowers, etc.
And everyone has their own family group at the school to support them, consisting of one or usually two staff and about 14 students. In this way, a real community is created. Students learn the need to take responsibility for their surroundings and to speak up for what they think is right, while respecting another people’s right to do the same.
Courses are sometimes formed at the recommendation of students, or they are structured to meet the interests, needs and questions raised by students. Students choose their courses instead of having all their classes mandated for them. They are assessed not primarily by standardized tests but through projects and demonstrations of skill that they have a part in designing.
The school is far from perfect. But it seriously tries to provide a supportive situation so each student, teacher, and administrator can do their best and find themselves in their work.
LACS is only one of several democratic public schools in our nation today. In fact, in New York a statewide group, the DemocracyReady NY Coalition, was launched just last February to “secure the right of all New York students to a quality P-12 education that prepares them for civic participation.”
A democratic government needs a citizenry that can not only research and think critically about issues and candidates but values caring relationships. It requires not only democracy in schools but of schools, so there is a quality public education open to everyone.
We pay an exorbitant price when the central importance of relationships and taking responsibility for one’s learning is lost. Not only the quality of education suffers, but also the community of our nation suffers. The Lehman Alternative Community School and other democratic schools throughout the nation (and world) provide not only a guide and model for developing good schools but for developing a healthy and democratic nation.
Of course, democratizing schools is a longer-term strategy. In the short term, we need to vote or impeach T out of office or we the people might lose the chance to democratize anything.
**This post has been syndicated by The Good Men Project.