A Democracy For Those Who’ve Never Known It (For Deborah Meier, Emily Gasoi, and Y’all)

Democracy in schools has been such a foreign concept for me. For many of us, we can’t imagine schools looking and feeling much different than the ones we went to. Even though I saw elements of schooling played out on TV that resembled a form of democracy, the schools I attended proffered control and structure as a core mission. Descendants of parents whose schools in their home countries honored dictators and conquerers found uncanny comfort in authoritarianism. It was less about students growing as engaged citizens of the world, and more about students learning to respect authority, whether the authority was presidential, ethereal, or scholarly. No matter how well-meaning, the schools I attended settled their moral compasses on how well a student acclimated to the ways and means of schooling, less on whether the student self-actualized their visions for engaging with the rest of the world.

Too many of us have been conditions to see schooling as an act of giving and receiving from an agent of the state to a younger recipient, not as a process of sharing, questioning, and building upon knowledges we’ve built up over time.

So, when I read These Schools Belong To You And Me: Why We Can’t Afford To Abandon Our Public Schools by Deborah Meier and Emily Gasoi, I kept thinking to my own schooling and how, perhaps, I and so many others don’t know what democracy actually means. Take, for example, the rancor around our current American presidential administration. Too many people quip that America has lost its way. “He’s attacking our democratic institutions.” “He’s defiling our norms in stark contrast to presidents before him.” “He’s disrupting our constitutions with his corruption and largesse.” “This is a kleptocratic autocrat and his xenophobic, racist goons who’s making America worse.”

Yet, for people across many lines, America is, at best, a rather imperfect republic. Really, it’s also a nation built by enslaved peoples on the carcasses of First Peoples for the benefit of people who escaped colonizers only to multiply colonialism in the form of globalism. The three branches of our government have synthesized, compartmentalized, suppressed, and packaged our voices for a handful of wealthy people to make decisions that inevitably affect the majority of us. This handful then consolidates power through handshakes we never see and codes we never learn. The mere existence of billionaires means that a majority of people in a given sample must be under-resourced. Those that learn the handshakes and codes of the upper echelon get to participate. Those that don’t get labeled voiceless.

But they’re not voiceless. They’re just not considered, contrary to the inconsiderate.

Until I heard of Meier’s work back in 2006 as a rookie teacher, I only understood schooling as a function of parsing us. Some schools would send entire classes through their scholarly careers without interruptions to a middle-class life. Other schools played a game of “look to your left, right, in front, and behind …”, surrendering their lot to the machinations of society. The schools in the first section would receive the well-rounded education so lauded by the privileged. But if indeed there is a privileged, that inevitably means the rest of “us” would believe that elements like the arts, music, regular school trips, recess, and a large selection of physical education activities are privileges, not rights.

In the book, Meier says:

“Regardless of the content of the lessons we intend to teach, these superficial “school moves” — the “grammar of schooling”- appear to be the dominant messages that many children internalize about the purpose of their twelve years of education … most children will not volunteer their thoughts on the implicit “wisdom” they are deriving from their time in the classroom. But suppose children did ask the adults responsible for making their schools what they are — “Why are we here?” Do we adults — parents, educators, superintendents, policymakers, and reformers — have a more substantive and compelling vision to impart to them?

No, we don’t. If anything, especially in schools prepped for suppression, the answer has been a staunch rebuke. In New York City, even as we forcefully voted out a regime that insisted on scholastic fascism, we still prefer our schools to resemble it. Change is arduous. And, now that the status quo is the current suite of education reforms thanks to a multifaceted bipartisan effort to privatize vast elements of our school system, we need to have a bigger, more urgent conversation about the flaws of any education movement we choose to espouse.

This is where Meier and Gasoi excel, too. Unlike many education reformers who have the magic bullet, they lay out their massive flaws in hopes that people can appreciate the struggle of creating an alternate and sustainable mode of schooling.

Gasoi writes:

“While Deb created a framework for democratic governance, it wasn’t always wasn’t always easy to navigate the various personality and power dynamics that inevitably arose. This was especially true when it came to interactions involving Deb [Meier]. There were two realities. One was that we were all responsible for being the makers and keepers of the school culture, as well as being in charge of much of the school’s daily functioning. The other reality was that Deb was always the heavyweight in the room … As a staff, we worked within the ever-present tension of those co-mingling realities.”

Who gets to choose a given framework and how it’s delivered matters as much as the framework itself. Indeed, plenty of institutions that are labeled democratic approach their work through democratic means. We have executive agents like the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency raiding homes and restaurants looking for our most vulnerable peoples. We have local and state governments participating in mass voter disenfranchisement and suppression in communities they call voiceless and lethargic. We have courts ushering in droves of people into public and private imprisonment for free and reduced-pay labor.

We have schools with democracy in their names yet telling their students the languages they speak have no validity. We have schools where the Pledge of Allegiance is recited ad nauseam yet is rarely interrogated as a dedication to a small yet powerful segment of society.

The question we should ask now, as we should have in 2016, 2001, 1968, 1865, and 1776, is: do our schools reflect our country’s ostensible vision to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Furthermore, to whom does democracy belong and how does one attain the ability to govern for the common good? And how are adults in buildings — parents, teachers, administrators, and other people within a school building — going to teach democracy if it’s not something they’ve experienced themselves?

Contrary to what America’s international policy suggests, we can’t exact “democracy … or else” upon those who our country has deemed outside of the mainstream.

Meier and Gasoi have spent their careers creating these spaces where the process of schooling and actual learning can co-exist. This book allows for imperfection as a means of reflection and humanity, and makes explicit that this work is a continuation of centuries-long struggle with schooling. For many of us adults in schools, democracy as a core element of school has rarely if ever made it to us. I too have visions of our children, including my son, experiencing a school that they inevitably felt was shaped by them, not just given to them. That requires a set of norms and means we would have to enforce and judiciously pass on for generations.

And, should the people leading this republic within the republic not lead us in that direction through policy and practice, it’s time to create an alternative now and forever.