The following is a lightly edited version of an essay I published in the January 2009 edition of Unerzogen, a German unschooling magazine. I wonder, were I writing this today, whether I’d try to be less blunt and more diplomatic. Perhaps, though any strong argument is liable to be perceived as strident. Indeed, one of the central challenges of blogging is offering context and nuance in so limited a space: so if this piece brings up thoughts or a strong reaction for you, I hope you’ll add your voice to the comment thread below.
It may seem presumptuous, even harsh or dismissive, to say that partially democratizing schools is impossible. How can any effort to give students a greater voice in their education be a bad thing? The problem is, genuinely democratic education is not modular—it’s on or off, all or nothing. “Partially democratic” in this context makes about as much sense as “partially pregnant” or “partially dead.”
Conventional schooling emerged during the Industrial Revolution to promote not democracy but, on the contrary, a functional and tractable populace. John Taylor Gatto lays out ample evidence for this in his Underground History of American Education. John Holt adds in Freedom and Beyond that “universal compulsory schools are not and never were meant to be humane institutions” [author’s emphasis].
How can one realistically hope to democratize schools that are undemocratic at their very core? Sure, introducing a measure of democracy sounds nice; but the likelihood that it would lead to anything meaningful is remote. However lofty its rhetoric, no institution can permit reform to take it outside the confines of its historical and social mission. Such a move would constitute not reform but reconstruction, and institutional self-preservation will inevitably undermine it.
Yet cynicism alone can’t explain why partially democratizing schools is a misguided and doomed notion. Plenty of dedicated adults sincerely desire to empower students. Even a cursory analysis of the situation, however, makes it clear that good intentions and hard work simply aren’t enough.
As Holt points out, schools have acquired several competing purposes. While it is true that schools’ educative function is to help students grow, that goal is overwhelmed by less humane mandates. The custodial function of schools seeks not growth, but rather to keep kids out of the home, off the street, and away from the workplace. Schools’ sorting function assesses and channels students according to their aptitude for certain tasks. Indoctrinating children with the values of compliant citizens, workers and consumers, as well as promoting progressive social reform, rounds out the educational agenda.
No school could possibly reconcile all these disparate functions. Consequently, student-centered learning is crowded out, and the social mandates of standardized curricula, testing, and crowd control prevail. Restrained and/or conflicted, most education reform consists of sketchy compromises between flexibility and standardization, compromises which invariably lean toward the latter. Given this reality, how does partial democratization stand a chance?
Indeed, partial democracy in schools must fail because it is an empty concept—limited to pre-approved realms, subject to the whim of the educators who granted it. Well, I say that a freedom which can be readily revoked is no freedom, and democracy-in-a-box is not democracy. It is disingenuous, at best, to feed students scraps of democracy with one hand while holding back true power with the other.
Besides, flexibility in accomplishing someone else’s agenda hardly compares to being a self-determined individual in a genuinely democratic community. Most students will see through shallow promises and superficial trappings. Even with such pseudo-democratic structures as student council or peer mediation, at some point the narrow, controlled boundaries—the absence of genuine democracy—will be revealed. The democratic experiment will end as it bumps up against narrow, playpen limits blocking substantive change.
Democracy is not a patch, nor is it icing or a paint job: one cannot take pieces of it and cover up an institution’s basic flaws. Democracy is, instead, a culture. One need only look to the former Eastern Bloc to see how difficult and protracted the process of democratization truly is. Here in the West, conventional schools remain our most obstinately antidemocratic institutions. It defies common sense to imagine that one can simply drop a few seeds onto such inhospitable ground and watch democracy spontaneously take root and blossom.
Granted, there are degrees of health, in systems as well as human beings. Yet people are either alive or dead, and schools are either democratic…or not.