Thursday, December 07, 2017

What It Means To Be Equal And Free



Very often, when those who live outside our progressive education bubble hear about our practices, their response is to envision a sort of chaotic mob rule, in which children are allowed to run wild. They warn of devastating consequences, of children who will grow into criminals or sociopaths, and that what we are doing will lead to a sort of tyranny of the children in which Hobbesian brutishness rules the day.

These are, of course, very similar to the arguments that have always been made against democracy, and by some accounts (but by no means all) these fears did come to pass to some extent when the ancient Athenians attempted to govern themselves through direct democracy, a form in which there is a danger that the will of the majority will trample the rights of a minority. Our founders were, of course, aware of this potential for "tyranny of the majority" and so when choosing what form of government to embody in our Constitution, they went with a republic in which representatives are elected democratically. In other words, instead of government directly controlled by the people, it is indirectly controlled: what dictionaries at the time defined as a "representative democracy." Encyclopedias have been written, and will continue to be written, discussing the nuances of the republic vs. democracy debate, one that I'd rather not engage in here, except to say that however you define our form of government, we are, together, attempting to self-govern with democracy as the centerpiece, and that, as it has been from the onset, is a grand experiment.

Similarly, our little cooperative preschool democracy is an experiment, one not bound by a constitution, but rather by the presence of loving adults. This is not, as some fear, an exercise in laissez fair parenting/teaching, but rather a laboratory in which we provide the space, tools and autonomy in which children experiment with what it means to live among one another as equal and free citizens.

It is my view, one shared with our nation's founders, that a well-educated citizenry is the foundation of a democracy.  The longer I've been a teacher, however, the more aware I become that our standard educational model, the one that emerged largely from the factory model of the Industrial Revolution, a model that supposes we need only fill those empty vessels with letters and numbers and dates, moving them along from grade to grade, is not up to the standards required for self-governance.

I believe we've lost sight of the promise of our nation. I cannot recall ever hearing an elected official speak of education in anything other than economic terms, and I have never heard one connect it to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." I rarely hear of our presidents or legislators spoken of as "representatives," but rather as "leaders." Voters stay away from polling places in droves, apathetic, let alone engaging in the day-to-day processes of democracy, not caring or perhaps not knowing how. Or worse, not feeling that they can or should have any impact on the civic life of our nation. We distrust and vilify government, painting it as a "them vs. us" conflict, and when I dare to point out that "them is us" I'm scornfully asked, "Where have you been hiding?"

The average citizen has withdrawn from the process of self-governance, leaving behind a vacuum that has been filled by political parties, corporate lobbyists, and radical partisans, who have taken us so far away from the promise of self-governance, that many of us, if not most, feel helpless in the face of it, withdrawing and wishing pox on the whole lot of them, castigating political discourse as base and impolite.

I teach the way I do, because, I suppose, I'm an idealist. I do believe in the promise of day-to-day, retail self-government: the kind of government that is made up of friends and neighbors capable and willing to discuss the issues of the day over their back fences, in their churches, and while waiting in line as the supermarket. The kind of government in which we the people are capable and willing to listen, to debate, and to think for ourselves. I'm the kind of idealist who believes that schools should be preparing children to engage with one another as equal and free humans who are fully enfranchised.

I teach the way I do because I want the children who pass my way to have the opportunity, at least during their time with me, to practice what it means to be equal and free. In part, I write about it here because I hope that others will be inspired to do the same. We are a young nation and our experiment in democracy is only just getting under way. If we are to succeed, it won't be because some hero swoops in to save us, but rather because we decide we must do it together, day-to-day, thinking critically, speaking honestly, listening passionately, and acting as if we are, indeed, equal and free.

Books make great holiday gifts. Maybe someone you know would like their very own copy of my book!

I've just published a book! If you are interested in ordering Teacher Tom's First Book, click here. Thank you!

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