Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Why I Teach The Way I Do (Learning To Be Equal And Free)

This is the third post in a series I'm calling "Why I Teach The Way I Do." In the first post is here, and the second here. They probably make more sense if read in order.

It was pointed out to me by a reader, Luke, yesterday that I've only implied so far the answer promised by the title and that's an omission I ought to rectify before going any further. It is my view, one I share 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The average citizen has withdrawn from the process of self-governance, leaving behind a vacuum that has been filled by political parties, corporate lobbyists, and radical partisans, who have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.

So that said, I will continue tomorrow where I left off yesterday.

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1 comment:

Luke Jaaniste said...

Hey Tom.

Thanks for going overt!… I wonder what comments you'll get on this post because it is not pitched at the level of technique (how-to), but pitched as overall values etc, and also because you lay bare your critique of contemporary American politics.

For me, there is such a massive gap between what you describe as healthy everyday communal self-governance and what goes by the name of 'democracy' in America and for that matter other first world nations (I live in Australia). Lobbying, adversarial two-party systems, mega-money, popularist, short-term-ist, etc… It's such a gap that I find it hard to equate what you hope for as being anything to do with democracy at all. Added to this, when I think about various local communities around the world that might embody some of your ideals, they would not necessarily come from nations that call themselves democratic nor would these communities necessarily describe what they do as democracy.

That said, I'm definitely I'm liking what you value: "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."

If you think that's what human life should be like in general, no wonder you want the Woodland Park experiment to be like this too. I also want to live like this, with my communities, family, work collaborators and that's what I want for the (alternative) school where my kids attend with me as contributing parent.

This seem very much the sentiments/drivers that led to Italian villagers of Reggio Emilia to develop the approach they did.

One thing I'm struck by is the lack-of-a-boss (or super hero) in your ideals. And this is a big different between big-society representational democracy (with a boss / elected officials / president) and a small-community direct democracy (with perhaps facilitators but no one pulling rank). This I think might explain why some people, when they think about educating for 'democracy', think it must need top-down control structures (since representation democracy has a lot of that) and/or externally-imposed moral compass.