Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What Self-Governance Is All About

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. ~Winston Churchill

Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried. ~Winston Churchill

Whenever I write a post like I did recently, in which I defend public schools, I then spend two or three days in a state of depression as people write back to say, essentially, that I'm naive and that I really should completely give up on public schools. They themselves have washed their hands of them, or intend to the moment they can find a viable alternative.

Our public schools are imperfect. They are not even close to the ideal, which resides over a horizon they can't even see from where they are today. In fact, I'm certain that even under the best of circumstances, we won't come within sight of the ideal in my lifetime.  Indeed, we are currently being bull-rushed headlong in the wrong direction by the well-financed corporate-driven education reform movement, a gang of ideologues who would be thrilled to see public education turned over to the mythical "free marketplace." My current hope is that we can stop their momentum; my greatest hope is that we can at least get things pointed in the right direction.

So, even I don't have particularly grandiose expectations for the near future; forget about achieving the ideal, which we try and fail to reach every day at Woodland Park (I'm not going into what I mean by "ideal" in this post, because I attempt to do that here on the blog every day). I understand why many folks have thrown up their hands. I understand, and even support, parents' decisions to chose private schools or any of the variations on homeschooling, including un-schooling. Everyone wants what's best for their own kids, today. You only go around once, and if one has the wherewithal, financial or otherwise, to give your kids something better, I can hardly blame you for going for it. My own daughter has been educated her entire life in a private school, a decision we made 12 years ago because it suited her and our family better than our public school options, and we could, albeit barely, afford it. So, I do understand making other choices.

Most people, however, don't have the choice.

And none of that depresses me. No, what gets me down is that in those angry notes and comments from readers, is that I hear not only a rejection of public education, but by extension, a rejection of the whole idea of self-governance. That's what depresses me. Most children will attend public schools and it is incumbent upon all of us to make those schools, if not ideal, at least as good as possible because these children will all too soon be our partners in self-governance. What depresses me is that when people throw up their hands over public schools, they are, in a very real sense, giving up on the idea of democracy.

I share Churchill's opinion in that what we call democracy is a deeply flawed thing, an easy conclusion in light of the current state of affairs in America. At the same time, as a man with a public education, I know enough history to be reminded that this has always been the case: an institution, like all human institutions, will always be at least as flawed as its creators. What else can one expect from self-governance? No one ever said it would be easy or fast. No one ever promised that democracy would be tidy or efficient. It is, indeed, the worst form of government, but it's the best we've yet devised. Government is just another name for what "we the people" chose to to together. When people write to complain about "government schools," I take it personally, as should we all. I want the best public schools we can get because I'm hoping to improve those five-minute conversations Churchill was cynically joking about. And make no mistake, a big part of that will come in improving the listening skills of those of us who identify with Churchill.


I grew up with parents from the rural Midwest, the kind of rational conservatives who don't seem to exist any longer, with a strong commitment to public schools. When the courts ordered the schools in Columbia, South Carolina to desegregate, my parents were among the few in our all-white neighborhood to put me on the bus. Most of the other children who lived near me were moved into racially segregated private schools. An adult neighbor once informed me in a whisper that I would be going to school in a place where people "defecated in the roadside ditches." She did not use the word "people." Those years when I spent my day as an ethnic minority were perhaps the most purely educational ones of my life in the sense that the lessons I learned have been among the most applicable to my actual life beyond school. I had to learn to find common ground with, to self-govern with, people who were economically, socially, and historically very different from me.

I was a boy in the deep south in the 1960's so that meant arm wrestling, yo-yo tricks, football, all done with the other kids I found in my classes. One of the rationales for busing was for black and white children to grow up together so they could see each other beyond race, and in my case, it worked. Those years shaped me in important and fundamental ways, even while the "academics" were, as they are now in states like South Carolina, considered among the worst in the nation. I would not trade those years of schooling for anything, if only because I learned that racists lie; that these other human beings were not such animals that they defecated in roadside ditches. I'm sure that some of the kids who went to the all-white private schools wound up as fine people, but many of them still believe those lies. No matter what their test scores and report cards said, they were so poorly educated so as to be a current danger to society.

Of course, I went home each afternoon to my white suburban life and later moved with my family to Oregon where we again enrolled in the public schools. Again, they were imperfect in the way all human institutions are, but there I continued to spend my days with children from both the good and bad sides of the tracks, learning with them and from them, figuring out how to forge friendships, or at least partnerships, trusting and distrusting, learning about life in the real world: the skills required for self-governance.

This is all to say that I am indebted to my public school experience for the man I am today: not necessarily for what happened in classrooms, although some of the teachers made a real difference, but for what happened between the cracks where real learning always happens.


I came of age in 1980, just in time to vote for Ronald Reagan, the man who told us that "(g)overnment is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." It sounded like a revolutionary notion, one that seemed a lot like the Ayn Rand novels I'd recently read, offering a convenient excuse for the world's problems, one that contradicted the messages of communal effort I'd heard from the political leaders of my youth such as JFK, MLK, and Jimmy Carter. I was young and ready to hear this "new" message, not knowing at the time that it was just a cowboy-hatted Hollywood face on a message that traced its lineage back through failed presidential candidate Barry Goldwater all the way to the American Civil War seccessionists and the John C. Calhoun nullification-ists. These anti-government Americans have been with us for a long time and they're still with us today. They have had many different specific causes, from slavery to taxes, but the core idea is that smaller federal government is always better. For many it has become such an article of faith that they can't bear that anyone would question it.

It's this strain of American political thought that brought us our recent governmental shutdown. And I see it as well when anti-public school people write me, calling them pointedly "government schools," intending, I guess, to smear them. When I hear "government schools," I hear "the people's schools." You see, in a democracy, government is us: government is what we call getting together as equals to figure out the things we want to do together. I got it, our current political system is messed up, there is corruption, there's too much money mixed up in it, and too many of us feel disaffected, if not entirely disenfranchised. Even so, there are some things we have to do together, and the size of government is entirely dependent upon what those things are. What I want are well-run governmental institutions, ones that succeed with the tasks we the people assign them. First we have to decide what we want to do together, then we push for the right sized government.

And I'm one of those who believe that among the things we the people should do together is educate our children: it's simply too vital to the functioning of our democracy. Ideally, schools should be locally controlled, and many still are, but there are times when we need our federal government to make sure all of our citizens are included in the things we chose to do together, the way the courts ordered desegregation when I was a boy.

I'm all for efforts to root out the corruption and the money, both of which would go a long way toward boosting morale. But even were things not at all screwed up (and there are those, including me, who would insist that "screwed up" is the natural state of every government), there are those who believe that these things simply can't be managed by government at all, usually wanting to turn government functions over to private enterprise in the faith that the profit motive always, eventually, results in the best product at the lowest price, a claim that simply isn't bourn out all that often in the real world.

Here's the thing, look around: businesses are human institutions as well, and they screw up at least as much as anything else, probably more. I mean, most new small businesses don't survive past 5 years. There are at least as many scandals and as much corruption in corporations as in government: this is part of every large human institution, be it government, commerce, non-profit or religious. Human beings sometimes do the wrong thing or fail to do the right one: it's what humans do. To turn things over to the private sector is to abdicate personal responsibility in favor of the dictatorial hand of a board of directors. To throw up one's hands, is to give up on humanity. And when you give up on humanity, you give up on self-governance.


When one takes the long view, the broad view, it's impossible to argue that public schools have not played a vital part in the long march of our democracy, one that has, I believe, on balance been a good one. We the people have plenty of failures at our feet, but many more successes in our hands.

So as imperfect as they inevitably are, I continue to support our public schools even while I will, as is my responsibility as a citizen, keep talking about what I think they are doing wrong and how I think they could do things better.

This is true while there remains so much room for improvement it seems overwhelming. It's an argument that can be made about every human institution that has ever existed and that will ever exist. There is good and there is bad. I don't expect to achieve the ideal in my lifetime, nor in a thousand lifetimes, but I will do whatever I can to push things in the right direction, while hoping that others join me, which is what self-governance is all about. Of course, I also urge you to push back if you think I'm wrong, that's also what self-governance is about. But throwing up one's hands is not an option.

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Grace said...

If bullying is rampant, public schools are failing.

If children are being punished for having feelings, public schools are failing.

If there's less and less time to play, public schools are failing.

If children are bored or hate school, public schools are failing.

Not that most private schools are much better at these things...

In what way are many public schools AND many private schools not failing our children?

To be fair, schools might be better than what some children experience at home, and children might get to interact with and befriend people who don't all look and think like them - significant aspects of school if they actually happen.

Anonymous said...

I'm all for democracy and self-governance. But the problem is, our public schools don't prepare children for democratic citizenship. The system is built on oppression. School control what student can learn and cannot learn and how they will learn it. If children grow up in an atmosphere where people get to regiment what they read and write, they're going to become obedient adults who think that's how the world work.

I recently read about dozens of high school students wrote about their objections to Democratic Schools. Most of them used the argument that those schools only work for individuals who are self-motivated, and ordinary students are not going to learn without extrinsic motivation.
It breaks my heart to see how public schools have brainwashed our children to forget they're naturally curious and capable to learn on their own.

Holly said...

Thank you for this post, Tom. This has for a long time been a personal conundrum of mine. As a social democrat, I believe passionately in the right of free, quality education for all people. But as an educator myself, the focus on testing and the lack of autonomy afforded to teachers, even in their own classrooms, has completely driven me away. I've dabbled into alternative educations, such as Montessori, and I currently teach in a private Islamic school (not because I'm Muslim, but simply because it's the first non-public job I could land). At the same time, I mourn for public schools. My husband says that I should get in there and make the biggest difference, touch as many lives as possible, and reach the students that need me the most, but I know it would lead to early burnout. It's not a romantic thing to say, I know, but it's realistic, unfortunately. I always feel so conflicted on this topic! How can one believe so passionately in public education and at the same time scorn it to the point of avoidance?

Teacher Tom said...

@Grace, Anonymous, and Holly . . . I share many of your concerns and most of our fellow citizens are going to be educated in public schools. What are we going to do about it?

As I wrote, much of the good happening in public schools is what happens "in the cracks," in the process of children from all walks of life simply being together. That is something -- in my case, everything.

What are we going to do about it? I'm going to keep pushing because failure is simply not an option.

Anonymous said...

Support democratic schools and other alternatives and empower others to opt out of coercive schooling. There are many people who are capable but haven't invited to consider the alternatives.

Peter Gray is recruiting concerned individuals to share their inputs to help create a robust resource for families looking to walk away from coercive schooling:


I am optimistic that public schools will be forced to transform when enough people walk away.

Anonymous said...

Just an astounding, cogent, com-passionate, string of words that bowled me over. All true, very wise.

Listen to this man, reflect in his words, think on. Then maybe offer a few thoughts.

Here's mine:


(google Russell Brand and New Statesman and Newsnight)

there seems to be a serendipity, a synchronicity, a whiff of coming together,a glimmer of resistance. Let's try to make it a little bit better, that's all we can do.

I just wrote this ten minutes before I read Tom's blog:

I want to be compassionate about A Bigger Us:

I'm sick of people who are passionate about their hobby, their job, their obsession.

I want to be compassionate about people,

I want to be compassionate with you about things that matter to us.

Passionate is all about my ego.

Compassionate is all about us.

A Big Us.

Not the Big Lunch,
or the Biggest Block Party,
fine though they are,

just a bigger thing,
not the best,
a 'good enough,'
humble, a little bit better.

I want to be compassionate about A Bigger Us.

Teacher Tom said...

@Anonymous . . . I like Peter Gray. I've blogged here about his work, and am a supporter of democratic free schools. In fact, I'm currently reading Gray's new book, but I fundamentally disagree with the idea that walking way from public schools will save them. I understand that we all must find what's best for our own kids, but if we disengage from public schools -- where most kids will get their education -- we leave the field open to the corporate reformers who stand eager to privatize it all. Believe me, they do not envision anything like an "ideal" school. These are our schools, just as this is our government: when we leave a vacuum, however, monied interests always step in and they do not have our best interests at heart.

Cathy Fuentes-Rohwer said...


I am so grateful to you for constantly framing educating the whole child and his or her unique abilities and needs within the context of a democracy and the need to reach ALL children.

We live in an era where we have become consumers in all things: if we don't like our kid's school, "choose" another. We are the consumer and must please only ourselves. There's so little dedication to fixing that which is broken (toss it and "buy" or "shop around" for a new one). All the while not seeming to care or recognize that not everyone can "buy" organic, let alone the basic needs for their family. I love that you remind us of the common good and that you speak for all children... I worry for their futures when we continue to malign those areas where we all should be coming together and dedicating ourselves: public schools, public libraries, public roads, public services. I always love the Dewey saying: " What the best and wisest parent wants for his child, that must we want for all the children of the community. Anything less is unlovely, and left unchecked, destroys our democracy."

I am a mother of four who continues to try to raise awareness here in Indiana about the threat of "corporate reform" and the real, organized attack on its cornerstone: public education. I hope there are other parents out there who read your blog who are willing to circle the wagons around public education..not just to protect it, but to improve it. Here is our facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Monroe-County-Coalition-Public-Education/374573205902510