Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Democracy And Education

As part of a conference at which I was presenting in the state of Queensland here in Australia, I had the opportunity to visit what is called the Ration Shed Museum in the town of Cherbourg, the site of an aboriginal reservation that was created by the 1904 "Aboriginal Protection Act." Tribes from all over Queensland and New South Wales were forcibly re-located here, and as European colonists did wherever they went, they took it upon themselves to control every aspect of the lives of these formerly free people.

Matthew, our aboriginal guide, went to great lengths to emphasize that there was no intent to place blame or to make anyone feel ashamed, but as a man of European heritage in the company of citizens of Ireland and South Africa, also of European backgrounds, it was impossible to not feel at least some sense of shame if only on behalf of our ancestors.

As we watched a video detailing the history of the place, we learned about the schools that were established for the education of these "primitive" people, schools chartered to teach children about keeping their noses to the grindstone, obedience, and a very narrow range of vocational skills. It was impossible to not see parallels with the current state of education in America and around the world. After several decades of trending in the direction of truly democratic education over the course of the 20th century we have now seen a sudden shift over the past twenty years in the direction of those aboriginal schools. Oh sure, we don't say it aloud anymore, but it's clear that those who designed such disasters as No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core federal curriculum are seeking to create the modern day versions of obedient domestic workers and field hands.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the great John Dewey's seminal work Democracy and Education (this links to a long, fantastic article I urged you to read):

Did you attend a public school in the United States and perform in a school play, take field trips, or compete on a sports team? Did you have a favourite teacher who designed their own curriculum, say, about the Civil War, or helped you find your particular passions and interests? Did you take classes that were not academic per se but that still opened your eyes to different aspects of human experience such as fixing cars? Did you do projects that required planning and creativity? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then you are the beneficiary of John Dewey's pedagogical revolution.

Today, we are facing the same sort of pushback against democratic education that John Dewey faced back at the turn of the last century. They claim they are only doing what is best for the poor "primitives," and perhaps they believe they are, but at what cost? The battle lines continue to be drawn between those of us who believe that the purpose of public education is to create citizens with the critical thinking and creative skills to take part in the great national project of self-governance and those who would use schools to turn children into malleable worker bees. While Dewey's ideas shaped the schools we attended, the so-called education "reformers" are shaping the schools of our children, something that if left unchecked will result in the end of our nation.

You think I'm exaggerating? Do you honestly think a man as demagogic and autocratic as Donald Trump would have had a prayer during your own childhood? Of course not. Our parents and grandparents no matter what their political leanings would have chased him out of the building with pitchforks. Trump is the result of this anti-intellectualism and the intentional dumbing down of America; not the intended result, of course, but an accident that could easily have been predicted.

The skills and habits of citizenship (critical thinking, questioning authority, living a well-rounded life not always tethered to the almighty dollar) are the diametric opposites of the those required to succeed in the nose-to-the-grindstone, do-as-you're-told future the anti-Dewey forces have planned for us.

A return to the promise of progressive education may not save us, but it's the best hope we have.

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