Monday, July 31, 2017

A Grand Experiment

From the beginning, we have known that modern democracy was a grand experiment. Never before had a nation-state attempted to be citizen-governed, even if deep democracy stands at the core of the social organization of our hunter-gatherer past. From the time humans chose to settle down and begin to grow crops (possibly for the purpose of making beer) the weak were lead by the strong, but in the aftermath of the American Revolution, this democratic experiment, a product of The Enlightenment, was undertaken and spread around the world.

We celebrate our freedom and liberty, but we rarely speak of the responsibilities of citizenship. In America, about half of us don't even participate in the most basic of democratic acts, which is to vote, let alone engage in the day-to-day democracy that our founders envisioned: discussing matters of the day with our neighbors and friends, standing up for strongly held beliefs, challenging those in power, running for office, and proposing new ideas. Indeed, for democracy to work, self-governance must be woven through everything we do every day, a collection of little things that create the larger. And that is one of the biggest variables in our experiment: the active, productive participation of we the people, all the people. When the people are engaged we are moving in the direction of democracy, but when we are not, the monied and powerful step into that vacuum as they always have and always will.

The powerful are motivated to pacify we the people, to convince us that we are in good hands, to distract us with shiny objects, and yes, to dumb us down, which is ultimately the surest path to the demise of democracy. Our founders knew this. From the start they understood that the only way self-governance would work is with a well-educated population, one capable of thinking critically, of thinking for themselves; one that knows that compromise is the highest public good; one that questions everything, especially authority; and one empowered to stand up for their beliefs and ideas even when those around them disagreed. These founders knew that this would only work if the general populace was well-informed, which is why freedom of the press was protected and why upon signing our Constitution they began founding schools.

No one ever said that democracy would be easy. No one ever said it would be fast or efficient or smooth sailing. No, to the contrary, we have always known that self-governance required the work and diligence of we the people, motivated both by self-interest as well as empathy to forever seek to produce a more perfect union. It has never been done before and even if we've managed to survive as a constitutional democracy for over 250 years, it remains an experiment, the outcome of which forever remains in doubt.

"Democracy has to be born anew with each generation, and education is its midwife." ~John Dewey

And this is the great truth about the responsibilities that come with our freedoms. This is not an off-the-shelf product. To the contrary democracy isn't a product at all, but rather a project, a process, and it is, at bottom, one of the do-it-yourself variety. The only way it is ever going to happen is on the backs of an educated population working together. And like all DIY projects it isn't always going to be pretty or successful or even "good," but that is almost beside the point because it will never be completed to everyone's satisfaction, so we must keep coming together day-after-day, generation-after-generation, creating it anew.

That is how things work on the playground after all, children freely and equally engaging with one another in their DIY projects and processes, joining together, dividing, squabbling, and agreeing, as they engage in their grand experiment, one that is both a reflection of and a part of the one in which we all must be engaged if we are going to keep our democracy.

Hey friends! I'm currently in Australia where I'm appearing in venues around the country. I'd love to meet you! A few of the events are sold out, but there is still room in others. If you're interested, click here for details about my "tour."

Also . . .

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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