D E B O R A H . M E I E R Democracy-Friendly Education

Reprinted from GREEN MONEY JOURNAL winter08/09

Re-thinking schools starts with re-thinking its fundamental purposes and function. There are, first and foremost, only two purposes that matter to me. Everything else is a luxury.
The first purpose of education is to do no harm to the individual children and their families, which includes leaving them a little better off than when they came to us. Let us leave them stronger and more loveable. 
The second purpose is to inspire a generation of Americans to take on our collective task of preserving and nourishing the habits of heart and mind essential for a democracy, and, as we now see, the future of the planet itself. 
The purpose of education is not: (1) to produce a small “leadership” political elite to lead us to the Promised Land or (2) to produce employees to fit into some particular niche determined by others, and surely, (3) it is not to produce higher test scores and give out more diplomas-which isn’t even a very good way to do the previous two things! 
Democracy, and the kind of thinking that’s good for it, doesn’t just happen. It is not “natural”-like walking and talking. But it is not unnatural either. We need then to ask ourselves, what happens in schools that make for greater devotion and understanding of democracy and its place in our complex modern global world? An educational system that keeps this first and foremost on its mind will not have to sacrifice the so-called “basic skills”. It might have to place calculus lower on the agenda than statistics and probability, or modern history before ancient history. Maybe yes, maybe no. It may have to sacrifice the arts, or it may have to place greater demands on them. 
But what a democracy-friendly education surely must do is change the way people relate to each other in schools, and how their voices are heard and taken into account. And the change we need is not tinkering on the edges, but fundamental. 
What we do know is that creative and critical thought are not natural allies of multiple-choice tests or stereotype short-answer quizzes. The inventiveness we need cannot be left to elite few, because in a democracy such out-of-the-box thinking will be sabotaged by ordinary citizens and rightly so, if they are not well-educated too and become a party to the needed changes. We pay an enormous price for dismissing the impact of an alienated political public. We’ve even gone so far as to dismiss the need for the voices of teachers-viewing them as merely tools of reform, not at its heart. Our parents and teachers have replaced our financial and business leaders as the new “special interest” group. Thus the answers become increasingly divorced from the problems on the ground. 
Let’s imagine how we’d design the life of youngsters from birth to 22 if we hadn’t got stuck in the traditional school model and just extended it for 10 more years? Let’s imagine how we might re-design if we spent more time listening to those in the real “know.” Based on what we know about human beings, how else might we ask the young to spend their precious time? Would we have cut them off from relationships with adults engaged in interesting work-and vice versa-for 12-16 years? Would we have labeled so much of the world’s important and critical work as “menial”, and “nonacademic”? Would we expect that efficient learning takes place by sitting till and listening for 5 hours a day? Would we have measured success by a multiple choice test rather than a “road test”? 
We can’t change overnight, but we can begin to make sure that the policies we adopt do not strangle the innovation we need. Too many big-time reforms today try to “fix” the current system in stone-making it ever more standardized rather than ever more inventive. We need to ban the use of the word “rigorous” in schools – with all its unmistakable dictionary meaning of harsh and inflexible-and find a language that suits the task ahead of us. 
Yes, small is good. But, aimed at the wrong “ends”, it’s just another shifting of the chairs on the sinking Titanic. Yes, technology is useful, but…Yes, better teacher “training” is good, but…Yes, observing the impact of our work is critical, but…Yes even more money is good, but…
But, none will matter until we are prepared to tackle the “what for?” And on that question we are all experts. On that question we don’t want anyone to lead us to the Promised Land; we want to lead ourselves, with our families, neighbors and children right alongside us. 
Article by Deborah Meier, Writer 
Deborah W. Meier is currently on the faculty of New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education as senior scholar and adjunct professor as well as Board member and director of New Ventures at Mission Hill, director and advisor to Forum for Democracy and Education, and on the Board of The Coalition of Essential Schools. She is active with the In Defense of Childhood organization http://www.indefenseofchildhood.org . Her books, The Power of Their Ideas, Lessons to America from a Small School in Harlem (1995), Will Standards Save Public Education (2000), In Schools We Trust (2002), Keeping School, with Ted and Nancy Sizer (2004) and Many Children Left Behind (2004) are all published by Beacon Press. 
More information at http://www.deborahmeier.com