Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Democracy and schools

Choosing Democracy : a practical guide to multicultural education

There are at least two alternative views of democracy to consider.
Advocates of democracy in schooling, led by John Dewey, argued that what was needed was to educate the children of working people. Universal voting, along with universal education would make our society more democratic. An educated electorate would understand politics and the economy and make wise decisions for the entire society. Later, by the 1960’s, public education advocates argued that educating the common people to a higher level (Such as the G.I. Bill) would complete our transition to a deliberative or participatory democracy. This position is well developed by political philosopher Benjamin R. Barber in Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age, first published in 1984 and re published in 2003.

The strong democracy position is confounded by the historical record in which millions of voters and non voters who scrimp to put food on the table and to pay for their housing were quite willing in 2004 to re-elect a president who worked night and day to redistribute wealth and income from the poor to the rich. That is, voters, particularly when threatened with international terrorism, often do not vote in their economic self interests. In What's the Matter with Kansas? How the Conservatives Won the Heart of America.", author Thomas Frank provides a detailed and interesting description of how this is achieved.

An alternative view of democracy is presented by Richard A. Posner, a federal appelate judge, in Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy (Harvard, 2003). Posner argues that the U.S. political system is not so much self rule (democracy), but “rule by officials who are chosen by the people and who if they don’t perform are fired by the people”.
He provides interesting detail on how the courts function and how the public opinion and elections constrain elected officials. This latter view is, of course, more subject to manipulation as described well in Banana Republicans: How the Right Wing is Turning America into a One-party state (2004) , and in David Cay Johnson’s Perfectly Legal; The covert campaign to rig our tax system to benefit the rich and the super rich- and to cheat everybody else. (2003)

A great deal depends upon which view you adopt as a teacher and which view is implied in the curriculum decisions made by publishers, school districts and states.

The theme of extending democracy runs through the history of popular movements in the U.S. Some of these movements strengthened democracy; the most dramatic of these have been struggles for the right to vote. Voting was extended to women in 1920 as a result of the over 70 years of struggle by the Women’s suffrage movement , and then voting was extended to Southern Blacks as a result of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s after over 200 years of oppression. (Flacks,1985)
Although often taken for granted today, the establishment of public schooling k-12 and then the expansiion of public higher education since 1945 provide another important example of a long and honorable tradition of working for democracy and social justice in this nation.

In the U.S. power is exercised both by corporate elites, that it it is class dominated, and at other times power is pluralistic. While elites control the government and the economy they are limited by popular power including unions, elections, and social movements.
The philosopher Cornel West has written that within our system of weak democracy, there are two opposing tendencies; one toward more democracy and one toward more imperialism. (West, 2004)

While democratic power expanded as a consequence of popular movements and public protest int eht 1930’s and the 1960’s, since the Reagan Revolution of the 1980’s corporate power has accomodated to the changes, and expanded its own power through control of and manipulation of an activist government.
William Grieder in The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy (2003) and David Cay Johnson (2003) reveal clearly that if we are unable to achieve active, participatory democratic control over the commanding heights of our economy, then the major economic powers – the corporations- will achive political control over our governemental processes and we will loose our democracy. The corporate form of power will also use our government for aggressive foreign policy to extend economic control and markets. This imperialist direction has cost the lives of thousands of U.S. soldiers as well as creating an untenable public debt.
Teachers, particularly teachers working with poor and minority students who are tracked out of equal opportunity, need to understand this alternative view of democracy. This second corporate form of government means that the public schools will always be under funded. Under funding of schools in poor neighborhoods and minority neighborhoods is not a mistake. It is a necessary component of the corporate neo-liberal political economy.


Schools and teaching reflect society, and also participate in constructing future society. New forms of knowledge and new approaches to teaching have emerged in response to changes in our economy, in our society, and in our schools. Teachers have forged a variety of new strategies to respond to the demands for economic relevancy, democracy, equal opportunity, and this remarkable cultural and linguistic diversity.
In the book I share the insights gained by dozens of teachers working with bilingual and multicultural education as they developed new cross-cultural perspectives, new pedagogies and curricula, and new strategies and programs to respond both to the continuing social crises of schools that are failing and to educating students in these schools. Innovative teachers have found ways to validate students’ diverse cultures while preparing them to participate in the social, economic, and political mainstream of U.S. society and to construct a new democracy.

Teachers now know a great deal more about teaching in a cross-cultural environment than we knew in previous years. Effective teaching strategies and programs have been identified, clarified, and developed to take advantage of classroom diversity and to weave stronger, more united communities. Our next task is to develop strategies to construct a more democratic society.
We know that teachers can make a difference. Dedicated teachers from all racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds can learn to be effective cross-cultural teachers and brokers of information that provides students with greater access to economic opportunity and social equality. We know a great deal about teaching.
We now know that schools are not politically neutral. Teachers and schools are situated in specific economic, political environments. Study and reflection on that reality help teachers to select strategies that empower their students and help them succeed. Studies on the nature of race, class, and gender relations in our society provide teachers with a theoretical framework for selecting and evaluating teaching strategies, counseling and coaching strategies, and leadership strategies for schools.
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