Against Political Saviors -- Government as Empowering Partner

With Deborah Meier

What does government as empowering partner look like in education?

The exchange below is adapted from a conversation which Deborah Meier, the great democracy educator, and I are having on Education Week about reviving education for the democratic way of life.

Dear Deb

Your mention of the Sanders campaign in your last blog and the one today "Inviting Policy Ideas for Democracy Schools," brings to mind that this election shows how many people, especially young people, are eager to help make change. But this is also the Age of Trump. Many people feel powerless and look for a savior.

Expanding government benefits of health and education is one thing. But we need to develop ideas that illustrate government "by" the people, not only "for" the people. How can we recover the idea that everyday citizens are supposed to be in charge, producers not only consumers, and government can be an empowering partner?

We worked on this in Reinventing Citizenship, an initiative I coordinated with the Clinton White House from 1993-95, developing ideas to overcome the gap between citizens and government. A team led by Carmen Sirianni, our research director, proposed a "Civic Partnership Council" to coordinate civic engagement practices across agencies. It influenced the 1995 Clinton State of the Union address and had support from William Galston, White House policy director. Polling by Stan Greenberg showed potential interest. But Washington politics thwarted the idea.

It's important to recall that government as empowering partner is possible. Jess Gilbert's terrific new book, Planning Democracy: Agrarian Intellectuals and the Intended New Deal (Yale University Press, 2015) describes an extraordinary, little known case.

From 1938 to 1941, a group of agrarian leaders in the Department of Agriculture worked with land grant colleges, Cooperative Extension workers, and community leaders to develop a democracy initiative built on continuing education and cooperative land use planning. Supported by Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, they included M. L. Wilson, undersecretary of agriculture, Howard Tolley, chief of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics and engaged intellectuals like the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, Charles Johnson, author of The Negro in American Civilization and others.

Against scholarship which argues that the Department of Agriculture in those years was led by technocrats, Gilbert shows that the agrarian leaders were "organic intellectuals of the Midwestern family-farming class." They created a counter-narrative that challenged the version of the American Dream where the ideal is making a lot of money. They respected local cultures, local histories, family farming, and ordinary people's intelligence. Wilson remarked, "I'm a great believer in the ability of the average man to find his way if he is given light."

Their philosophy, drawing on John Dewey, was education for a democratic way of life. "They believed that democracy required continuous learning, personal growth, cultural adjustment, and civic discussion," writes Gilbert.

The agrarian leaders worked with farm groups and unions, churches, youth clubs, professional and business groups, and government agencies. They trained about 60,000 discussion leaders. Tens of thousands of groups discussed topics ranging from family farming and soil erosion to the meaning of democracy. The effort also organized schools of philosophy to educate educators - developing what we call "citizen professionals" who think broadly about their work -- in topics such as the challenges facing modern societies. They sponsored lectures for hundreds of USDA employees on democracy, with leading intellectuals of the day.

All this conveyed the idea that democracy is something people make together, not simply consume.

The initiative ended in late 1941 after Henry Wallace left the department to become Vice President. The Farm Bureau, the big farmers' organization, mounted fierce opposition. Conservatives in Congress charged it with being "communist." All drew on the story line, developing on both right and left, that experts know best.

But the effort, called the Program Study and Discussion, was immense. Three million farm men and women took part in local discussion groups in every region of the country. Tens of thousands participated in 150 schools of philosophy. A lesson for our age of us-versus-them partisanship: all materials included critics of the administration from both left and right, as well as supporters. This was a "different kind of politics."

The effort also succeeded in launching a process of participatory land use planning across the country. Among other things, it helped birth soil conservation districts and generated plans for preventing soil erosion and fertility depletion and protecting family farms.

What policies can we propose that build democracy and agency in and around schools?


Dear Harry,

It's worth stressing that the habits that help sustain democracy and the habits that assist oligarchy are different--in dialect and substance. The relationship between means and ends is one of those things that good schools should be exploring. The trade-offs. Add to that your quote from M.L. Wilson about the belief in the intellectual ability of "ordinary" people--of those thousands of ordinary people who you describe in your letter.

The belief that "ordinary" human beings are extraordinary was reinforced for me when I became a mother and then taught 4 and 5 year olds. We are born theorists working out how the world works, persevering even when our hypotheses so often turn out to be wrong. Rare is the infant who gives up easily. This belief is now, for me, a fact not just a wish.

You and I are seeking new ways to embed these ideas, reinventing communities, into the world of schooling and the often alienated community of citizens which schools depend on. Perhaps only schools that are the centers for 5-18 year olds as well as adults can be sustained (this is what leads me to be less enthusiastic than I once was about schools of choice vs neighborhood-based schooling).

You ask: What legislation could a city, state or federal government invent that would, at the very least, shift the odds in favor of schools that are learning spaces for students, teachers and the citizenry they depend on?

Here are a few. Giving parents and teachers more time to talk together and parents paid-leave to visit their children's schools, maybe just as citizens? Money to improve facilities? Money to "waste" on lengthening the teacher's day, but not the student's? Funding for child-care and after school enrichment? Buildings that are free for community use? Exploring new ways to select principals democratically by the people who are its constituents?

Let's get a lot out on the table and argue about their importance-as well as their potential dangers.