Fighting Autocracy with Democracy

We need to name and advance resources for democracy these days. Deborah Meier, in our blog conversation in Education Week about democracy in schools ("How Useful Is 'Academia'?" March 3), draws attention to young people's intelligence, and also the way education often squashes kids' spirit by policing the way they talk and think with concepts like "academic." This is how she puts it,

"I've always hated it when visitors to kindergartens ooh and aah over what 'cute' things the students say. They ignore, in this way, the children's genuine insights. In fact, these 5-year-olds are genuinely expressing interesting ideas, not trying to be cute at all. And if we listened with respect we'd realize that democracy is not a utopian idea--that virtually all 5-year-olds are capable of tackling important ideas and expressing them well until we discourage their intellectual curiosity with [terms like] 'academics.''

I love her blog. For many years, I have seen young people's intelligence, seriousness, and potential for doing substantial democracy work, what we call public work, through the youth empowerment initiative Public Achievement, now active in more than 20 countries. I also know from such experiences that young people's intelligence and capacity are vastly undervalued in society and education. Videos on Public Achievement like "We the (Young) People" and "Public Achievement in Fridley - Transforming Special Education" make the point.

In addition to highlighting young people's intelligence and capacity, Meier's blog has other resources for democracy in hard times. Here are five:

Democratic Deliberation

She describes discussion that is "noisy and maybe even on occasion rude, across generations, where adults and young people listen to each other and sometimes take each other seriously." This is constructive deliberation. It involves learning a set of democratic habits. This is what I was getting at in calling for "Putting the Public Back in Public Education."

Sustained deliberations can teach people to respect the intelligence and contributions of others. They counter anti-democratic trends. We also need such discussions to help reframe policy debates that are now narrow, polarized, and unproductive.

Free Spaces

Meier also identifies places where such deliberations can take place like schools community colleges, and libraries -- free spaces. Here are others. In the civil rights movement beauty parlors and barber shops were often free spaces. So were churches. In the deliberation I described earlier in the New Deal ("Against Political Saviors," January 28), with three million people discussing the future of rural America, land grant colleges and universities played roles through cooperative extension.


My colleague Margaret Finders, chair of the education department at Augsburg College, uses an idea developed by Kenneth Burke, called "terministic screens." These are terms which hide some realities and emphasize others. Screens can squash the democratic agency of students and teachers. She sites "teacher effectiveness," "achievement gap," "accountability," "standards."

"Academic" is such a screen. It's an individualistic, narrow idea of excellence which hides kids' intelligence and capacity for serious discussion in plain sight, in the process dampening their spirits and disempowering them.

"Democratic excellence"

We can only fight negatives with positives. Meier offers an alternative idea to "academic" which could be called "democratic excellence" -- outstanding work which contributes to democracy, giving the example of Jay Featherstone's book, Transforming Teacher Education, which suggests ways teacher educators can work "in the real world" to help change schools. "Cooperative excellence" is a related idea. Lani Guinier's book, The Tyranny of the Meritocracy, is full of stories of cooperative excellence, minority and working class kids helping each other to do well.

Citizen politics

Finally, Meier argues that "democracy assumes 'politics.'" This is the citizen politics we've been discussing - engaging "differences of opinion based on different stories and experiences." Such politics revolves around everyday citizens, not politicians, parties, or partisanship. Politicians can play helpful roles but they are not the center of the universe. Citizen politics, like deliberation, depends on and develops democratic habits.

The other day in the Republican debate Donald Trump hinted at politics by saying that to get anything done you need give and take, flexibility, negotiation rather than ideological rigidity. The problem is that everything in Trump's world revolves around Trump. He puts himself as the "top dog," as Omar Wasow tweeted.

Autocracy is the top dog taking power. There are a lot of worrisome autocratic trends not simply Trump.

Democracy is our collective power, our ability to act, our collective and ongoing work, not someone or a small group doing it for us.

We can only fight autocracy with democracy.