How Democratic Are Our Schools?

"Interesting times." You can always expect bad news when you hear someone say that. But the amount of hogwash passing as common sense staggers me in my own particular field of work -- public schooling. I try to pass it off to friends as -- "interesting." I suppose it is; but it's also troubling.

I was attracted to teaching when, in the course of subbing in Chicago southside K-8 schools (as a way to make a little money when my kids were young), I discovered that what passes for an education for far too many kids is awful but also interesting. Especially those who are poor and black.

It seemed a miracle that democracy had survived as long as it had given anywhere between 10 and 15 years of involuntary "incarceration" in school. I use the word incarceration cautiously, but it is an inescapable act -- aside from a draft army, it's the only institution that takes away our freedom even though we've done nothing wrong. (In fact if we do something wrong we're not allowed to stay in school.) I'm in favor of it -- warts and all. But there is virtually nothing about the design that helps us develop the habits of heart and mind essential to democracy. And such habits are not "natural." We aren't born with them. Some are even not very commonsensical.

For example, many (maybe most citizens) believe that it takes a majority to win a vote. It does when children are picking class president or their favorite color. But not when it comes to making laws for the nation as a whole?

But more seriously, the habits of schooling make best sense if we were a dictatorship. They rest on a strict hierarchical structure in which insubordination is the highest crime. For adults and children. Being "cooperative" means "getting along" by "doing what you're supposed to." Sharing, with or without consent, getting in line (no jumping line), being quiet, raising one's hand and working hard (or at least looking like you are dong so) sum up the virtues. Test scores -- on which you are taught early on that there is always just one right answer (and no one is interested in why you thought otherwise) and is the only intellectual skill of serious importance. It determines whether you'll be left back (which next to parental death is a child's worst fear), all the way to getting a high-school diploma (without which, you are told, no decent job will eve come your way). Heavy stuff.

So I shouldn't be surprised that folks are really bewildered by teachers demanding -- through their union -- that they have the same due process we offer all other public employees, many other privately employed workers and every single citizen of the land. It's at the heart of democracy, the notion of fairness rests upon "having one's day in court." We take it as far as to be willing to let a man go free in cases where we are "unsure," and we expect to be treated as innocent until proven otherwise.

Those are not just sound principles for disciplinary actions, but good intellectual habits too. The "habits of mind" that the schools I started were based fundamentally on the idea that the way we persuade others in a democracy is by reasoned use of evidence -- not merely passion and coercion.

Except that we've all been sold the idea that the present crisis of schools -- however we define that -- requires us to abandon due process. It's like our fear of foreign terrorism that has led us to informally rewrite the constitution to give the federal government the right to bypass such due process, even for citizens, where "terrorism" might be involved.

What in the world am I referring to that's equivalent to malpractice in our schools? The suggestions that we eliminate tenure is simply a straightforward way to say that teachers are always in a position to be fired without due process by the school principal. The terrible "rubber room" was simply the place they put teachers charged with some school-based "crime" until they were prepared to give them due process (including bringing evidence to bear) or until the desperate captive agreed to resign, retire or quit.

Many states have provided "tenure" to state employees -- including teachers -- for a simple reason: The danger of cronyism and corruption is too great. But I'd add another good reason. In an institution designed to prepare future generations for democracy, basic democratic rights and responsibilities should be carefully nurtured, taught and defended. Until our last breath.

I have a few other "interesting" thoughts about the uses of fear.