Schools and the Democratic Renaissance

I gave the annual “Dewey Lecture” at the John Dewey Society last week, meeting in San Antonio (the talk is here), addressing the question posed in the title of a cover article by nine computer scientists in Scientific American: “Will Democracy Survive Big Data and Artificial Intelligence?

Yes. I argue that democracy can survive if we shift beyond mobilizing and protest to an organizing approach, a cross-partisan citizen politics which builds democracy from the ground up. Schools are a crucial site for learning and supporting this politics. John Dewey’s 1902 speech, “The School as Social Centre,” is a resource.

In his speech, Dewey illustrated his vision with Jane Addams’ Hull House, a settlement which welcomed individual immigrants and emphasized great cultural and intellectual contributions to America.

Hull House, grounded in the life of the Near West Side community in Chicago, was a meeting place for diverse groups to build relationships across differences. It was a center for people of different backgrounds to create a culture of mutual respect. It functioned as an adult education site for people trying to understand the complex reality of a world far different than the rural areas they had left. It was a place for keeping up to date about job skills and a launching pad for child labor protection and other organizing in the changing world of work.

All these roles have renewed relevance.

We can see the stirrings of a community-grounded school movement in networks like the Coalition for Community Schools, which includes several hundred schools and 70 partnering colleges and universities, and the Communities in Schools effort, with more than 2500 schools. These include elements of the Hull House and School as a Social Center model.

To move to the next stage, the community school movement needs a strong “democracy school” mission, championed today by leaders like Ira Harkavy, co-founder of the Coalition for Community Schools. This recalls periods when people had ownership in local schools and practiced citizen politics.

In The Transformation of the School, Lawrence Cremin described the citizen politics of education. “In almost every state citizens organized to do battle in the cause of public schools,” he wrote. The fight for common schools created odd coalitions. “The successful school leader was one who could with consummate skill simultaneously touch the hurt pride of the workingman, the pocketbook nerve of the wealthy, the status aspirations of the poor and the timid defensiveness of the cultured before the onslaught of the unlettered masses.”

Mechanisms for popular power in schools, from local school boards to parent teacher associations, created a sense of ownership. As Cremin put it, “By the artful device of lay control the public was entrusted with the continuing definition of the public philosophy taught its children.”

We have lost this sense of popular ownership and also the citizen politics of education. I see the deepest culprit as what the historian Robert Kanigel, in The One Best Way, calls the “credo of rational efficiency,” which has taken over schools like it has society. The focus on efficiency – getting there ever more quickly and cheaply with scant attention to where we are going – is disastrous in schools. It has led to a focus on test scores and neglect of public purposes like preparing students to be contributing citizens.

The efficiency focus is widespread. As Kanigel puts it, referring to Frederick Winslow Taylor who pioneered the efficiency method, “It is only modest overstatement to say that we are all Taylorized…from assembly-line tasks timed to a fraction of a second to lawyers recording their time by fractions of an hour, to standardized MacDonald’s hamburgers, to information operators constrained to grant only so many seconds per call.”

We had a vivid illustration of the impact of the efficiency creed when our Center for Democracy and Citizenship joined with the National Issues Forums and other groups to organize discussions on the purposes of higher education. People were surprised at the question itself. Dave Senjem, the Republican minority leader of the Minnesota Senate, said, “‘What’s the purpose of higher education?’ is a profound question that we’ve never discussed in all my years in the legislature.”

By using algorithms which highlight a narrow, reductive definition of groups for large scale activation around emotions such as anger or hate, campaigns use the efficiency method to shape today’s politics. Chuck Todd and Carrie Dann of NBC News, in “How Big Data Broke American Politics,” compared election ads over twenty years. They found appeals to undecided voters has sharply declined. Political strategists activate their supporters with appeals which have become steadily more inflammatory. Todd and Dann conclude “polarization isn’t new, but it’s definitely worse than it was 20 years ago. And thanks to technology and the manipulation of demographic data, those charged with the setting and resetting of American politics…have set the stage and conditioned the country for a more permanent polarized atmosphere.”

There are also stories which illustrate how a public message which revives the idea of schools as owned by communities can generate cross-partisan citizen politics. One example came last year when an unlikely coalition beat a popular Republican governor in Georgia in a campaign to prevent his take-over of schools he designated as failing.

The governor, Nathan Deal, put a constitutional amendment on the ballot to allow the governor to take charge of “chronically failing” schools and the tax revenue which supports them. Under his plan, called the Opportunity School District, failed schools would either be run directly by a new state agency or be converted to charter schools under management contracts, open to profit- making businesses.

Deal claimed that the amendment would “empower parents” and end “an inexcusable crisis” that left 67,000 kids trapped in cycles of poverty and crime. With support from large corporations and leaders in national charter school groups, Deal’s amendment was expected to pass easily.

The fight against the amendment began with a defensive tone, but as the campaign progressed and citizen organizers and local civic leaders became involved, the framework shifted from defense of schools to local power over schools. The opposition named their group the Committee to Keep Georgia Schools Local. They described the amendment as a power grab. They pointed out that the amendment proposed a false solution with no constructive ideas for changing troubled schools like better teaching methods or community involvement through programs like tutoring.

The coalition was highly diverse, including the teachers union, black clergy and inner city leaders, the Georgia Parent Teacher Association, rural school boards, and key Republican strongholds. The Deal amendment was defeated with over 60% voting in opposition.

Gerald Taylor, a veteran community organizer, served as a consultant to the campaign. He believes it showed the potential to bridge what many have seen as intractable racial and urban-rural divides, using the theme of local power in education. In Taylor’s view, the key to success was the shift from a mobilizing approach to an approach that encouraged local creativity, engagement with local cultures, and local leadership. The campaign combined technology, metrics and communication with what Taylor calls “social knowledge.” It stressed a larger vision of schools. “We argued that schools are much more than buildings or places to teach kids,” he said. “They are rallying centers in rural communities and inner cities. They are economic engines. They are community assets where people should have ownership.

The Georgia campaign shows that that “good politics” can be “smart politics.” Like the growth of community schools, it also shows stirrings of a democratic renaissance.


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