The Work and Workers of Democracy

In our Education Week blog, Deborah Meier and I have been discussing the meaning of "democracy," as well as public policies that might promote democracy schools. Public policy can be a rallying point, and a take-off for discussion and debate. It can be a foundation for coalition building. Advancing policies for democracy in schools can also raise public awareness of the purpose of education.

Definitions are more than semantics. What democracy means makes a lot of difference for strategy. What policies - and other things -- will advance democracy in schools, both as an idea and as a living practice, while also advancing democracy?

If we understand democracy as collective power to shape the world around us, we highlight democracy as something we co-create. Last fall The New York Review of Books reprinted a conversation that the novelist Marilynne Robinson had with president Obama in Iowa. She argued that democracy gained its tremendous appeal in American history from the idea that it was "something people collectively made." This rattled Obama. It seemed clear that he had never thought about democracy in this way.

The idea of democracy as something we make, something that we co-create, highlights the work of making democracy schools. Democracy understood as our collective work also highlights democracy schools' role in preparing people who will make democracy through their work. We should pay attention to all the co-workers in making democracy, whatever their particular roles in formal governance structures.

Last weekend I made this point about the meaning and the work of democracy in Washington, speaking to deans of colleges of education at the American Education Research Association, making a presentation with Margaret Finders, chair of the education department at Augsburg College to the John Dewey Society, and talking to participants at the Council of Foundations meeting. All three groups were meeting in DC.
The book by Melissa Bass, The Politics and Civics of National Service, was extremely useful (Brookings Institution 2013). Bass has an excellent treatment of democracy-building policies, policies that "empower, enlighten, and engage citizens..."

She analyzes three major national service programs in American history, the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s; Volunteers in Service to America, begun by the Kennedy administration in the 1960s; and AmeriCorps, Bill Clinton's signature service program which Barack Obama expanded.

All had similarities. "Service" meant making a contribution to the nation and to communities. All had cross-partisan support. All had educational elements. But they understood service quite differently. It made a difference.

The Civilian Conservation Corps, which involved over three million young men from 1933 to 1942 in conservation effort like planting trees (sometimes it was called the "tree army"), building shelters and roads in parks, and many other activities, had a strong emphasis on public work - collective work that was visible and helped to build the nation's commonwealth, the national park system. Partly because of the work focus the CCC had enormous visibility -- even now, far more Americans know about the CCC than VISTA or AmeriCorps. It had also impacts that the other two service programs, focused on civic virtue, didn't have.

The young men of the CCC developed great pride in their work. They also learned identities of citizens through their work. They were not volunteers or people taking an idealistic break from the rest of their lives. Clinton described AmeriCorps as "taking time out to serve." That citizen identity of the CCC expressed through work, in contrast, stayed with them into everyday work, which Nan Kari and I discovered when we interviewed many veterans of the CCC for our book, Building America: The Democratic Promise of Public Work.

The work focus of the CCC -- and other programs like the Works Progress Administration -- contributed to the sense that democracy was something people were making in the 1930s. The historian Lisabeth Cohen wrote a book, Making a New Deal, whose title conveys the point.

We need to emphasize policies and practices that advance the work of making and sustaining democracy schools and the larger democracy. We need initiatives, like a new version of Cooperative Education, which tie liberal arts and citizenship to work experiences and also prepare students for citizenship expressed through their work in the future.

Democracy's future depends on renewing the understanding that we make it.