The media casts Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders as populists. But a civil rights activist reminds us that the great populist movements of the past channeled people’s anger into a force for constructive change.
BY HARRY BOYTE | JANUARY 15, 2016
Coming back to the US after time in South Africa, anger in the election is like a blast furnace. I’m also struck by the ubiquitous use of populism as a framework of analysis.
One side pits winners and losers against each other in a race for the American Dream, while the other wonders what might be possible if we work together to form communities, build schools and create a culture of mutual respect.
In the final piece of the rich “Educating, Organizing, and Thinking Democracy” Education Week blog exchange between Deborah Meier and Harry Boyte, Deborah says about her work in New York City, “…[I]n the early 1990s we invented a possible answer [to how to do democratic education] that, alas, we were never able to test out…If we hadn’t been stopped by a new chancellor and a new state superintendent we’d have learned a lot.” Observing a similar experience in Boston, she writes of a similar democratic effort, “[T]hose in power seemed remarkably uninterested in this public solution, and preferred to put their money into charter chains or vouchers.” She notes a similar experience in 39 NYC high schools, “Again with relatively little attention. Amazing.”
She is, she says, “desperate” to broaden understanding of these efforts, presumably so they can be expanded upon in public schools systems. She notes one consequence when they aren’t, “Some of the young admirers of these efforts feel stymied and turn to opening ‘mom and pop’ small charters with more autonomy…” and she asks, “How can we break through the silence by making these public alternatives more visible before they die off as their autonomies are chipped away?”
So what do I know from experience, observation and research about the essentials of schooling for democracy? I know that education which prepares the young to join and even surpass the adult world, where learning sticks with them, happens best (maybe only) when the novice is in the company of experts who accept the child as is and takes it for granted that she will become an expert over time. It requires that the adults demonstrate their expertise in action, and the novice can observe, ask questions, and try out new knowledge in a setting where he/she can fail without shame. That’s the setting children find themselves in at birth, with a ratio generally of several experts per novice.
What are the special features of such learning? The novice is accepted lovingly, is assumed to be able to become an expert (an adult), has many chances to observe and to experiment, and has good reason to trust the setting and the people there. Adults delight in children’s early mistakes because we can see the beginning of understanding and competence. We even cherish their mistakes.
In February, Harry Boyte and Augsburg President Paul Pribbenow were interviewed for a Civic Caucus Focus on Human Capital. Here’s an excerpt from the summary:
According to Harry Boyte, senior scholar at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, we must think of colleges and universities as more than a private good, more than a ticket to a job, but as a public resource. He believes that is the legacy of the land-grant tradition, in which there was a great sense of interactivity, partnership and collaborative work and university scholars were seen as grounded in the public problems of society. But he says that vision goes against the conventional wisdom of higher education today, where elitism has become common, along with detachment from community engagement.
Augsburg President Paul Pribbenow says colleges can play a critical role both in equipping students to go out into the world with a sense of agency, no matter what their profession is, and in finding ways to be part of the community.
Here’s an excerpt from Harry Boyte’s column in Huffington Post from February 20, 2015:
A conversation is just beginning between practitioners and theorists of civic agency and scholars and educators promoting educational experiences which develop Executive function. It may have large potential.
Today, most people feel powerless to do much of anything other than complain or protest about public problems from the local traffic sign to racial profiling, from school bullying to global warming. Young people in low income and minority communities especially feel powerless.
Here’s an excerpt from Harry Boyte’s column in Huffington Post from February 9, 2015: Today education is “delivered” to students seen as passive customers. This view has replaced the idea that students are agents and co-creators of their learning, as well as the idea that the purpose of education is not only to prepare students for individual success but most importantly to be contributors to a democratic society. The delivery paradigm produces no ownership. As economist Lawrence Summers, no champion of participatory democracy, nonetheless once usefully quipped, “Nobody washes their rented car.”