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Educating, Organizing, and Thinking Democracy

Education Week
Bridging Differences

by Deborah Meier and Harry Boyte

Dear Harry and friends,

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.

Most rarely reach such a space again in life which rich and poor share.

In schools everything described above is absent.  There are 20-30 novices and only one expert. The expert is not in a position to “show” but only to “tell.”  There is no reason for the child to trust others in the setting–peers or experts. In fact there are lots of reasons for the child to distrust them.  More so for some children than others.

I start with this question:  How can I create school settings that optimize the child’s chance for success? Multi-age classrooms help, additional adults and smaller class sizes help, different activities that appeal to and engage a child’s interests help, timely feedback without judgment and few interruptions help.  And more. We need a school–not just a classroom–that is trustworthy, where adults of many sorts, as well as fellow students younger and older, are inclined to be supportive.   We need teachers who respect their own judgment and their own ability to experiment, change their minds, act like adults.  There need to be reasons for the child to believe he or she is in a place that respects their family and community, where the child can freely share experiences in both domains–school and home–with teachers and parents. Young people have an uncanny awareness of when they or their family is disrespected.

If we have in mind that children should spend a minimum of 13 or 14 years in such institutions in order to come out respecting democracy–even to recognize it –all these and more should be in place.

Am I being utopian?



Deb and colleagues,

Your description of democratic education is full of insight. I would say your elements of education encourage the development of agency in children, especially individual agency. You remind me of Nelson Mandela’s “I am the master of my fate, the captain of my soul,” from the poem “Invictus.”

I’ve been learning about what’s called “Executive Function” from child development scientists like Phil Zelazo and Stephanie Carlson at the University of Minnesota. Executive function involves children’s skills of mobilizing emotional and cognitive resources for intentional, self-directed action. They’ve found that executive function depends on a sense of agency. A sense of agency grows from experiences where children have opportunity to self-direct their efforts, with support, coaching, and encouragement. Just what you’re describing.

Let me emphasize another element. If education is not only democratic but also for democracy understood as a way of life, we need to focus equally on civic agency, relational skills and habits of working across differences to shape the world around us. In our own work we’ve sought to cultivate civic agency by bringing community organizing skills and practices like one on one relational meetings and power mapping into schools, colleges, and other settings.

Public Achievement, the youth civic empowerment initiative I earlier mentioned, involves young people learning such skills around real world problems or tasks they identify. Young people’s concerns range widely, from bullying or cruelty to animals to racism or saving the environment. In PA they develop a project which they can take action on with an everyday citizen political quality – we call public work. This develops confidence and hope.

Both individual and civic agency counter the technocracy which we discussed. Technocracy in my view means “control by outside experts,” so I was taken aback by your describing the developmental goal for children as their becoming “experts.”  But I think I know you mean, something much more relational than “outside expert,” more like a craft-person/apprenticeship relationship.

Let me raise another point about education for democracy. Some schools – and colleges and universities – once were places where children and educators learned what democracy means. They communicated the largeness of the idea. “Democracy is a great word,” said the poet Walt Whitman. I learned in the freedom movement’s citizenship schools that democracy is cultural, social, economic – a way of life, not simply elections.

Democracy’s meaning has dramatically shrunk. Now democracy generally means elections. “We know what democracy is supposed to be about,” said Bernie Sanders. “It is one person, one vote, with every citizen having an equal say.”  All the candidates for president define democracy as elections. So does most academic literature, such as the influential report of the American Political Science Association’s Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy. So does the news.  So we have the large task of broadening democracy’s meaning once again, even as we describe democratic experiences.


Joe DiMaggio was my brother’s mentor in his imagination when he watched baseball.  One can be mentored in many ways (by authors!), but to serve democracy are there certain ones, like “agency”, that are “musts”?   What would be required of schools if we could agree on a small set of such? Deb

October 13, Boyte blogs about his father-in-law’s experience in a hospital and school parallels.