This quote was posted above an inner door in the main office of a school I subbed in last year. It struck me like a breath of fresh air, but also like a sparrow in a big box hardware store, beautiful and free in essence but trapped and doomed unless it could escape to the open air.
What could it mean? Sounded cool–so democratic, you know. I liked it–thought someone might have the best interests of students at heart there, even of teachers too, if he or she thought democracy was important and not just cooperation and conformity. Who posted it there? I wondered.
But dissent is not, in itself, democratic. What’s democratic is everyone having a say, based on, I would like to think, the higher human faculties of adequate knowledge, reason, forethought, and good will, as above mere interest, passion, instinct, tradition, and social conditioning. Thjat’s all off the top of my own head, however–not a very democratic definition. But I never went in much for those–words have to have a good deal of gravity for there to be any continuity of sense to them, in my opinion.
And what about democracy in school, anyway? What role did it play in your schooling,? Did your teacher consent to let your math class work on the lawn outside when the weather got warm in the spring? Decide on test dates, content, classroom rules? Okay, so maybe not in the younger grades, but I guess we all at least got to vote on class president and so on then, and as we got older, there was more participation, right? Or, wait a second, was it…it was…less participation. Required courses, minimum GPA, mandated tests, approved texts, sign-in, sign-out, tight schedule, thirty-six weeks, no choice of teachers, classmates, venue. Even a snow day, an intervention of God himself, has to be made up at the end of the year. Not that the teachers were monopolizing the authority, either. So much of it is taken out of their hands, let alone the part that they can hand back to students in trust, as they grow into maturity.
What about the biggie, that decision most people never even think about, the decision of whether to go to school at all? It being legal in the U.S. to build an education outside the system, with more or less freedom and oversight, depending on the state.
But what about that sign on the wall? What did it mean? Was it for teachers, meaning that they should disagree with administrative decrees, district agendas, testing protocol? Should they say no to another staff meeting, no to the accepted way of teaching certain controversial subjects, no to grades? Was it for students? Should they refuse to do certain tasks they found a waste of time, choose their own books apart from the list, their own way of learning? Not follow the seating plan?
Or was it really an underhanded way of saying democracy does not work here? Because, after all, democracy often means dissent, and we can’t have that here.