Sunday, March 28, 2010

Schooling as if Democracy Matters

The focus of our Winter 2008 issue of the Journal of Educational Controversy was on the topic, “Schooling as if Democracy Matters.” In that issue, we raised the question about the ways we should teach the young about the foundations of our democracy and our collective identity in an age of the patriot act, NSA surveillance, extraordinary rendition, preemptive wars, enemy combatants -- all likely to involve violations of civil rights and liberties and a curtain of government secrecy? We asked, what story do we tell our young about who we are, who we have been, and who we are becoming?

I’d like to raise this same question in light of today’s events. In an interesting NY Times op-ed article, “The Rage Is Not About Health Care,” Frank Rich talks about some of the underlying reasons for the rise in rage, venomous rhetoric, violence, and anxieties in today’s demonstrations against the recently adopted health care bill. Comparing the bill’s passage to earlier bills that shook the country – the Medicare Act of 1965 and the Social Security Act of 1935, Rich describes the rhetoric and the upheavals that these bills also caused. But the bill that comes closest to the type of vitriolic criticism that today’s bill is evoking, Rich argues, is the Civil Rights Bill of 1964.

This may sound like a strange claim given that the present Health Care bill actually contains many of the recommendations of the Republican Party, falling far short of the single payer system or public option plan that more liberal proponents advocated. Rather than a “government takeover,” it extends the free market’s involvement in health care. While there are legitimate arguments over health care entitlement, the type of reaction we are experiencing seems to be disproportionate. Rich argues that the health care bill is just a spark that is galvanizing anxieties at a deeper level.

He offers the following explanation for today’s rising tide of rage:

"The health care bill is not the main source of this anger and never has been. It’s merely a handy excuse. The real source of the over-the-top rage of 2010 is the same kind of national existential reordering that roiled America in 1964.

"In fact, the current surge of anger — and the accompanying rise in right-wing extremism — predates the entire health care debate. The first signs were the shrieks of “traitor” and “off with his head” at Palin rallies as Obama’s election became more likely in October 2008. Those passions have spiraled ever since — from Gov. Rick Perry’s kowtowing to secessionists at a Tea Party rally in Texas to the gratuitous brandishing of assault weapons at Obama health care rallies last summer to “You lie!” piercing the president’s address to Congress last fall like an ominous shot.

"If Obama’s first legislative priority had been immigration or financial reform or climate change, we would have seen the same trajectory. The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House — topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman — would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play. It’s not happenstance that Frank, Lewis and Cleaver — none of them major Democratic players in the health care push — received a major share of last weekend’s abuse. When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan “Take our country back!,” these are the people they want to take the country back from.

"They can’t. Demographics are avatars of a change bigger than any bill contemplated by Obama or Congress. The week before the health care vote, The Times reported that births to Asian, black and Hispanic women accounted for 48 percent of all births in America in the 12 months ending in July 2008. By 2012, the next presidential election year, non-Hispanic white births will be in the minority. The Tea Party movement is virtually all white. The Republicans haven’t had a single African-American in the Senate or the House since 2003 and have had only three in total since 1935. Their anxieties about a rapidly changing America are well-grounded."
(The New York Times, March 27, 2010)

Both the 1964 and 2010 bills have become the catalyst for shaking the nation’s core understanding of itself. Rich notes the silence resulting from the lack of leadership among today's political leaders, who often tend to exploit the anxieties and fears instead. And this leaves us with the question with which I began this post. What is the responsibility of our teachers and public intellectuals for addressing these deeper issues in the classrooms and in the public square. We hope to address these more profound questions in our summer 2011 issue of the journal on “The Education our Children Deserve.”

(cross-posted on Social Issues blog)

2 comments:

Sam said...

Our primary challenge is not just to teach kids about democracy, but also -- and more importantly -- to provide learning settings that are democratic. Teaching kids about the three branches, the role of dissent, and the importance of voting matter -- but not nearly as much as creating an authoritative (as opposed to authoritarian) learning environment where adults skillfully guide and facilitate the learning process, striking the right balance between individual freedom and group structure, giving young people an opportunity to help shape the culture adults and children share, and learning how to channel the power and uniqueness of their own unique voice in meaningful, responsible ways. That should be our leading priority at every turn -- and oh by the way they'll also learn about democracy in the process of learning how to use their minds well.

Lorraine Kasprisin said...

Hi Sam,

I couldn’t agree with you more. Living democracy isn’t just learning about democracy. In fact, the Educational Institute for Democratic Renewal that houses the journal and which I started a few years ago has as its mission the goal of disseminating ideas for democratic schooling. We partner with a school that is part of John Goodlad’s League of Democratic Schools and we are trying to share ideas with others concerned about the public purposes of our schools.

I think many have expressed your concern so I wanted to share another concern that I have --namely, the nature of the intellectual discussion that we are carrying out in our schools and about our schools. Are we confronting the controversial issues of our day, are we looking below the surface for the meaning of today’s events, are we adding an intellectual voice to political decisions like the recent critical voices of historians on the curricular decisions currently made by the Texas State Board of Education. Although I know there are individual teachers who carry on these discussions every day, I am discouraged with the level of dialogue that is taking place in the national and state political debates. How do we elevate the conversation in the public square?