January 2017: Democracy = Service

Reflections
Kathie Foster, Acting Superintendent


As we embrace the start of another new year, some of us may be filled with excitement as we anticipate the adventures that await us in 2017. Others among us may feel a sense of trepidation as we prepare to chart unknown territory. Whatever it is that we may be experiencing, a new year always offers a clean slate and an opportunity for a fresh start. This year, we enter a new era with the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States. Whether or not we voted for Mr. Trump it is important that, as citizens, we recognize and appreciate our right to participate in the democratic process.

What does it mean to be a citizen in a democracy and what role does public education play in this process?  It is important to emphasize that democracy is much more than exercising the right to vote or performing our civic duty. Rather, in its broadest definition, is an ideal to which we must aspire.

The term democracy is rooted in ancient Greece and originates from two Greek words, “demos” (the people) and “kratia” (power or authority).  At its core, a democracy is centered on investing power in its people. Historically, the connection between democracy and education extends as far back as Plato. In terms of our own brief history, Thomas Jefferson believed that a public education would “furnish all citizens with the knowledge and training that will enable them to pursue happiness ... [and] prepare citizens to exercise their rights of self-government…”

Later in the 19th century, Horace Mann envisioned a common school open to all students regardless of race, class, or background and, at the turn of the 20th century, John Dewey wrote that schools should serve as “engines of democracy” in which children develop the habits of mind that would enable them to fully participate as citizens. More recently, education philosopher Maxine Greene theorized that the purpose of education is to help students to realize their deep connection to - and responsibility for - not only their own individual experience but also for others. Deborah Meier, often considered the founder of the modern small schools movement, argues that although “democracy is not natural...we cannot afford to let our citizens reach 18 without [the kind of] real life experience [that participating in the democratic process provides]. It is far too costly.” (Meier, 2016, https://deborahmeier.com/).  I agree with Ms. Meier.  I believe that, as educators, we have an ethical obligation to teach students what it means to be citizens in a democratic society.  

So what does this look like and how do we teach students to develop democratic dispositions?  In order to learn about democracy, all members of a school community must have ongoing opportunities to participate and contribute. Democracy begins with an openhearted presence as we recognize that each member of the community has a voice and a need to be heard.  In classrooms and schools, it is imperative that we create safe spaces for an open exchange of ideas, encourage dissenting voices, help each other wrestle with the complexity of issues, strive to understand multiple perspectives, and engage in healthy discourse to make informed decisions.  

Teaching students to be productive and responsible citizens requires that we intentionally design experiences to help them understand our collective responsibility to each other as we practice service. Service begins in small ways and blossoms into a lifelong habit. It can start with something as simple as the daily routine of a Morning Meeting. When students gather at the start of the day and greet each other by name we are instilling an important habit, one that will serve them well throughout their lives. As individual classrooms develop community contracts to establish a unique set of expectations intended to guide each member, students experience how serving the greater good of the entire class benefits the whole.

Service happens when we make an effort to deliberately include others.  It happens when we listen to one another’s ideas with our hearts as well as with our minds.  It happens when we ask how we can care for ourselves and others. How can we contribute to a better classroom, a better school, a better community?  When we reach out to serve another, we manifest a healthy more peaceful world.

Idealistically, I share John Dewey’s unwavering belief in a “democratic faith.” Democracy is indeed our hope. It is our hope for promising the best chance for children young and old to spread their wings.  It is our hope for ensuring equity and for guaranteeing that all students are provided with equal opportunities.  It allows for, and encourages, multiple voices to participate in difficult discussions.  It raises social consciousness and fights for issues of justice and freedom.  It creates a sense of personal and collective responsibility within the community and well beyond. It is our abiding faith in our democracy’s foundational principles that will continue to sustain us as individuals and as a nation now and in the future.

As we are stewards of our homes, our communities and our beautiful blue Earth, so too must we be stewards of our democracy. Be here now. Be present. Participate.



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