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Democracy Starts From The Bottom Up

The population that makes up the structure we call “school” can be placed on a continuum to show the way in which each individual is contributing to the development (or hindrance) of democracy. Point blank: each individual needs to be knowledgeable of the fact that he or she can push schools further towards a democratic entity, but they must be cognizant of the fact that schools were originally constructed as opponents to democracy. Of course, educational historians would love to have you believe that one of the original purposes of schooling was to teach people how to behave in a democracy, but that opinion seems to work in stark contrast to rows, grades, standards, and an emphasis on conformity rather than original thought and cognitive development.

Perhaps the original proponents of schooling were more realistic about what it took to be successful in a democracy. That’s why everyone was trained to act as a widget and obtain a line of work by acting as a cog in the machine and performing the same rote task over and over again. Mix in a little discussion of history and citizenship and, all of a sudden, the misconception of what a democratic state is supposed to be comes to fruition. I would even go so far as to say that this type of educational schooling and pedagogy is what resulted in low turnouts for elections. Contrast this rote methodology in schools to what occurs today and one can see how students are working towards more “voice” and choice when it comes to how they act and learn. The students have become empowered through technology and, now that adults view them as a force to reckon with, have become more involved in discussing politics and improving voter turnout.

Every other adult in schools falls into one category for me when it comes to advancing democracy in schools: catalyst. If we all take a stake in helping students understand that their voice is important and that they have options when it comes to their education. It is almost as if adults in schools need to steal some Marxism and push towards a Proletariat Revolution by the students. The more that we urge kids to speak their minds, demand more options, and contribute positively to their education, the more pressure is put on the system to mold education based on a democratic state rather than a dictatorship.

Without question, many would resist and attempt to put down this type of insurrection by students. Our purpose, as catalysts needs to continue to be pushing students in the democratic direction while taking on those that would like to maintain the status quo. If education is to move the way of a democratic state, it will take the kids to ask for it, fight for it, and force it down the throats of those who are currently in charge. Similar to that of a King, no leaders of buildings, districts, or countries want to lose the power that they have “earned”. This needs to change.

Recently, I read a tweet that made the following statement: the 21st century is a bad time to be a control freak. We need to start preaching that in our schools. Every teacher should feel it is his or her role to subvert the curriculum and prompt students to demand choice and democracy within the structure. It’s time for students to say enough with the uniform curriculum, enough with the uniform scope and sequence, enough with the rows, and enough with the hierarchy.

About Aaron Eyler

Aaron is a U.S. history teacher in a Central Jersey school district. In addition, to his Bachelor's degree in History and Education certification, he has a Master's degree in Educational Administration and Leadership.


16 thoughts on “Democracy Starts From The Bottom Up

  1. Aaron,

    I like your revolutionary approach. It certainly stokes the fires to fuel a movement. It is amazing to me when in any system, the largest number of stakeholders has the smallest voice in deciding how the system operates…in this case students.

    I strongly believe that a partnership needs to be developed between students, teachers, and administrators, from an early age. We all need to understand that this is ultimately the student’s life, her responsibility and choices. Teachers and administrators need to design systems and have conversations that help the student learn to embody and shoulder the responsibility of being a life-long learner in a way radically different than today’s public education system.

    So we know it doesn’t look like today’s curriculum, how can we begin introducing meaningful choice (beyond a list of a, b, or c) into our classrooms? How can we catalyze and support student voice? Can it be done in stages, or do we need to begin with a complete overhaul of the entire system?

    Posted by Adam Burk | March 23, 2010, 6:12 am
    • Adam,

      I think a complete overhaul of the system would be detrimental to what we need to accomplish. To me, an overhaul sounds like people sitting down and deciding these ideas. I want chaos and pandemonium in over time that produces a cataclysmic event and gets people to change at different steps. I don’t want anyone making conscious decisions. I want kids taking control and realizing that they are the larger population, demanding that they learn what’s important, and developing a footing in schools as they inch towards democratic state.

      I always try to convince my kids that they need to tell the teachers what they need to learn. Screw the curriculum. That’s what creates an educated citizenry. Not mindless compliance. That being said, I might seem a little drastic, but the reality is the pendulum is too far to one side. Radical ideas are needed.

      Posted by Aaron Eyler | March 23, 2010, 4:14 pm
      • Aaron,

        So what happens when you ask the kids what they need to learn? How do you meet what they say? How does learning occur in your class and how is it assessed?


        Posted by Adam Burk | March 23, 2010, 4:32 pm
  2. Aaron, I like the idea of a student-led velvet revolution in schools. I think you’re right, too, to question the purpose of American public schools. While “teaching” democracy has long been touted as one of its primary aims, our public education system really just tries to assimilate students to the industrial age model of American culture with its rigid class distinctions and binary political machines.

    I would like to see student input into school reform formalized as a class or in a weekly meeting structure in every class/at every school.

    What’s your take on student involvement? Students have been habituated to comply with or resist schools’ “authority.” Should we start taking input from every student? From those who opt-in to school-reform classes or committees? Should we spend time unschooling first? How to we balance the urgent need to democratize pubic education with students’ varying readiness to do so?

    Posted by Chad Sansing | March 23, 2010, 7:53 am
  3. Chad,

    I think it depends on the kids readiness to stand up and be democratized. As sad as it is to say, I do think that democracy is a “learned” experience following subjugation. The Founding Fathers had to know what it was like to answer to a ruling body (even though the colonies were one of the most liberal entities around) before they could get upset and overthrow. That being said, I think being grounded in school and being instructed on the intricacies of democracy and the responsibility to maintain a democracy is critical off the bat. People need to know what they are fighting for.

    Beyond that, it is a matter of having kids form their own opinions about schooling and what they believe their experience should entail. That’s critical.

    Posted by Aaron Eyler | March 23, 2010, 4:22 pm
  4. You inspire me as an educator.

    Posted by spicylearning | March 24, 2010, 8:37 am
  5. Well put, Aaron. Until we listen and respect both primary stakeholders in education – teachers and students – no education reform will ever be successful.

    Posted by Joe Bower | March 25, 2010, 12:11 pm
  6. I have a few personal stories to tell about democracy in the schools. My son had a test in which one o!!f the questions began with “in your opinion” and he got an F !! (Nevermind that in a democratic setting your opinion can’t be graded, much less failed!!) Ironically the question was ” should governmnet be involved in the operation of private businesses” Another instance of “undemocratic teaching” was when my son told the one of the recess aides that he felt something was “unfair” and got a week of lunch detention for continuing to say he felt it was unfair when she said he had no input in what was fair and he should be quiet. The unfair thing was that when the boys were playing kickball they had to let the girls play even if the game had started while when the girls were playing on the kickball field the boys were not allowed to play… For you see it is not in the history books or in the big lessons that democracy is taught, it is in the little things we do when we think we are not teaching….

    Posted by norma sarmiento | May 12, 2010, 9:34 am
  7. I would also like to give a positive democratic resolution I have encountered as well..My kindergartener was forced to eat peas at lunch and was very upset…when i spoke to the principal about this his resolve was the following ” as much as we try, we are all humans and we err, sometimes thinking we are truly doing what is right we can’t please everyone because everyone looks at things differently, so the best way to deal is with balance of power and other perceptions..would you like to be our “parent lunch helper’ this way the lunch aides will have someone in their midst that might make them think about some of their ways…” For 7 years i was the “chicken nugget mom” Inspiring!!

    Posted by norma sarmiento | May 12, 2010, 1:27 pm
  8. After some harsh ridicule from some of my closest critics and their suggestions that I delete my previous comments I decided to expand on them instead. I wholeheartedly belive democracy starts from the bottom up…the most important people in a democracy are not the elected or appointed officials but those for whom they should be working and serving. The meek, the weak and the strong and powerful must all have the same rights, though for different reasons may not have the same opportunities to carry out the different responsibiliteis. This does not start with curriculums or revolutions, that is the end result of a poor carried out democracy. It starts at very early stages in our lives, when we are the most vulnerable and dependant, and how we are treated then will depend how we treat others and thus how we evolve or not into true democratic citizens which is what creates a democracy. So you see, in my simple chicken nugget experience, I found democracy, because I worked alongside a person who had totally different views and responsibility and we combined for the greater good of those we were serving…and we brainstormed, and had our differences, but ultimately we were balancing powers and teaching eachoter and the children how it was done, and the leader was the ignitor…he could have just fired the woman, he could have stood by his staff, he could have ignored the whole silly incident, but he taught us all a lesson in democracy…From the top down and from the bottom up, because in a democracy that is the BIGGEST MYTH AND FLAW OF ALL…there is no bottom or top , just different responsibilities or tasks, the rest is a judgment based on what the status quos determines as “priorities” or “important” ….My job as a “chicken nugget mom” in carrying out teachings of democracy and many other things i had the opportunity to encounter, was just as important as when i was working with news crew at ABC news, or when I was teaching at schools, or when I was working in the courts, or when i was being a mom or a friend or a neighbor….because democracy is always and everywhere and for everyone…

    Posted by norma sarmiento | May 13, 2010, 7:33 am
    • Norma,

      Your comment, “there is no bottom or top , just different responsibilities or tasks, the rest is a judgment based on what the status quos determines as “priorities” or “important” ” is right on. It is why I value Time Dollar Networks, where everyone’s time is valued equally. 1 hour of a doctor’s time is equal to 1 hour of a gardener’s, and so on. I believe that regardless of our occupation we all have the responsibility to be kind and extremely thoughtful people. And when we better understand that a CEO of a company does not have a company unless she has front line workers, thus their work is just as valuable as hers, we will be better off for it.

      I just learned more about Equal Exchange’s business model and it is quite wonderful. First of all, it is a worker owned cooperative, no one makes more than 4 times than the lowest paid member of the company (compare that to most companies where the norm is at a minimum of 10x more), and that if the company is ever sold they are not allowed to profit off of the sale, any profit is designated to be donated to another company or organization doing work in Fair Trade. Beautiful!

      Posted by Adam Burk | May 13, 2010, 7:50 am
      • Adam, the Time Dollar Network sounds like an ideal system for peer learning. Teach me how to graph a parabola and I’ll teach you to skateboard. Teach me how to put paragraph breaks in my stories and I’ll show you how I draw. Help me get ready to run the mile and I’ll teach you my mom’s recipe for tamales. Another application of democratic education.

        Thanks for sharing!

        Posted by Chad Sansing | May 13, 2010, 8:20 am
    • Norma, keep expanding those ideas. They need to be shared. We have confused sharing power with everyone in our democracy with “investing” power in a handful of individuals in whom we’ve placed the locus of control for our country, culture, and world. Rather than take back and exercise power on our kids’ behalf – rather than give kids power at school – we trade off our complicity with limiting, self-replicating hierarchies in exchange for getting by without being bothered. However, we don’t have to make this bargain. Nor do we have to wage war to enact change. We can begin by asking for change and helping it move along constructively. Thank you for your comments.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 13, 2010, 8:17 am
  9. You know its funny how we value money more than time when in effect time is more valuable than money…You see you can spend money and then later get more money, while time you can never get back once you have spent it…so those who put in the most ,which is their time, are not always rewarded in money as much as those who put in less time and effort but have more “responsibility” or their job is “more important” …. more responsibility??? more important??? People’s need for education, clothing, transportation, leisure, food, validation, is also more or less important??

    Its all in the eyes of the beholder…that’s why democracy and empathy and flexibility and compasssion must start at early stages, from the time we are fed or put to bed…is it according to the paren’ts schedule or the baby’s needs or a book that is teaching us how to ??, are children penalized for acting their age in a setting that they can’t thrive???…are we measured according to what is “important” and do not take into account that all that is learned is “important” ??? Are we ignoring that all the pieces of a persons life is important?? What are we saying by having “minors and majors” , by testing in “math and science” by punishing by “talking back ” to adults or authority or for questioning the “rules” and so on…

    Everyone’s time is worth the same with regard to the losing of the commodity but not of the remuneration , and we dont’ value how our world could not run without all the taks being carried out, as big or small as they may be,… But its all a matter of perspective… Because our jobs or our learning or serving should also not be measured according to money when we are carrying them out…they should always be a gift to us or to others, regardless of what we are getting in return…you see, if you are putting your most precious commodity, you should make it count as a growing experience for you and for others…its only “hard work” when you would rather be doing something else , when you yourself are not valuing the task at hand…and that is only up to the individual and how he is facing and handling the job…should not be measured by someone else or by an outside factor…only we know if we are “successful “or not at what we are doing and “success” too is a judgment…

    For we if we put in according to what we are getting , then we are as guilty as those who are judging our work on different levels and are deciding our pay… the outcome will always be GREAT if you don’t worry about the outcome but in making every step you take worthwhile…maybe not in money, but then again I am trying to establish that money should not be the determining factor…because it will never measure up to the time you are spending which is more valuable….
    Again… its all how you look at things…The true gifts in your life can’t be boughg with money, and the true problems you can’t solve with money…so money or grades should not be the determining factors in measuring learning or vocation or anything…as Einstein said ” not all that can be counted counts and not all that counts can be counted…”

    when you give to charities you are doing a good deed, when you are trying to empower those you are giving to, you are a trouble maker…why?? because those who have the illusion of “power” or hierarchy feel threatened if they feel the pyramid changes proportions…and it can only be to their benefit to have a stong body supporting a strong head instead of a great head putting strain on the body…as a mom, and a teacher, as a wife, as a citizen I feel I am the most enhanced and empowered when I empower and enhance my children and students or coworkers for they support and help and collaborate as equals more than as inferiors…and that is how true leaders lead, by the awe and love and respect of those whom they lead not the fear or jealousy or competition…The great teachers are our mentors and our examples, not our tyrants or controlers, who keep all in the illusion of the need of dependancy.towards them…..the principal i mentioned did not lose his power by empowering the parent or the student,.he gained allies, and you must have allies to achieve any process…students and teachers, children and parents, employees and employers, elected and voters, pets and trainers., coaches and athletes, etc…..because if the alliance is not based on free will and democracy, then it will eventually be your breaking link…

    Posted by norma sarmiento | May 13, 2010, 9:06 am
  10. I think there is a role for parents in this revolution and you might be giving administrators too much credit that they want to be part of this ‘velvet revolution.’ I really appreciated the use of the word positive when you spoke of the contributions children can make to their learning. We use a conversation circle in our classroom on a daily basis and it provides students with voice. Slowly, they are feeling encouraged to speak outside the circle and share those positive educational contributions to build a democratic classroom.

    Posted by ivonprefontaine | May 5, 2012, 11:07 pm
  11. Reblogged this on Teacher as Transformer and commented:
    I thought some of the people who read my blog might enjoy reading this posting from an excellent blog contributed to by a variety of educators.

    Posted by ivonprefontaine | May 5, 2012, 11:08 pm

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