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Learning and Education Play Polar Opposite Roles in a Democracy

In a seminar discussion at Goddard College last summer, the idea of the role of education in a democracy came up as a topic.  Specifically, the verses idea between the public and private sector began a lively discussion among the progressive educators and facilitator in the room.  The question was raised, does the public education system symbolize a democratic ideal in U.S. society?  I fiercely defended this idea, noting that all individuals could attend a public school, participate in the “learning” and extra-curricular activities and that, yes, in fact, while it was not perfect, it did represent a democratic ideal.  I also defended the idea that in order to change the system for the better we must work within it. 

I no longer believe that the role of education in a democracy is represented by the public system in the U.S.  The system did not radically change over the last eight months, but I, as a learner did.  Nor now, do I believe that the private system best represents education in a democracy either.  The private system still dependent on the elite of society in order to function and carry out its democratic, progressive educational ideals.  However, I now believe that learning and education play polar opposite roles in a democracy and that in order for them to represent the ideal of democracy they must be co-dependent, which calls for a shift in an intellectual paradigm. 

The public system is a factory, which cares not for the true learning ability and growth of each individual, but rather for the graduation rates, G.P.A. averages and S.A.T. statistics.  Like the cow in line for the slaughter, it moves through each gate, with its future result already entacted.  The private system rewards the idea that the privileged are still the only ones capable or have the means to gain a true democratic, progressive education as a democracy, which undermines the essential element and definition of a democracy itself. 

As a society, the mind-set must change about where the lines of democracy and learning/education intersect.  About every ten years, it is published that individuals are fiercely defensive of the public schooling they received or their children are receiving, but are ever more critical of education on a national level.  Democracy cannot exists without a personal critical lens, and neither can our ideas of learning and education in that democracy. 

The co-existence between learning and education in a democracy must happen through the remembering that a democracy is an equally collective existence of individuals group together to have an equal say in matters of the group and that learning should work very similar if it is to exist within that democracy.  When education became a matter of capitalistic production rather than a value of personal and communal growth, that is when learning began to separate itself from education and when education began separating itself from a democracy. 

So what role should education play in a democracy?  For this to even be a possibility, for this change to exist, education must first remember its association with learning as its leading factor for its existence, and second, once learning is once again inserted to the educational system, then the modes of capitalistic production in public education and the elitist entitlements in the private system can begin to blur and fade into the background, and what can be left is education in a democracy.


About caseykcaronna

A 27 year old Master of Arts in Education Degree holder from the progressive, liberal arts school, Goddard College. I am interested in Holistic, Community, Progressive, Democratic and Student-Centered Education. I am currently a part-time employee with the Boy Scouts of America. I am writing my first book on holistic education and looking for full time employment in education, throughout the United States and Canada. I am interested in all things education and hope to make trans-formative changes to the educational system(s) in America and in the process help to improve the lives of the individuals in whom it serves.


10 thoughts on “Learning and Education Play Polar Opposite Roles in a Democracy

  1. Woo hoo! A red-hot blazing post, Casey! You don’t play around when you say, “Like the cow in line for the slaughter, it moves through each gate, with its future result already enacted.”

    So what does a system or model look like that values learning first and foremost? Are there particular goals or aims or values that learning should be directed towards?

    Always pushing in peace,

    Posted by Adam Burk | April 20, 2010, 7:01 pm
  2. I agree that democracy and learning cannot exist without a critical personal lens. How that lens operates changes as we age and learn, but surely schools must become places where that lens can be focused on and through students’ passions. Let students look to what they want to learn for motivation at school, rather than look at school as a boring or hurtful place.

    What questions or suggestions would you offer a teacher, team, or school that wanted to shift student and teacher attention from the rules and roles of traditional school and classwork to authentic learning?

    The very best regards,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | April 20, 2010, 9:07 pm
  3. Nice post. Great insights. I would say that while I hope and pray learning becomes the center of education, I do not agree with you that it is or has ever been the goal of Public Education. I have used the Guiding question “We do We Educate? as my driving force the last year. The answer to my question is complex and partly sad. What I have found is that the purpose of education is tied directly to the philosophy of the society in which it is practiced. At this point, in the United State, we have a society that see material wealth as the central aspect of life. We wish to believe that this material wealth is attainable by all people and we promote this through our schools, our cultural myths and the media. We all know it is far from true. Even the privileged are not safe from the lose of wealth. We have not questioned our way of life. Pocket groups and movements have tried to defeat it, or live differently, but on a whole nothing has really changed.

    I am not sure how it will change, but I believe we need to be pragmatic about it. What about materialism makes us happy, where else can we find this. How can we make a society change without breaking the foundation? I am not sure. I think need to find a space to share our thoughts and ideas without discounting the realities of the current system. Education for me can be a start, but how do you give everyone an option and chance to have a free education and at the same time expect everyone to agree on what is the right type of education.

    This is becoming rambling…. But what I believe is important to ask yourself when talking to a Public School advocate or a traditional school promoter, “Why do we educate?” and ask them the same thing. I am not sure if many people ask that question. I can tell from Casey’s blog that he believes we educate as a means to learn, and with learning a more full life is had. I believe he sees life with materialism or not being more full if as a society we see learning as the main purpose of school. I agree with you and hope that you can use that passion to find a place to talk to people who are not yet able to articulate their own reasoning. I think Casey has a chance to help a lot of people understand that when you reflect on why we educate, we must look at the the structures, systems and rituals that we use in our schools, private, public or alternative schools.

    Thanks for letting me in on the conversation.


    Posted by David Loitz | April 21, 2010, 12:47 pm
  4. First off, thanks everyone for the valued contributions and responses you have made on this site and on my first posting. I will hopefully, be able to answer each of your concerns and questions individually.

    First, adam’s questions, So what does a system or model look like that values learning first and foremost? Are there particular goals or aims or values that learning should be directed towards?

    The question of what a system or model looks like that values learning first and foremost is a large and complicated question but one I have been wrestling with for a while. If true athentic education is not present, which means a democracy isn’t present either, then the model structure and system much be changed, dramatically.

    I think, a good place to begin Adam, is with community education. My thesis on this topic and the reconceputalization of community education, I believe can extend further to help change traditional, public education as well. Inserting democratic values into community education and authentic learning into community education is the first step is this shift. Changing the mind-set through using studnet-centered education and environmental spaces for learning by the means of community education will first establish community education on an equal footing intellectually as public education, which then can begin to shift the conversation from how does this structure look? to what structure best represents learning and democracy?

    One very valuable way to help authentic learning to begin, which I believe fosters democracy, either in a community or traditional classroom is through using the narrative of the student to determine their learning. This extends beyond a personal evaluation, but rather the parent(s)/teacher/student work together to create a portfolio that sets out goals of the individuals, likes and dislikes in their learning and would help the student gauge their progress, by being in “competition” or “evaluation” with themselves, rather than classmates, or the system.

    If the individual learner progresses through authentic learning, on a self-assessment basis, then if all the learners in the class are doing this simultaneously, then I believe it can foster true democracy because each learner has an opportunity to grow from themselves and each of their classmates unique learning process. The teacher is only directing and facilitating, which also helps to foster democracy within the classroom further. This is just one suggestion and does not fully represent all of what is possible in this system or structure.

    I hope to respond to chad and david in my next reply.

    Posted by educationalrevolutionist | April 21, 2010, 4:41 pm
    • Great Casey! Perhaps not surprisingly, we have similar visions for how the learning process would unfold with narrative inputs from the student, parents, and teachers. Can you break open the term community education for me and unpack what you mean when you use that term?

      All the best,

      Posted by Adam Burk | April 21, 2010, 5:00 pm
  5. Hi Adam,
    I would suggest that community education, is learning that takes place among a group of individuals in a setting that resides outside of what is considered a traditional classroom, in either the public or private sector. Community education can happen in after-school programs or evening gatherings at the traditional schooling site, but it extends far beyond the walls of a “schooling” institution. This would include churches, neighborhood watch groups or community groups, nature preserves, virtual environments, sanctuaries, museums, cafe’s, athletic clubs, political organization, youth centers, ect. In my mind, community education happens where the exploration of learning is not confined to a the traditional understanding of educational space or structure.

    Sometimes community education, its members, and the public clearly understand their role in the learning process and often times one or all of those parts are oblivious to their participation. Hope this at least clears up where community education can happen. As for, what community education is…well, whether it is finely structured or not as a specific place devoted to learning, the learning that happens in community education is throughly organic in nature, is individual and collective, strongly tied to experiential past learnings, textile current learnings and equally based collaborative discussions. This is not all that is community education, but merely a sample of some of this unpacking.

    Posted by educationalrevolutionist | April 21, 2010, 5:22 pm
  6. Dear Chad,
    Your suggestion and questions was, …what questions or suggestions would you offer a teacher, team, or school that wanted to shift student and teacher attention from the rules and roles of traditional school and classwork to authentic learning?

    I believe it would depend on the organization and operation of each teacher, team, and school. I would first suggest them to investigate authentic learning for themselves, this would include visiting and observing places where education and learning happen that are different then what currently the teacher, team or school prides itself upon. I would ask them, point blankly, how do they measure their students learning, or their teachers learning, or their adminstrators learning? Not memorizing or data analyzing, but how do they precieve and understand the growth of each individual(s) in the system they currently structure.

    I would suggest to them, if they wanted to infuse democracy and actually recognize their students learning, to ask the students and adminstrators to teach as well. I would ask them to think about redefining how they viewed teachers, adminstrators and students roles. I would ask them how competition among students to become better thinkers, innovators and individuals?

    I would suggest that teachers take themselves out of the “what can I get out (feelings) of my students” business, and rather, get into the “what can I learn from my students” business.

    These would be probing questions to start asking, for the critical lens to be hightened, and to help fade away capitalistic agendas through competition and anti-democratic ideals through the traditional school structure. I would ask them to trust the process, to not be afraid of facing a fear about the unknown.

    Posted by educationalrevolutionist | April 21, 2010, 5:31 pm
    • I love this thread, Casey. Your responses are thorough and thought-provoking.

      In reading your vision of community education, is it fair to say that the student is the central node in the satellite network of learning opportunities and mentor/mentee relationships?

      If so, what progression of benchmarks evidenced in what way would you look for as informal or formal rites of passage from educational apprenticeship to whatever “graduation” entails?

      Would you also consider bringing community organizations into schools, their offices replacing classrooms? Could we go so far as to decentralize the teaching profession so that all companies and organizations had “trainers” in their community- or school-based offices for students ranging in age from, say, 3 to “graduation?” Might schools be places where local, green, and service oriented organizations educated children and used their learning to benefit their communities and provide examples of fulfilling careers outside those media values?

      Thanks for inspiring the questions,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | April 21, 2010, 9:54 pm
  7. Dear David,
    Thanks for the kind words. I would disagree with you in terms of what era of education in the U.S. I have been studying heavily, the American Progressive Educational Era with John Dewey and others in the early 20th Century. While, you are right, that we are compelled to materialism and that it leaves a strain on what is desired of our learning, there was a slight time, probably for about 5 – 10 years in the 1915 – 1930s that education in the U.S. was actually seeking to change the notion of who is involved in education and where education (learning) takes place.

    This was during the transitional movement from the Common School Era to the Public School structure that we see today. Unfortunatley, due to biogotry, racism, and classism, this era did not last long. Joel Spring writes about it in American Schools. This is when people began taking piano lessons, violn lessons at home (viewed as learning), informal ELL and ESL programs began in NYC and SF for newly arriving immigrants, and when public education began opening its doors to students of all ages and expanded its institutions for the accomidating size, but now I am rambling…

    I do believe that is an excellent question, “why do we educate?” My hope is that it would reveal some answers about oneself and each of our surrounding world. However, I am not this naive, and do believe that economic and consumer forces breakdown a large portion of what “could be” with the interconnectivity between democracy and authentic learning.

    Thanks for your perspective, I hope to hear from you more on my future posts.

    Posted by educationalrevolutionist | April 21, 2010, 5:41 pm
  8. When talking about they system, the democracy, education etc. we talk as if it it were an independent agent…WE ARE THE DEMOCRACY, THE EDUCATIION, THE SYSTEM…just as the ocean is made up of drops and a beach of its grains of sand…Therefore our jobs is to carry out the core of education, democracy, system being true to its values so that the whole continues to have the same characteristics…because the whole is the sum of its parts…and if the parts are connected well the whole can become greater than the sum of its parts…. It is our jobs as teachers to make sure that we always do on the smallest level remains faithful and true to the concept of teaching others for their own growth and the growth of their and thus our surroundings in a positive way, that will ripple, and will be part of the “system” …. I taught spanish and ESL in diverse settings, but always I would start explaining why I was there …I was there to teach them what I knew because I believed that what I knew could help them since it had helped me….then in turn if they learned what i was trying to teach them, they in turn could use that to their benefits and to help others….I was not there to judge them on their learning, or on how they chose to use their time at home, or in school, I was there to help them use that to their benefit…they would all pass my course no matter what and only they would know if they were successful in my class and if they got anything out of it …thus they would be able to judge me on my teaching and themselves on how they learned…Since most students are there to get the grade and some have given up even on that they were very confused…I had to work hard to keep them engaged, but in the end when they judged me it was a great reward, for they had learned…and had done it democratically, because when they were not doing the right thing they were told” it was they day of second chances and they could use it if they wanted” …as Ghandi said “we have to be the change we want to see in others” …WE ARE EDUCATION, WE ARE DEMOCRACY, WE ARE THE SYSTEM…. we give, we take, we learn, we teach, we agree, we disagree, we “are “and “allow to be” we criticize and praise and take criticism and praise, we brainstorm with eachother and meditate and reflect on our own… we each carry out our tasks to the best of our abilities to achieve the best for the most, then all not only falls into place but the “system” “democracy” “learning” is up and running ….

    Posted by NORMA | May 16, 2010, 9:00 am

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