Democracy and Education: One Community Example

July 5th, 2011

Email This Page Email This Page Filed under: — Laura Leone @ 11:46 am

By Phoebe Godfrey

As Noam Chomsky notes in the “Democracy and Education” chapter of his book Chomsky on MisEducation (2004), the pairing of democracy and education brings to mind the great work of John Dewey, who, as Chomsky quotes, stated that “the ultimate aim of production is not production of goods, but the production of free human beings associated with one another on terms of equality.” Dewey’s assertion that society should produce free human beings able to engage with each other on equal terms necessitates that the living tree of democracy grows throughout our political, economic, social, and personal realms. Obviously though this is not the case, for when we honestly look at our society, our schools and even ourselves we see overwhelming examples of poverty, racism, sexism, exploitation, oppression …etc, indicating that, all the way from Washington D.C., to our local public schools to our own hearts, “something is rotten in the state of…” in this case, America. Therefore, it behooves us to stop and take the time to ask ourselves what exactly do the words ‘free human beings,’ ‘equality’ and even more importantly, ‘democracy’ and ‘education’ mean, and furthermore what would Dewey’s democratically-rooted society look like and how could we possibly begin to live what he has so eloquently preached?

For me, the answers lie in the concept of community classes that are intellectually stimulating, open to everyone regardless of educational background, and are free, or only ask for donations to pay for supplies, rent…etc. Such classes can be taught by community members who have expertise in various subjects and who wish to engage in democracy though teaching, sharing, and learning. Thus, as a professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut who is committed to promoting and engaging in democratic movements, I have for almost a year been teaching a free community class at The Wrench in the Works, in Willimantic, Connecticut. The Wrench, as we call it, is a non-commercial and democratically-run collective open to the public; it offers a free lending library of primarily educational books, free coffee, tea, and locally produced soft drinks, as well as space for radicals, rebels, and progressives of many sorts to meet, organize projects, and hold events. Members strive to be a non-hierarchical organization, with decisions made collectively at semi-monthly consensus-based meetings. My immediate interest in this collective space was to have a place to teach free classes that address pressing social issues.

In the fall 2007 I taught a class called the “Politics of Food” on our food systems that was taken by about twelve local people ranging in age from nineteen to sixty. The class I taught this Spring was titled “In Search of Democracy: Past, Present and Future”; through a diverse collection of readings, films and discussions, it explored the ways in which people have tried, succeeded and failed, and tried again to create democratic communities or states both here and throughout the world. The main focus of this class is to learn from these examples while attempting to engage in our own democratic practices both within the class and within our larger communities. For example, many of the students in this class were in the Politics of Food class and therefore they have expressed interest in organizing a community forum on food production, addressing such issues as factory farms and the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in our food. Thus, regardless of the class topic there are ways in which the promotion of democracy can take place, putting into practice what was said during the Cuban revolution, as in “each one, teach one.” This saying recognizes that unless we practice democracy daily, on both our own personal and political levels, it will remain merely a word or even worse an ideological sham of its own unrealized potential.

My motivation to teach for free in my community came from a number of sources. First, there was a few years ago an ambitious and impassioned call for a “public sociology” by the then president of the American Sociological Association, Michael Burawoy. For Burawoy and many others, myself included, sociology was originally “stimulated by moral commitment“ and this moral commitment was directed at finding ways of understanding and addressing “the malaise of modernity” through  “a conversation about public issues and values” (Burawoy, 2003). This moral impetus and call for public sociology translated for me into the idea of teaching free community sociology classes. I was also motivated by my understanding, shared by Arlene Goldbard (NVO #2), that our public schools and in many cases our colleges, are not teaching the principles of democracy, nor do I believe such lessons can even be expected from them. Bertrand Russell is quoted as having said that education is “one of the chief obstacles to intelligence and freedom of thought.” Likewise Ivan Illich states in Deschooling Society (1970), that, “school prepares for the alienating institutionalization of life by teaching the need to be taught.” Thus, it is important to recognize that, in general, education as institutionalized by the state is not geared towards the promotion of critical thinking, intelligence, or individuality, let alone democracy.

However, that does not mean we should relinquish our responsibility to ourselves and to our communities. Quite the contrary, we must turn ever more vigilantly, as is fortunately happening throughout the country, to our schools, collectives, churches, communities, and public places in order to create and experience what being free human beings engaged in equal exchange really looks and feels like. A vibrant example is New York City’s Central Park East school founded in 1974 by Deborah Meier, a visionary teacher who like Dewey believes schools must be democratically organized in order for students and teachers to feel valued, empowered, and respected as thinkers and learners. Educators at Central Park East see their school as “educational democracy,” in that children should and do exercise power over their education.

Another example, similar in essence to my own project, to Central Park East, and in some ways resembling Illich’s deschooling alternative, is the more global idea of ‘communiversities.’ Communiversities may be more informal in structure than a regular certified college or school, but they are also giving life to the understanding that democracy requires democratic education. At this point, they have begun to emerge in about ten locations, and are defined as “neither political bodies nor educational institutions”, but rather as informal gatherings that can exist “anywhere people in a community are willing to meet to spawn new ways to support, protect and enhance all life in their region, including the creature and plant life.” One of those places is Willimantic, and our group there has now named itself “Imagine Willimantic” and has begun to meet regularly at the Wrench. (See Gus Jaccaci’s article for more on communiversities.)

The beauty of a progressive collective space such as The Wrench is that it serves the needs of a multiplicity of community events and groups. My class is just one of many activities to take place there in any given week. The space also hosts poetry readings, meditation classes, street theater rehearsals, health classes (such as mental health and a breast feeding group), film and music events, and a number of Peace and Justice groups – to take just a few examples. The important result is that this single space nurtures a very unusual level of diversity. The Wrench does have a few basic rules that exclude groups seeking to promote any anti-democratic hatred, but otherwise it is open for use or membership (one does not have to be a member to use the space) to all.

It would be easy to dismiss such efforts either by The Wrench, or Central Park East, or the communiversities, as so small as to be insignificant, but obviously neither I nor any of the others involved in all these educationally democratic endeavors would agree. As one of my current students stated, “providing the service of having free community classes, by educating the public academically, but outside of the college environment, may push people in the right direction”, as in the direction of bringing life to our seemingly dying democratic Republic. I also take inspiration from Mother Theresa who insightfully said that we need not do “great deeds, only small deeds with great love.” In short, if we each practice sharing our talents and resources with great love wherever the opportunity arises, then slowly, daily we will start becoming not only a living democracy, but as Dewey said, “free human beings associated with one another on terms of equality.” In fact, genuine progressive and democratic social change has never happened any other way. For the real purpose of education, as Yeats so poetically put it, is “not to fill a bucket but to light a fire.” Thus, may each of us help to be each other’s match, and may the fearless flames of democracy begin to rise!

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