Johns, Jasper (b. 1930) © VAGA, NY

Flags. 1968. Lithograph, printed in color, irreg composition: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″; irreg sheet: 34 5/8 x 25 7/8″. Gift of the Celeste and Armand Bartos Foundation. (291.1968)

Location: The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Photo Credit: Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource, NY (ART193346)

The power of rising expectations, of imagination unleashed, of hope for something better than the politics of division and war and fear—all of it is in the air and on the move. Combined with serious and abiding global crises—economic, financial, military, environmental—it announces a unique moment to re-imagine and reignite a push toward fundamental change. It’s a moment to shed some of the burdens and baggage of the past, a time to reach beyond the walls and entanglements we know too well, a time to restore the basic propositions and values of a more authentic, vibrant, and participatory democracy.

When Obama intoned, “This is our moment. This is our time…Yes we can,” we needed to ask, of course, “yes, we can…what?”

For me, the answer involves returning to my roots as an antiwar organizer and civil rights activist, my roots as a teacher who believes that schools and classrooms, at their best, are powered by the engines of enlightenment and freedom. The promise of education is always tied up with the radical proposition that we can change our lives right now, today, and that together we can change the world.  It is a promise with particular resonance and urgency in a democratic society, for democracy assumes the necessity of continual and dynamic revitalization, and demands, then, regeneration as its lifeblood.

Unfortunately, the dominant frames, controlling discourses, and common metaphors that have powerfully shaped our choices and set the terms and limits of our discussion about schools and reform for so long are narrowing and constraining. In the contested space of schools and education reform, and in this particular moment, educators, parents, theorists, and citizens should press to change the dominant discourse of education, a controlling metaphor that posits education as a commodity rather than a right and a journey, and imagines schools as little factories cranking out products. The metaphor leads rather easily to imagining school closings and privatizing the public space as natural, relentless standardized testing as sensible—this is, after all, what the true-believers call “reform.” Michelle Rhee, CEO of Washington D.C. schools (it’s a business, remember), warranted a cover story in Time in early December, called “How to Fix America’s Schools.” The pivotal paragraph praised her for making more changes in a year and a half on the job than other school leaders, “even reform-minded ones,” make in five: closing 21 schools (15 percent of the total), and firing 100 central office personnel, 270 teachers, and 36 principals. These are all policy moves that are held, on faith, to stand for improvement.  Not a word on kids’ learning or engagement with school, not even a nod at evidence that might connect these moves with student progress, not a mention of getting greater resources into this starving system, nor parent involvement, and so on.  But of course evidence is always the enemy of dogma, and this is faith-based, fact-free school policy at its purest.

In this metaphoric straightjacket, school learning becomes a commodity traded at the market like boots or hammers. Unlike boots or hammers, the value of which is inherently satisfying and understood directly, the value and use of school learning is elusive and indirect—hence, students are asked to accept its unspecified worth on faith and must always be motivated and rewarded externally. The value of school learning, we’re assured, has been calculated precisely by wise and accomplished people, and these masters know better than anyone what’s best for the kids and for the world. The payoff is way down the line, but it’s surely there, somewhere, over the rainbow. “Take this medicine,” students are told repeatedly, day after tedious day, “It’s good for you.” Refuse the bitter pill, and go stand in the corner—where all the other losers are assembled.

Schools serve society; society is reflected in its schools. And in the modern world we see some differences as well as interesting similarities and noteworthy overlapping goals across systems. School leaders in fascist Germany or communist Albania or medieval Saudi Arabia or apartheid South Africa, for example, all agreed that students should behave well, stay away from drugs and crime, and master the subject matters, so those things don’t differentiate a democratic education from any other—we all want the kids to do well. Practically all schools want their students to study hard and do their homework. Furthermore, schools in the old Soviet Union and fascist Germany produced some excellent scientists and athletes and musicians and so on. They also produced obedience and conformity, moral blindness and easy agreement, obtuse patriotism and a willingness to follow orders right into the furnaces. In a democracy one would expect something different—and this takes us back to first principles: democracy is based on a common faith in the value of every human being, and that means that what the wisest and most privileged parents want for their kid is exactly what the community wants for all of its children.

Our schools too often teach indifference, emotional and intellectual dependency, provisional self-esteem, and the need to submit to certified authority. What, after all, are the lessons of report cards, grades, and the endless batteries of tests that play the part of autopsies rather than diagnostics? Don’t trust yourself; seek approval from your betters. And what is the point of the established schedule and the set fifty-minute periods, the uniform desks all in a row, the exhaustive use of time with no room to breath and certainly no space to dream or wonder or wander or drift or reflect or imagine or just be bored? You are not important and unique; be only malleable and productive in terms established by a higher authority.

The school-as-factory metaphor is more than an outdated image; worse, it is a model that betrays the central demands of democracy. Those of us who want to work for a more robust and participatory democracy must struggle against this metaphor and reaffirm the basic proposition that in a democracy life is geared toward and powered by a particularly precious and fragile ideal: every human being is of infinite and incalculable value, each the one and only who will ever tread the earth, each a unique intellectual, emotional, physical, spiritual, moral, and creative force; each born free and equal in dignity and rights, each endowed with reason and conscience, each deserving, then, a community of solidarity, a sense of brotherhood and sisterhood, recognition and respect. This core value is the heart of the matter, and it must express itself explicitly and implicitly in education as in every other aspect of associative living.

A democracy, theoretically at least, would build schools to fit children, not the other way around. We would not bend and break children until they fit as cogs in a mindlessly menacing machine, automatons without the ability to think clearly or feel deeply. We would resist—because we do not want the schools to train a nation of sheep—the forceful imposition of standardized ways of seeing and knowing. In a robust and functional democracy we would expect schools to reflect the principle that the fullest development of all is the necessary condition for the full development of each, and conversely, the fullest development of each is necessary for the full development of all.

This expectation has huge implications for educational policy: racial segregation is wrong, class separation unjust, disparate funding immoral. There is no justification in a democracy for casting students out of school, none for categorical thinking in terms of potential or performance. There is no rationale for the existence of a well-funded school for wealthy white kids and a dilapidated, poorly-resourced school for poor immigrant kids or the descendants of an enslaved people. That reality—this savage inequality—offends the foundational idea that each person is equal, and reflects instead the reactionary idea that some of us are more deserving and more valuable than others. It expresses, as well, a simple but cruel message we send to children through our social policy and priorities: Choose the Right Parents! If you choose parents with money, access, social connection, and privilege, your choices and your chances will expand; if not, sorry, you’re on your own.

The democratic injunction has big implications for curriculum and teaching as well, for what is taught and how. We want our students to be able to think for themselves in a democracy, to make judgments based on evidence and argument, to develop minds of their own.  We want them to ask fundamental questions—who in the world am I?  How in the world did I get here, and where in the world am I going?  What in the world are my choices?  How in the world shall I proceed?—and to pursue the answers wherever they might take them.  We refuse obedience and conformity in favor of teaching initiative, courage, imagination, creativity, and more. These qualities cannot be delivered in top-down ways, but must be modeled and nourished, encouraged and defended.

Democratic teaching encourages students to develop the capacity to name the world for themselves, to identify the obstacles to their full humanity, and the courage to act upon whatever the known demands.  This kind of education is characteristically eye-popping and mind-blowing—always about opening doors and opening minds as students forge their own pathways into a wider, shared world. We must invite students to ask serious questions: What’s the evidence? How do we know? Whose viewpoint is privileged and whose is left out? What are the alternatives, the connections, the resistance, the patterns, the causes? Where are things headed? Why? Who cares?

Teaching and organizing—at their best—are each powered by a common faith: when I knock on the door of a stranger in a public housing project, when I look out at my students, I assume the full humanity of each. I see hopes and dreams, aspirations and needs, experiences and intentions that must somehow be accounted for and valued.  I encounter citizens, not consumers, unruly sparks of meaning-making energy, not a mess of deficits. This is the evidence of things not seen, the starting point for teachers and organizers in any democratic society.

We should focus our collective efforts on schooling for a participatory democracy, on the production of fully developed human beings who are capable of controlling and transforming their own lives, citizens who can participate fully in our shared public life. Such a democracy requires that people actually make the decisions that affect their lives; such a democracy requires dialogue—each one speaking with the hope of being heard, and each one listening with the possibility of being changed. Such a democracy requires a democratic school that would be generously supported, abundant with resources and materials of all kinds; it would be small, numbering no more than a few hundred students. In this school, participatory democracy could be enacted, practiced, and embodied; it would be a workshop for discovery and surprise, a laboratory for inquiry and experimentation. And the curriculum would unfold in endless pursuit of an inexhaustible question: what knowledge and experience is of most value?

Education is where we decide whether we love the world enough to invite young people in as full participants and constructors and creators, and whether we love our children enough to give them the tools not only to participate but to change all that they find before them. Educators, students, and citizens might press now for an education worthy of a democracy, including an end to sorting people into winners and losers through expensive standardized tests which act as pseudo-scientific forms of surveillance, an end to starving schools of needed resources and then blaming teachers and their unions for dismal outcomes, and an end to “savage inequalities” and the rapidly accumulating “educational debt,” the resources due to communities historically segregated, under-funded and under-served.  All children and youth in a democracy, regardless of background or economic circumstance, deserve full access to richly-resourced classrooms led by caring, thoughtful, fully-qualified and generously compensated teachers.

This is our ongoing expression of and commitment to free inquiry and participation, access and equity, thought and independent judgment, and full recognition of the humanity of each in the company of all. The struggle continues.

[Editor’s note: Portions of this essay appeared at the Huffington Post, and an extended version appears in the latest issue of the Harvard Educational Review.]

[See David Kyuman Kim’s introduction to “These things are old,” a conversation about Obama, civic virtues and the common good at The Immanent Frame]