THE third purpose of education, according to Ken Robinson, has a social dimension: “Education should enable young people to be active and compassionate citizens.”
Active citizenship means taking part in community activities and ultimately, voting in local and national elections. Yet, we have witnessed, time and again, in our elections, that those who are voted to power are not necessarily the most qualified, nor the most knowledgeable nor skillful, but the most popular. It is a running joke that the surest path to be an elected official is to be a celebrity.
I think this mentality is deeply rooted in how we “teach” democracy in schools. We have, from a young age, been taught that democracy doesn’t really mean anything. Oh yes, the lectures will say otherwise -- that power rests in the people and so on -- but the lessons imparted by practical experience and reality outweigh those held in classrooms.
Class officers don’t have any real power. That rests with the teacher. Let’s say the teacher comes in, and the class president tells the teacher, “We just had a class meeting and 90% majority has voted on postponing today’s quiz to next week,” and the teacher says, “No,” who do you think will be followed?
On a larger scale, student councils don’t have any real power either. Let’s say the student council president meets with the principal (or whatever highest school official there is), and says, “90% of the student population has voted against the rule that students are required to wear black leather shoes. They should be allowed to wear whatever footwear they are most comfortable with,” and the principal says, “No,” again who do you think will be followed?
And so from early on, we have learned, by experience, that voting doesn’t really do anything and that we don’t really have a voice. Power rests with those in authority and there is not much we can do to change that. So elections become just another game and we elect those we most fancy, which tend to be those who are most popular.
We, as a society, have not really learned democracy because our educational institutions are one of the most autocratic institutions in the world.
This is why I have such a high respect for the founders of Sudbury Valley School (SVS), where children and adults alike, discuss and vote on everything about the school, where the adult founders were willing to lay their jobs and their reputations on the line by allowing students to vote on their continued employment year after year.
Dan Greenberg, founder of SVS, says they don’t even need to lecture their kids about what democracy is. They live it everyday. This is a clear answer to Robinson’s call: “Schools have vital roles in cultivating that sense of citizenship. They won’t fulfill them by running academic courses on civics but by being the sort of places that practice these principles in how they operate every day.”
Having a better country, a better society, starts with having better and more democratic schools.
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