Democratic Education: Look for Progressive Schools’ Missing Link in Neighborhood Schools

What you need to understand is in our culture, when there’s not enough, we don’t quit, and we don’t close…When our children’s book bags are underutilized, we don’t kick them out, we fill them up. When there’s not enough potatoes, you don’t stop cooking dinner. When there is not enough gas, you don’t give away your car. Goldblatt is not an underutilized building. I’ll say it again: Goldblatt is not an underutilized building. It’s a greatly-utilized school. Don’t get schooling mixed up with the building…If you want to see progress, you got to keep our schools open.

— Marcus Brady, Goldblatt School Security Officer

 Unless local communal life can be restored, the public cannot adequately resolve its most urgent problem: to find out and identify itself…For it will be alive and flexible as well as stable, responsive to the complex and world-wide scene in which it is enmeshed.  While local, it will not be isolated.  Its larger relationships will provide an inexhaustible and flowing fund of meanings.

–John Dewey, The Public and its Problems

When Public Education is Under Attack, What Do We Do? STAND UP, FIGHT BACK! This   protest chant illuminates an important source of democratic education that have been left too long untapped by progressive education practice: struggle in community.  This value is at the heart of John Dewey’s writing on education, but its relevance to the progressive education that developed out of Dewey’s work has not been developed, because the people carrying out struggle in community were by and large not in progressive schools.  The fight for public education in Chicago challenges the progressive education community to decide whether democratic education matters enough to join in the struggle in community.

Recent analyses have focused on political implications of the fight over school closings at both local and global levels, exemplifying the kind of critical thinking schools should be nurturing in students.  But the school closings controversy also brought to the wider public voices in the community that teach us precisely the practices that we urgently need for democratic society today.  Coming from a progressive school context, I am interested in the meaning of struggle in community for progressive education.

In the Chicago Public School Board’s “community engagement” process over the past several months, community members spoke to the meaning of the school as a community.   Students, parents, faculty and administrators and staff across Chicago neighborhoods and schools all describe school as a place of belonging, continuity, trust, and safety.  They describe the nexus of relationships at the school: the school is a space where families come together with one another and with other families, in peace and hope.  Children find the protection and affirmation that they need to grow.  Adults find resources and encouragement for employment, health, and financial and reading literacy.  These are real-world supports that schools offer — and that the school closings now jeopardize.

Thousands of Chicagoans of every age, class, and race have been explaining to the Board of Education that school is not just an appendage of the state.  That it is not just a building in which to warehouse, test, and sort children.  That education is a broader field than academic progress — and that the measures by which they are considering academic progress are deeply flawed, with little correspondence to people’s actual strengths, nor to the capacities that are actually demanded by today’s world.  That investing in the economic, social, and physical health of the neighborhoods will improve education more surely than any strategy propagated by Central Office.

Community members’ testimonials describe exactly the kind of schools that the great education philosopher John Dewey proposed for America: community schools.  Dewey saw the school as the living source of democratic society: the closer its connections with the community, the stronger the learning that happened in it.  At the same time, he was clear that education viewed only in terms of academic growth is both rationally incorrect and socially dangerous. In “The School as a Social Centre,” he writes,

The intellectual life, facts, and truths of knowledge, are much more obviously and intimately connected with all other affairs of life than they ever have been at any previous period in the history of the world.  Hence a purely and exclusively intellectual instruction means less than it ever meant before. And, again, the daily occupations and ordinary surroundings of life are much more in need of interpretation than ever they have been before.

Education for today’s world requires breaking down the boundaries between academic learning and the challenges and opportunities of real life.  Over and over again, community members of scores of schools like Lafayette, Jackson, and Stockton, point to the community partnerships that enrich children’s education, like HEART, Merit, and multiple museum partnerships — that the school closings kill.  “Community” is not just being nice to each other and collaborating.  It lives in diverse relationships and in respect for the many parts of the learner — the musical learner, the ethical learner — parts which the School Board doesn’t recognize.

What does all this have to do with progressive education?  Progressive education philosophers knew that community didn’t just exist; it had to be fought for.  As Benson, Puckett, and Harkavy argue, however, in Dewey’s Dream, Dewey betrayed “the dream” of democratic education by shrinking from the battles that sustaining such a model required.  After founding his Laboratory School, he left Chicago and withdrew into philosophy that was removed from struggles surrounding real-life schools in cities like Chicago.  This left progressive schools to develop to spectacular success one dimension of Dewey’s philosophy, child-centered pedagogy — while leaving undeveloped the social implications of his philosophy.

Progressive education is anemic without struggle in community.  Dewey explained better than anyone how schools could and should be the vehicle for social transformation.  “The educational end and the ultimate test of value of what is learned is its use and application in carrying on and improving the common life of all,” he wrote.  Dewey saw schools as the place where people came together across diverse backgrounds, and co-created “the common life.” This necessarily included intelligently standing up to the powers that threatened the common life: “Obviously a society, to which stratification into separate classes would be fatal, must see to it that intellectual opportunities are accessible to all on equable and easy terms. A society marked off into classes need be specially attentive only to the education of its ruling elements.”

Writers and thinkers from Dewey’s contemporary George Counts to present-day philosopher Maxine Greene have lamented Progressive Education’s failure to take on the fight for the democratic work of the schools that Dewey envisioned. In “Dare the School Build a New Social Order,” Counts writes,

If Progressive Education is to be genuinely progressive, it must emancipate itself from the influence of this class, face squarely and courageously every social issue, come to grips with life in all its stark reality, develop a realistic and comprehensive theory of welfare, fashion a compelling and challenging vision of human destiny, and become less frightened…Progressive Education cannot place its trust in a child-centered school.

Counts, along with other progressive philosophers, seeks to change the paradigm of education.  Schools, according to this paradigm, are not for preparing young people for success in the real world.  Schools are for changing the world.

Progressive education has not made much progress on this goal in its 100+ year history.

But community schools have.  Built up by people in the neighborhoods separated from the schools Dewey founded, community schools offer wrap-around supports for the improvement of the neighborhoods.   They grow community. 

Dewey said, “Democracy must begin at home, and its home is the neighborly community,” but he didn’t know how to actualize the neighborly community.  People in the neighborhoods did, and do.  They repeat over and over again that the measures that CPS uses are don’t fit the real work the schools are doing to strengthen communities, that these measures are limited, low, and ignorant.  As Andre Perry explains,

When we remove our eyes from the higher standard of community, we don’t see the intersectionality of community problems. When you’re community focused, you can’t be vigorous about school reform without being spirited about prison reform…When we have faith in community, we can never believe in a theory of improvement by deletion. Community members don’t go away. They may be literally locked away in jail and prison, but people are still here.

The people closing the schools (many of whom, of course, send their children to progressive schools like Dewey’s Laboratory School) are viewing public schools in a narrow and anti-progressive light.  Meanwhile, the people in the neighborhood schools are growing the potential of schools for furthering social change.  They know how to strengthen the school’s function as a social anchor of the community.

The people in the neighborhoods fighting together for their schools have been fleshing out the democratic implications of progressive education, which have been largely missing from progressive schools.   Their teachings offer a vital resource for a society struggling for democratic community.  The Chicago Public Schools Board didn’t listen: they summarily closed 50 schools yesterday.  I wonder if people in progressive schools can listen better — to foster democratic education in solidarity with our public schools communities, and STAND UP, FIGHT BACK!

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One thought on “Democratic Education: Look for Progressive Schools’ Missing Link in Neighborhood Schools

  1. I think to a large extent the role of the school is overestimated, and that of the parent, underestimated. Parents are largely responsible for determining their children’s attitude towards learning, and they are the “real” teachers.
    I was fortunate enough to be brought up in a home where questioning was encouraged, the beauties and mysteries of nature marveled at, and reading was a family joy. My grandmother was not only a spiritual mentor, but she exposed me to the greatest thoughts that human minds are capable of. My grandfather taught me to savor the simplest experience as a unique treasure.
    There is a major difference between training and learning. Training implies having a goal thought out for you, while learning implies a freer, less defined approach. Our public school system has as one of its goals to train citizens, to feed them an accepted curriculum, and to discourage views which challenge such training. Learning is the joy of the individual mind that follows its natural inclinations with enthusiasm.
    Educational jargon abounds in such meaningless phrases as “no child left behind”, “all children will succeed.” The truth is education is a complex process that involves many factors, and our best educators have realized this. However, we can posit The Fundamental Problem of Education(FPE): To create a learning environment in which all students achieve to the best of their abilities. We can then explore what we mean by a learning environment, what are the ways to create one, what are individual student abilities, what do we mean by achievement, etc. Most importantly, the FPE gives us a standard by which all educational systems can be measured.
    When public schools allow for more learning and less training, they will have taken a major step towards improvement. But the task is not an easy one. It requires diligence, fortitude, and an in-depth knowledge of both intrinsic and extrinsic obstacles to learning.

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