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December 8, 2004:

On Democracy and Education
Lecture by Eddie S. Glaude Jr., at the Fifth Annual Convocation of the Program in Teacher Preparation, Nov. 9, 2004

I want to thank the Program for Teacher Preparation for inviting me to speak on this wonderful occasion. I have witnessed, during the brief time I have been at Princeton, the extraordinary work done by this dedicated staff and its amazing leader, John Webb. John’s energy and commitment ensure that this program at Princeton will continue to flourish and produce the kind of teachers needed for these dark times. Indeed, John conveys an infectious passion for training the folks who will teach our children. So I want to hold him up, in this hour, as the visionary we know him to be.

My task tonight is a difficult one. I have chosen to take up what to some may seem a daunting topic: democracy and education. I do so in the aftermath of the miracle that is our democracy – where you and I participated in a peaceful contestation over the seats of government. For many the results of the recent election were terrific – a moment of joy and triumph. But, for some, the outcome was quite disappointing – a time, perhaps, of despair. Yet, even as we disagree and we know that our nation is bitterly divided, we stand together, affirming the power of this fragile experiment in democracy, where everyday, ordinary folk (like you and me) can say yea or nay with regards to those in power without recourse to violence or profound disruption to our precious form of life.

I also take up this topic in a time of crisis with regards to public education in our country. The debates about school choice, bilingual education, equitable funding, testing or accountability all take place against the backdrop of a general consensus that our nation’s educational system is in deep trouble. Many teachers are overworked and underpaid. Burdensome bureaucracies stifle and suffocate imagination. And the children suffer. Rural children suffer. Urban children suffer. Indeed, many of you know that public education in this country is in dire need of some tender, loving care and attention.

Now, a particular problem with my choice of topic is that I am not a philosopher of education. I have not written on the topic (like our own professor Stephen Macedo). And I do not profess any expertise on the subject. I simply hold the view that any philosopher worth her salt (or critic or citizen, for that matter) who is concerned about democracy must take a keen interest in the problems of education, because there is an intimate and vital relation between philosophy understood as the love of wisdom and the need for ongoing education. As John Dewey so brilliantly noted, “If philosophy is to be other than an idle and unverifiable speculation, it must be animated by the conviction that its theory of experience is a hypothesis that is realized only as experience is actually shaped in accord with it. And this realization demands that [our] dispositions be made such as to desire and strive for that kind of experience.” For Dewey, the school in our society, with its captive audience of the young, constitutes a crucial arena for making our philosophical commitments a living fact. So I take up the topic of democracy and education, not to offer some grand pronouncements on the subject, but rather I do so, taking my cue from John Dewey, as a humble attempt to make explicit and concrete my philosophical commitments to democracy. As each of us, teacher and parent, faces the difficulties of public education we must have an idea of what is the purpose of public education? Who ought to benefit from it? And how ought we to hold government accountable to ensure the quality of that education? And we must be willingly to commend our answers to others in the context of vigorous and open public debate.

Of course, Americans disagree, in some cases vehemently, about the aims of education. Some hold the view that children should be educated in virtue; others commend the view that education should result in enabling children the freedom to choose the life that they themselves believe to be best; and still others hold that parents should have the freedom to pass on their beliefs and ways of life to their children. To my mind, these disagreements cannot be settled beforehand by appeal to principles – principles that, in some cases, ban particular views, say religious one, from consideration. Instead, we have to work it out in the mess of democratic conversation, by offering what we hope to be compelling accounts of our views – accounts that best capture the ideals and commitments that animate our form of life. I want to, in the time I have left, offer a description of a view of education and democracy that I believe speaks to the crisis we now face. Bear with me if you please.

In 1916 John Dewey published his extraordinary work, Democracy and Education. There he offered an account of the role and place of education in our nation and its place in forging the sorts of dispositions in our children that best accorded, in his view, with democratic life. Dewey understood the school as a special mode of social intercourse, reflective of our own particular form of associated living. There our children were provided with a simplified environment, such that they could embark on the journey of education with economy. Not bombarded with everything at once. The school also eliminated, or so he believed, “the unworthy features of the existing environment” from influence upon the mental habits developed by children. Charged with clearing the dead wood of the past, schools put forward a particular vision of our circumstances that, ideally, “counteracted the influence of the ordinary social environment.” And, in the end, schools offered the possibility for the expansion of our children’s horizons, enabling them the chance “to escape from the limitations of the social group in which [they were] born, and to come into living contact with a broader environment.”

Education, beyond these social functions, offers children a sense of purposefulness or direction (not by imposing a particular view of the world on an unencumbered mind – children come to schools with minds; they have, as Dewey noted, knowledge and dispositions of judgment which may be appealed to through the use of language) but rather direction emerges as they engage in joint activity and their horizons expand and this, in Dewey’s view, is the primary way of forming disposition. Disposition. Keep this word in mind. I will return to it shortly.

Schools offer direction, the possibility of growth, the socialization of our young into the values we cherish, and the cultivation of the capacities requisite for the continue flourishing of our mode of living in the face of new problems. They set our children on the path to understanding the significance of the art of living. And they do so not willy-nilly, but rather as a particular form of social intercourse that aims at equipping us with the requisite tools to flourish as citizens and as individuals. In Dewey’s view, this requires an education in critical intelligence – the cultivation of children for the execution of deliberative, practical reason in moral situations. To educate them in the scientific spirit, broadly understood, so that they will affirm what can be called cognitive virtues: a tolerance of diverse views, free and open inquiry and communication – virtues necessary for a vibrant democratic life.

Of course, Dewey says much more than this. I only want to tease out three significant points for us tonight. First, is his talk of disposition – what can be called democratic disposition. Through education, particularly history, children come to understand the body of facts and events that make up their form of life. They also come to appreciate, as Dewey argues, “the values of social life, to see in imagination the forces which favor our effective cooperation with one another, to understand the sorts of character that help and that hold back.”

Some students find the figures of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson as exciting and attractive examples of heroism (I did, ironically). But we see that their heroism was in defense of form of life that many of us find unacceptable. And we find instead the heroic energy of Lincoln and the power of his Second Inaugural as exemplary of a certain kind of character in accord with our democratic form of life. To be sure, the formation of democratic character was central to Dewey’s philosophy of education; for, as he argues, “the conception of education as a social process and function has no definite meaning until we define the kind of society we have in mind.” Indeed, societies committed to democracy must seek to cultivate democratic dispositions in children or they risk their own continued existence as a democratic form of life.

This is not to suppressed the individuality of the child – to force them to be good democrats. That’s like forcing someone to be a good practitioner of faith. It simply does not work. Rather, individuality is understood as developing one’s unique capacities within the context of one’s social relations and one’s community (within which notions, often contested notions, of a common good circulate). This view of individuality stands in contrast with a crass individualism which promotes principally self-regard and an unencumbered existence. As my dear friend Cornel West puts it, “the norm of individuality conceives persons as enjoyers and agents of their uniquely human capacities, whereas doctrinaire individualism views them as maximizers of pleasure and appropriators of unlimited resources.” Education should then reflect, on pains of conflicting seriously with our most cherished commitments, a form of social life, a mode of associated living, “in which social sympathy and deliberative moral reason would develop.” The formation of a democratic character in our children cultivates sympathy towards others, a caring disposition towards the plight of our fellows and a watchful concern for the well-being of our democratic life – for, as Ralph Ellison noted, “democracy is, or should be, the most disinterested form of love.”

The second dimension of Dewey’s account that I want to mention involves what he calls effective freedom. Dewey understands freedom not simply in terms of a freedom from constraint but also as the freedom to realize one’s potential and capacities (self-realization). This, of course, involves fundamentally the ability to dream dreams that often extend beyond familiar social environments. A child must be able to imagine herself released from the external obstructions of her circumstances. But this is not enough. Effective freedom also involves the capacity to actualize those dreams or, as Dewey puts the point, “the positive control of the resources necessary to carry purposes into effect, possession of the means to satisfy desires; and mental equipment with the trained powers of initiative and reflection required for free preference and for circumspect and far-seeing desires.” It is not enough that our children are allowed to dream. All of our nation’s children, no matter their class position, must be provided the requisite tools to engage in effective problem-solving – the creative intelligence necessary to participate in democratic matters. An equality of opportunity is required. Not in terms of a crude race for riches but in terms of every child and citizen given the means to realized their capacities and potentialities. It is not enough to dream dreams; we must be equipped with the means to make those dreams a reality.

The last point: Dewey challenges a nation not yet fully committed to democratic living by exposing the relation between class privilege and education. He wrote Democracy and Education during a time when many argued for industrial education. They did so, however, not out of rejection of old, worn distinctions that devalued the practical over against the theoretical. No. Many proponents of industrial education sought to reinforce class hierarchy in the training of children: Some children would be trained and tracked to be mindless workers in our economy; while others would be educated to rule over them. Listen to his words: The price that democratic societies will have to pay for their continuing health is the elimination of an oligarchy – the most exclusive and dangerous of all – “that attempts to monopolize the benefits of intelligence and of the best methods for the profit of a few privileged ones, while practical labor, requiring less spiritual effort and less initiative remains the lot of the great majority.

For Dewey, such invidious distinctions and practices can best be undermined through a form of education, which cultivated democratic dispositions and aimed for effective freedom by equipping students with a method of thinking that collapsed distinctions between the practical and theoretical -- distinctions which, in the end, reflected the chasm between the laboring classes and the leisure class.

Now I believe that these three points (the cultivation of democratic disposition, the importance of effective freedom, and a relentless critique of the alliance between class privilege and education – these three formulations offer a wonderful point of entry to addressing our crisis in public education. I should say that I am quite skeptical about our nation’s current moral capacity. We have become so selfish. Our principal concern is not for our fellow citizens, but with our own circumstance. As a particular mode of associated living, our country has become a landscape dotted by an overclass insulated from an hyper-segregated underclass. Ours is a nation so full of hubris. We believe that our way is the right way. That achievement is a mark only of our individual merit. That structures of inequality that obstruct the dreams of others matter little. Individuals fail because of some inherent personality flaw. Our capacity to sympathize and empathize has been so underutilized as of late that it has atrophied. We have become a mean-spirited nation, free to hate those who are not like us. The cognitive virtues of free and open inquiry and communication have been tossed in the wastebasket along with temperance, courage, justice, and conscientiousness. Yes, I am skeptical of our nation’s moral capacity. Moreover, I am well aware of the fact that our nation – this grand experiment in democracy -- has never truly committed itself to educating all (and I mean all) of its children. Indeed we have left so many children behind that such slogans to the contrary ring empty. I am reminded of the words of the great Walt Whitman” “We have frequently printed the word ‘democracy,’ yet I cannot too often repeat that it is a word the real gist of which still sleeps.”

When we listen to current debates about our schools we hear voices not concerned with cultivating democratic dispositions. Instead we hear the bitter language of defensiveness. Parents insisting that they have the right to pass on to their children their beliefs and their way of life. Of course, there is nothing wrong with this. I believe that the values I cherish reflect a way of being in the world that is worthwhile and compelling. And I want my son to embrace those values. But I do so without denying the power of his inevitable exposure to others, of seeing the world anew as he encounters the expanse of the world of ideas. But too often those who insist on their values want to insulate their children – they want to cultivate a pernicious provinciality that results not in the formation of democratic character but in that of the blind dogmatist. (Think about some of the crude arguments against bilingual education.) I am reminded of the powerful words of William James: “A mind too narrow has room but for one kind of affection.” This one kind of affection is often wrapped in the garments of piety. But as James says, “Piety is the mask; the inner force is tribal instinct.”

So, those of us who are committed to a view of education that forms democratic dispositions must speak loudly and argue forcefully. This view of education holds as a much cherished commitment free and open inquiry and communication and affords each child the opportunity to escape from the limitations of the social group in which she was born. We must cling to this with all of our strength.

Effective freedom. Hmmm. Our nation’s public schools have been, for many, places where dreams are left to fade. Many of our students can not seem to escape their social environments. Remember Dewey’s rather naïve assumption that schools “eliminated the unworthy features of existing environments.” No. In our day schools are reflections of those environments. Poor housing, extensive unemployment, communities bereft of resources, awash in various forms of social disorder (hyper-segregated and hyper-concentrations of poverty) -- these are the environments in which many of our children’s judgments and dispositions are formed. But many of our fellow citizens have experienced a sort of moral fatigue. They don’t seem to care about those who suffer in squalor and are educated to suffer. During the recent campaign did we hear anything specific about education (in rural America where they are downsizing, consolidating, and shortening the school week in the name of efficiency and productivity, or in urban American where we see private corporations taking over troubled school districts, market-driven answers to the moral failure of a nation)? The only point mentioned was the failure or not to fund the No Child Left Behind Act. We heard little of students who desire to learn but cannot because their social context is so debilitating. I have a former student who is currently teaching in the Bronx and 90 percent of his students are the children of prostitutes or crack addicts. He began his school year without the requisite books to begin his lesson plan. And his brightest student, the one with the most potential, was suspended within days of the beginning of school.

Can talk of accountability singularly address this sort of social malaise? Is the market driven option of school choice the answer? Offering some students the option to choose better schools while leaving others behind, once again? Can we muster the moral energy to say that every child deserves the equal opportunity to dream new dreams and acquire the requisite skills and habits to pursue those dreams? Can we reject market solutions to moral problems, because we are not too “in love” with the work of markets and the various inequalities they produce? Or, are we left to watch as a generation of poor, black, and brown kids get tracked to a certain sector of our economy: where they clean our buildings, serve us our food, and scramble to make ends meet as they watch their dreams fade away.

We live in grave and dark times. Ours is a nation that is suffering the effects of corporate despotism. We have witnessed over the last few years a tremendous transfer of wealth from those who barely have to those who have in abundance. Ours is an extremely economically stratified country, where the top 1 percent owns over 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. We have indeed become an oligarchy. And it is reflective in our nation’s failed commitment to public education. Many of our fellow citizens have found contentment in their own individual pursuits of happiness and comfort. Their only words are, “Do not obstruct my attempts to achieve the American dream.” And all the while, that dream has become a nightmare for many of our fellow citizens. We have an anemic conception of the public good. And we continue to see the critical alliance between class privilege and education. Obviously the health of the country is in jeopardy.

Those of us, the few that we may be, must find the energy to draw on the resources of this powerful, but fragile, experiment in democracy, to save our country. The words of Ralph Waldo Emerson come to mind: “The existing world is not a dream, and cannot with impunity be treated as a dream; neither is it a disease; but it is the ground on which you stand, it is the mother of whom you were born. Reform converses with possibilities, perchance with impossibilities; but here is sacred fact. This was also true, or it could not be: it had life in it, or it could not have existed; it has life in it, or it could not continue.”

We must believe that our nation has life in it. This is where democratic hope can be found. Now, I am a part of a tradition, a blues people, which has found resources for democratic hope in the extraordinary capacities of ordinary people in spite of a wicked nation committed to wicked practices. The ideals of democracy inspired those who had been denied freedom and education to dream dreams, to imagine possibilities, and to hold on in the face of the withering storm – to will themselves into a new day. The words of James Baldwin are relevant here: “To be an Afro-American, or an American black, is to be in the situation, intolerably exaggerated, of all those who have ever found themselves part of a civilization which they in no way honorably defend – which they were compelled, indeed, endlessly, to attack and condemn, and who yet spoke out of the most passionate love, hoping to make the kingdom new, to make it honorable and worthy of life.”

I stand in a tradition that never believed the lie that this country was an example of democracy achieved. But rather understood intimately its failures and shortcomings; its blindnesses and deformities. This tradition saw nevertheless not simply disease but possibility – understanding that the nation could have life if it would only learn to swing (Duke Ellington style).

I stand in a tradition that cultivated democratic dispositions in the face of strange fruit dangling from poplar trees, insisted on effective freedom as they imagined a day that their children and children’s children would be able to actualize their capacities and potentialities, and struggled to ensure, in their best moments, that every little boy and girl would have access to the opportunity and skills to make good on the promise that is America.

It is in these dark and trying times that we must turn to the power of Emerson’s insight and the enduring purchase of traditions of struggle to muster the democratic hope and courage to challenge this nation and insist that we educate our children – educate educate them into the habits of democracy so that this nation can be saved.