Election 2016: Democracy and Education

It is Election Day 2016, and as I look around at Abrome, I recognize that the people in our community who will be most impacted by this election are the ones who are too young to vote. Our Learning Coaches (the adults) each voted early, although I would be willing to bet that none of them did so enthusiastically. No matter what your political affiliation or orientation, I think most of us can agree that the 2016 election has brought out the worst in many, and that it highlights some glaring flaws in the American political system.

First and foremost, the political system is not democratic by any means. As I previously alluded to, not everyone has a say in who is elected. Children, high numbers of the infirm or mentally disabled, many homeless, most incarcerated felons, many ex-felons, residents of US territories, and foreign nationals are locked out of the process, even though they most often feel the brunt of public policy decisions.

Among those who can vote, the process is still not truly democratic. Voter turnout issues aside, a vote in New Hampshire carries more weight than a vote in Wisconsin, which carries more weight than a vote in California. This is a function of the Electoral College, and clearly violates the notion of “one person, one vote.” And even if all votes were equal, those who directly and heavily contribute to candidates have an outsized influence on the policy positions that those candidates take once in office.

Add on top of the undemocratic nature of these elections from the people’s perspective, the two-party system that has a tight grip on the electoral process makes the notion of democracy in politics a laughable one. The parties are semi-private organizations that cater to a tiny number of powerful constituencies that are out of step with the majority of Americans, but the overwhelming majority of voters believe that they must fall in line behind one of the main party candidates on Election Day.

So what does this have to do with education? Considering that schools are a key tool used to prepare young people for engagement in society, a considerable amount. Unfortunately, the roles current students are being trained to hold in society are not nearly as idealistic as we have been led to believe. Fundamental to the purpose of schooling was a sorting function to create different classes of people, most of which were to serve at the convenience of those who controlled society. While the makeup of the people who control society has evolved, and while there is a greater possibility for mobility from the lowest classes to the controlling classes today than when the schools were created, from a functional perspective modern day schools further entrench disparities instead of serving as a great equalizer. And as noted before, inequality is incompatible with true democracy.

There is a nation-wide collection of “Democratic Schools” that argues that by creating democratic settings in the schoolhouse, where every child has as much of a say as every adult, that we can create a democratic society where the people take control of the political machine. Although we love Democratic Schools, we disagree with this hypothesis.

Democracy is not a silver bullet solution to our problems, as any black man in East Texas or any homeless man in the streets of San Francisco might be able to attest to. Democracy in its worst form allows for the minority to be abused by the majority. It is essential that an enlightened society respect the rights of all people, in spite of biases and privilege. While we agree that there is tremendous value to be gained by giving young people as much of a voice as adults in schools—promoting democracy in education does not solve the problems of the status quo, and in many ways it serves as a distraction.

So how can education get us to a better future? Three powerful ways it can move us there are (1) by promoting empathy within the populace, (2) by creating an informed, thoughtful populace that is not easily moved by false promises or dogmatic rhetoric, and (3) by allowing all members of society to believe they can improve the human condition.

First, many of the problems of our political system revolve around a fear or hatred of the other. These manifest themselves most powerfully in an anti- stance against entire communities such as black people, immigrants, Muslims, Jewish people, people with mental illness, the homeless, drug users, and people who identify as LGBTQ, among others. Politicians recognize this fear and often times play on it, promising policies that will directly harm these groups so that the bulk of voters can feel safer in the status quo.

An Emancipated Learning environment that embraces diversity of people, ages, and ideologies would directly undermine the divisions that require a lack of empathy to sustain. When people are introduced to those they are told to be scared of, they quickly recognize that we are all far more alike than we are different. Diversity brings tremendous value to our lives in terms of enrichment, creativity, and connection. The age diversity component of empathy building cannot be emphasized enough. In most schools we segregate children by age, taking away a critical opportunity for them to develop empathy by way of caring for those who are younger than them.

Second, our current political system requires a largely uniformed or apathetic populace. This may sound pessimistic, but it is easily affirmed by looking at what politicians promise and what their donors advocate, and comparing them with the decisions politicians make once in office. While society is much better off now than it was a century ago, there are still large swaths of the American populace that are marginalized or oppressed by the political and private institutions that most accept as necessary. An informed populace that also has empathy for marginalized and oppressed communities would not tolerate the current structure of society.

An Emancipated Learning environment, free of a status quo promoting standardized curriculum, and free of hierarchical structures that demand subservience, allows Learners to seek truth in their world. It allows them to question narratives that are presented to them, and to have the courage to seek out alternative explanations, or novel solutions. These people are far less likely to be moved by empty promises or exaggerated threats.

Third, our political system is tailored to appeal to the belief that we cannot improve the world around us. We are left to look for saviors who will come in and manipulate the political institutions to organize society in a way that benefits us, most often at the expense of others. It is not a system that encourages people to try to create a better society for themselves. It tells people that a vote every several years is how one performs their civic duty, while suggesting that how they spend the rest of their lives is irrelevant (except when politicians decide to alter their daily behavior for the benefit of others). 

An Emancipated Learning environment would reject the notion that our value can be captured in a vote. Instead, it would remind us that we can all lead remarkable lives—lives in which we have a positive impact on the communities around us. It allows us to realize that we can be happy, healthy, and serve others so that we can all be better off. And these people are the ones who do not need to rely on the established institutions that have left them virtually powerless.

On Election Day 2016, our Learners are unable to vote on the person who is going to have an outsized impact on their lives over the next decade, for better or worse. But far more importantly, they are in an educational environment that allows them to recognize that they can transcend the limitations of electoral politics. These Learners know that they can purposefully and directly improve the human condition.


Photo: Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Republican and Democratic presidential nominees (Wikipedia)