Synthesis/Regeneration 5   (Winter 1993)

Pursuing Social Justice Through Education:
Schooling for a Critical Democracy

by Landon E. Beyer, Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois

A progressive interpretation of democracy is rooted in traditions that foster a collective or common good within which cooperative individuals are formed, an expansion of decision-making opportunities at all levels, freedom to undertake actions aimed at enhancing social justice, establishing fair and responsive social structures that guarantee access to basic social and economic goods, and the development of genuine communities within which moral deliberation and action can take place.

Such a "strong" or "participatory"1 sense of democracy seeks not to maximize individual desires through participation in a market, but to establish social realities within which responsibilities to the oppressed, the underprivileged, and the afflicted can be acted upon. The good is associated with acting on our responsibilities to alter personal and structural impediments to the least advantaged, within a community dedicated to moral principles and virtues that transcend isolated individuals. A critical democracy refers not to electoral politics but to a way of life- a way of understanding, participating in, and reshaping the institutions, daily practices, relationships, and values that now dominate in education and the wider society.

If we understand democracy in its critical and strong sense, we must broaden the scope of participation beyond that which exists in many contemporary institutions. Several claims can then be made that have rather immediate consequences for education. If people are to have significant input into choices affecting their lives, they must develop 1) the ability to analyze, critique, and evaluate options so that both short and long term consequences can be considered; 2) a forum for the public discussion of issues and ideas, since it is through such discussion that we create, clarify, and re-evaluate our own positions and understand the views of others; 3) access to relevant information, and to multiple interpretations of it that provide new meanings; 4) the habit of coming together to make public decisions, within which we are not coerced or manipulated by "experts" with access to forms of allegedly private and specialized knowledge; and 5) a moral commitment to the common good that transcends both individual self interest and emotivism and exposes the tendency for more powerful individuals and groups to manipulate and cajole the rest of us.

In the short space available, I want to provide at least a sketch of what an education committed to a critical democracy might entail.

I want to work for a world in which both teachers and students are allowed to be compassionate and active participants, within which their choices matter and democratic social relations are taken seriously. Within this context, learning and inquiry will not be passive activities for which we need to "motivate" students but opportunities for community members to teach and learn from each other and from those outside the community as well, including the authors of a wide variety of texts. In such classrooms, students' interests, their possible actions, and the problems of living in a particular time and place, can be joined with important subject matters in helping build a better world. It seems to me that among the relatively easy and helpful things that might be done immediately to begin working for a critical democracy in schools is to ban ditto machines, commercially developed curriculum products (except as sources of information or critique as part of larger projects), and teachers lounges as they now operate in our schools. We could profitably replace these with enhanced libraries with real books and opportunities for genuinely collaborative and intellectual work by teachers and students.

Central to a rejuvenated form of education is the development of collaborative projects involving students, teachers, and community members. Such projects unite the interests and questions of students with forms of knowledge and action in the real world. When undertaken in a social environment emphasizing ethical conduct, they provide a plausible way of incorporating the psychological and the social within the framework of schooling for moral action and social responsibility. A reconstructed curriculum must also be founded on a recognition that the boundaries that separate the school day into discrete time segments, subjects, and units of instruction are artificial and damaging. The segmentation of the school day in these ways reinforces the sense that time and space are structured by others, those with power, and lends support to an efficiency-oriented "banking" concept of education while constraining genuine inquiry. It also reinforces the divisions between head and heart, reason and emotion, thinking and doing, that help generate passivity in students and citizens and stifle democratic actions.

Instead the curriculum must foster not just subject-matter integration — fostering more broadly based courses in the humanities or sciences, say — but a pragmatist position on the value and importance of intellectual engagement. To help accomplish this, and build the sort of democratic character we need for a changed social world, we could organize the school year and day around themes, questions, or concerns that can only be comprehensively addressed by inquiries unhampered by artificial divisions of experience and subject matters, and connected to student interest and purposeful acts.

Not only does this entail different organizational structures within schools and classrooms themselves, but a determination to see inquiry in schools and action in the public world as aspects of the same process. Indeed I think it is essential for the school I have in mind to be an open, community institution in which people from the "outside" come in and those from the "inside" go out, leading ultimately to the elimination of those very categories. This will be furthered by students working with people who, for example, are homeless, the victims of domestic violence, or unable to find jobs and pay for health insurance; it might be connected to activities like helping those who are too poor or physically unable to winterize their homes or remodel a room for a new baby; or it might involve students working in political campaigns, with community activists, and in day care centers for the economically less privileged. If we are to help students understand the dynamics of race, class, and gender for example, it is imperative that we support both the kind of open inquiry into these issues that can be illuminating-looking at social and personal histories, important political and economic documents, novels, movies, paintings, and on and on, that are insightful — and the kind of deliberative actions and interventions in the world that make knowledge powerful.

If students in the school I am describing are to be encouraged to envision a common good that transcends self-interest, they must see the interconnections among people and value their significance. Without romanticizing them, I think the one room schoolhouses that in some areas of the U.S. existed until relatively recently may embody a needed corrective to the corporate classrooms of the 1990's and beyond. Within these schools older students could be found reading to and helping their younger peers, while the latter participated in activities that fostered a sense of community within the school. Such an ethos could prove effective in ending the divisiveness that can be witnessed in virtually all public schools currently.

Along with a more fluid and flexible multi-aged population, the curriculum must encourage the sharing by students of the results of their inquiries, and the development of cooperative efforts that encourage group projects. This is in my view not only to practice good pedagogy but to help students become members of the sort of participatory democracy already alluded to. Making provisions for the development of genuine community within schools also includes allowing for more privacy for students and teachers. While it is currently almost impossible for students in many schools to be alone or to pursue their own interests, the ability to be one's own person and opportunities for individual reflection, introspection and creation, seem indispensable for the development of a communal ethos.

Closely connected with this goal of an inclusive and interactive community within classrooms is a pedagogical and curricular inclusiveness that alters the selective traditions that have operated within the public schools. The right has emphasized the existence of a global economy within which we need to become more productive and competitive, and various educational proposals —such as Adopt-A-School programs, "Worklink," and Burger King's Corporate Academy—have been designed to further this agenda. We do need to emphasize the facts of global interdependence, but we also must help students see the relations of dependence, exploitation, and misery that are involved in actions associated with multinational corporations, U. S. foreign policy initiatives, and military excursions like those, for example, in Grenada, Central America, Panama, and the Persian Gulf. At the same time, we need to emphasize the historical and contemporary patterns of inclusion and exclusion within the borders of the U.S., and the largely unrecognized contributions that have been made by the working class, women, African Americans, Native Americans, Hispanics, and others. A multicultural orientation to inquiry is imperative in this regard if we are to understand who we are and to engage with each other honestly, fairly, and democratically.

The educational direction I am proposing here also seeks to restore what Jane Roland Martin has recently called, "domestic tranquillity" 2. Concerned about the growing violence and misogyny in the classroom and the world, and the alterations in familial and social structures that have made children's lives more insecure and loveless, Martin asks, "what radical change in school suffices" given the problems that exist? She continues, "the best answer I know is to turn the American schoolhouse into a moral equivalent of home in which love transforms mundane activities, the three Cs [care, concern, connection] take their rightful place in the curriculum of all, and joy is a daily accompaniment of learning" 3. Countering what she describes as "domephobia" (our culture's "devaluation of and morbid anxiety about things domestic" 4. Martin's schoolhome extends back to the child's preschool education and forward to the regeneration of the world. In this process she proposes a commitment to the common good beyond electoral politics and egoism similar to the one recommended here.

With these ideas as basic postulates for a reformed school, we might allow ourselves to imagine what a reconstructed school might be like.

Students might begin the day by making breakfast for those who come to school without one, serving and taking responsibility for the brothers and sisters of the community the school embodies. Similar activities would take place during lunch time, with teachers, students, and people from outside the school building making sure that everyone receives the basic nutrition and forms of caring that are required for personal identity and a healthy community to be created and thrive.

The physical appearance of the school building itself would be much different from the antiseptic and imposing ones to which we now often send our children. Perhaps new schools could be constructed by utilizing houses and other structures that have fallen into disrepair, with members of the community helping rebuild and renovate them. Classrooms could be replaced by rooms of different sizes and "structures of feeling" 5 — some small and intimate to encourage individual and small group work, others large enough to hold meetings to discuss community policies, possible new curriculum directions, and the sharing of completed work. Within all of these rooms it would be common for students of different ages, classes, genders, races, and ethnic groups to be working with each other, helping solve a problem that is difficult for some, perhaps discussing an issue or question raised by a teacher about the project that group is working on, interacting with people from the larger community who have come in to share their expertise or to offer suggestions for student involvement within the community, and so on.

There would be no principal as we now understand that role. Curricular and other decisions would be made by the community, with the menial administrative tasks that must be done (filing reports, meeting with agencies and groups, and generally complying with bureaucratic demands) shared perhaps on a rotating basis with the other adults who work in the school. The school day would allow a significant amount of time for teachers to work individually and with each other, reading, following up on student initiatives, conducting research projects, and working with people outside the school.

Library materials would have to be extensive, with original documents, literature, real texts, newspapers, and a variety of media included. In addition, supplies and equipment would be provided to put out a weekly student newspaper, videotape student projects, create paintings and other art works, literary magazines, and science projects that would become catalogued and a part of the resources of the school.

Students who now occupy the primary grades would continue to have one or two teachers who would centrally provide for their care and furnish the attention, encouragement, and affection they need. While this would be supplemented by the flexible and multi-age grouping that would be common, the homelike support of these students' surrogate parents would I think be beneficial especially for younger children.

The noise level within the school would likely be intermittently quite high, as the excitement of discovery and learning — not to mention of group projects with friends and community members — replaces the disarming quiet that accompanies dull, monotonous, and alienating "skill and drill" sessions. The rhythm of the day would not be established by a system of bells announcing the end of history and beginning of science, or the close of spelling and the chance for recess, but by the patterns of daily activity — reading, discussing, acting, conversing — that comprise intellectual work and social action. Excitement and closure, the rush of anticipation and the contentment and satisfaction of true accomplishment, would replace the deafening silence and anaesthetic regularities of current classrooms.

Artistic activities would be common and robust, incorporated into numerous centers of learning instead of being sequestered and in the process devalued. In addition to an emphasis on performance and the creation of artifacts, appreciative and evaluative aesthetic experiences would be engaged. They provide avenues for creative self-exploration as well as insight into past and current cultures, explorations of alternative ways of life, and the creation of future possibilities. They also vivify and help us make decisions about the requisite forms of social action that may be morally required. Beyond these features, a central characteristic of these schools would be a structure of feeling that supports and makes us conscious of the aesthetic dimensions of everyday life and experience.

The ideas for a school committed to developing a critical democracy are in some sense utopian, though this is not in itself a defect. The work that has to be done is arduous, certain to raise opposition from the political right and others, and complicated. But the stakes are perhaps unprecedentedly high: a system of education given over to the interests of the powerful, an elitist pseudo-democracy, and continued degradation for many versus an education that empowers people to take control of social institutions and practices through participation, deliberation, and action. We must do what we can, in our own situations, to work for the latter.


1 See, for example, Carole Pateman, 1970, Participation and Democratic Theory (New York: Cambridge University Press); Benjamin Barber, 1984, Strong Democracy (Berkeley: University of California Press); Marcus Raskin, 1986, The Common Good (New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul); and George H. Wood, "Democracy and the Curriculum," and Landon E. Beyer, "Schooling for the Culture of Democracy," in Landon E. Beyer and Michael W. Apple, editors, 1988, The Curriculum: Problems, Politics, and Possibilities (Albany: State University of New York Press).

2 Jane Roland Martin, 1992, The Schoolhome: Rethinking Schools for Changing Families (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), p. 6.

3 Ibid., p.40.

4 Ibid., p.155.

5 See Raymond Williams, 1961, The Long Revolution (Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books Ltd.); for a discussion of how this concept might apply to aesthetic education, see Landon E. Beyer, 1985, "Aesthetic Experience for Teacher Preparation and Social Change," Educational Theory, Vol. 35, No. 4, Fall.

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