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Living & Learning Democracy: What About the Children?

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As we know, one main goal of the Bush administration’s foreign policy is to “spread democracy” throughout the world. In order to protect our freedoms at home, the argument goes, we must help free other countries from authoritarian or tyrannical governments. If we succeed (via force or “diplomacy”), we must also shepherd these countries through the how-to-run-a-democracy learning process, as we’re doing right now in Iraq.

Note that we haven’t required Iraqi citizens to go through democracy training school before “letting” them run their own country; all the civics courses in the world can’t really teach democracy. You have to live it. Thus, you won’t find the Iraqi populace sitting in a classroom, studying a textbook and holding mock elections or mock jury trials before being set free as fully fledged citizens of their own country. They’re learning by doing, or in this case, by living.

Iraqi women votingAnd if Iraqi voter turnout is any indication, they’re eager to self-govern. In January 2005, an estimated 60-70% of eligible Iraqi voters cast a ballot in Iraq, even though they risked being blown to smithereens (and some were). A high percentage of expatriates also voted.

Hey, Aren’t We Supposed To Set the Standard?

Contrast that with our own, well-established democracy (representative republic, actually, but let’s not quibble), which we Americans tout as the example Iraq and other countries should emulate. Only 53% of eligible Americans voted in the 2004 elections. Our youngest voters voted least, with 51% going to the polls. That number represents a dramatic increase over the previous presidential election, but it’s still low, especially when you consider we’re threatened only by annoying exit pollers.

In general, half of eligible Americans don’t vote. Why? Apathy certainly plays a part. Many Americans feel as if their vote won’t change a thing. They’re jaded about the machine that our government has become.

But that explains some of the older voters. But what about our youngest voters, the newly emancipated young adults, who, much like the Iraqi citizenry, are tasting the democratic process for the first time? Why don’t they vote in droves when they finally have a say in how they’re governed?

Not Rocking the Vote

For one, young people don’t see how the hotly debated issues relate to their own lives. How many 20-year-olds think about social security, never mind understand it?

Students at their desks, many moons agoBut something else contributes, too: Our young adults have been in a classroom for 12 years, learning about democracy but not living democracy. Sure, as kids reach middle school, they elect student governments. But these “elected officials” don’t govern the school. They wield no authority but to decide, on behalf of their classmates, how the fundraising money is spent or what theme the spring dance should have. Someone runs the school, but it’s not the student government.

I’m not belittling the fun kids have or the learning that takes place when kids plan and organize events or make decisions. I’m just pointing out that adults won’t let kids make any true governing decisions.

But what if we did? What if we let the students at each school govern themselves? You know, let them hire and fire teachers and office staff, choose their own curricula, and make financial decisions for the school?

Disaster, right? Wrong.

Living Democracy at School

Some schools already do let their students run the joint. They’re democratic schools, where kids–some as young as 5 years old–vote in every decision about the school, from the courses it will offer (if any), to the staff (read: teachers) it hires, to the rules for acceptable behavior on campus. Every member of the school gets a vote, and since students greatly outnumber staff — well, you can do the math.

To top it off, nobody tells these kids what to learn and when to learn it; they decide for themselves. If they want to climb a tree all day, they can. If they want to study physics, they can. Each individual child decides what he or she will or won’t do each day in school.

I’m sure by now you’re thinking that kids A) aren’t mature enough to run a school, B) aren’t qualified to run a school from an educational/curriculum standpoint, and C) would choose to never do any “schoolwork” if left to their own devices.

But you’d be wrong. Schools like Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts have demonstrated that kids can handle it. Sudbury school governance comes in the form of a weekly school meeting, modeled after New England town meetings. The 35-year-old Sudbury has been so influential, other democratic schools identify themselves as “Sudbury schools,” even though no formal designation or affiliation exists. Most democratic schools are private, but public schools are getting into game, too. Check out the Liberty School in Maine.

The core beliefs behind the Sudbury school:

The fundamental premises of the school are simple: that all people are curious by nature; that the most efficient, long-lasting, and profound learning takes place when started and pursued by the learner; that all people are creative if they are allowed to develop their unique talents; that age-mixing among students promotes growth in all members of the group; and that freedom is essential to the development of personal responsibility [emphasis mine].

At democratic schools, students learn to handle freedom responsibly by being free and experiencing the responsibility that comes with it. They learn from both the good and not-so-good decisions they make.

In the view of democratic schools, you can’t expect students to be responsible for themselves, their community (school or the greater one around them), or their own learning if someone else–no matter how well intentioned–dictates everything for them. And you can’t expect children, adolescents, or young adults to handle freedom if they’ve never had any.

To that I’d add that you can’t expect them to suddenly believe in and participate in a democracy if they never experienced it before, just because they’ve passed the magical 18th birthday.[ADBLOCKHERE]

What better way to learn to live responsibly is there? What better way to “teach” democracy than to let children live in a real one from a very early age?

That said, I don’t believe that all children thrive in the same educational setting. In fact, that’s public school’s fatal flaw: sameness for everyone. So I’m not advocating that all our schools become democratic schools. (Disclaimer: neither of my kids goes to one, but I haven’t ruled it out.) But what if every school district offered at least one democratic school for its families to choose if they wanted to? Would enough parents let their kids choose one of those schools?

Would you?

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About Lori Mortimer