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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
October 1, 1998
Vol. 56
No. 2

Reclaiming a Democratic Purpose for Education

What is education for? How we answer that question as educators will determine whether young people learn to sustain and enrich a democratic way of life.

We who now live are parts of a humanity that extends into the remote past, a humanity that has interacted with nature. The things in civilization we most prize are not of ourselves. They exist by grace of the doings and sufferings of the continuous human community in which we are a link. Ours is the responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it.—John Dewey, A Common Faith, etched upon his memorial stone at the University of Vermont
So much of what we read today about curriculum history suggests that the noble impulses that Dewey and other progressives promoted earlier in this century were too entangled with the social efficiency movement, believed by too few people, and merely slogans for a romantic and misguided emphasis on young people's experiences. But I have come to wonder more and more about this cynicism. I am no fool about curriculum history; I know how hard the struggles of progressive educators were and how their efforts were doomed by the persistent alliances between high-culture and economic self-interests and by the right-wing evil of the McCarthy era.
Yet despite the sad fate of the progressive movement, a persistent impulse that should not be disregarded ran deep among the great progressives. That impulse was the firm conviction that democracy is possible, that the democratic way of life can be lived, and that our schools should and can bring democracy to life in the curriculum, in school governance, in community relations, and in the hearts and minds of young people. That idea of democracy was not an empty shell, nor was it based on the vulgar notion of a free marketplace of competing alternatives from which people choose whatever suits their self-interest and their bank accounts. Instead, democracy was to involve intelligent, collaborative participation in society. Creative individuality was to be balanced with concern for the welfare of others and a desire for a common good. Human dignity, equity, justice, and caring were to serve as both ends and means in our political, economic, and social relations.
Out of those values a number of curriculum ideas emerged: democratic schools, "intercultural" education, the great problem-centered core programs, group learning, and more. Various curriculum designs surfaced as well, including curriculum integration—not the trivial pursuit of subject area overlaps to which many people apply the term today, but rather a design focused on personally and socially significant themes, collaboratively planned by teachers and students in democratic learning communities, without regard for subject area lines. Practices like these, and the urge for democracy that drove them, reflect a noble impulse that is worth reclaiming today.
To dismiss the history of that impulse, I would have to dismiss my own experience during my first years of teaching, when I came into contact with some of those "old" progressives. I remember conversations about the rights of young people, democratic classrooms, how students could help plan the curriculum, how we could give social issues a larger place in the curriculum, the unfairness of standardized tests, and the despicable injustices that crushed the souls of children. We were not afraid. We were part of a long line of progressive work. It was a time different in so many ways from our own. And so much has been forgotten.

The Curriculum Adrift

Today the talk about teaching and learning is mostly about something else entirely. We may want to wish otherwise, but it cannot be denied. The standards movement is in full swing, as are the national testing schemes. The long list of facts and skills they entail are mistakenly called a curriculum, and the definition of curriculum planning itself is reduced to the managerial function of aligning standards, tests, lesson plans, and all the rest of the authoritarian mechanisms needed to control young people and their teachers. We are led to worship test scores, the false idols of education. And although the metaphorical bar has been raised for our children, politicians, bureaucrats, and educators have explicitly refused to ensure that every school—and therefore every child—will have equitable resources to accomplish the standards.
Schools are becoming simply one more example of niche products in a free marketplace of educational boutiques where parents are "consumers" of our teaching "product." We make new programs for the affluent that will reaffirm their cultural dominance and separate their children from those who are nonprivileged. We make new programs for parents who wish to hide from their children's view those who do not subscribe to their own beliefs. We make new programs to satisfy the labor needs of greedy corporations. In short, we act as if the schools are maintained merely to serve self-interests. Any obligation to a common good is dismissed here just as it is everywhere else in our society. We have become a profession of fads and glitzy programs with no pedagogical or moral compass to guide us, unless we mistake the litany of self-righteous slogans found in many character education treatises for a moral philosophy.
I imagine myself a historian a century from now, looking back and wondering whether people in our time actually believed that such an educational agenda met our responsibility of conserving, transmitting, rectifying and expanding the heritage of values we have received that those who come after us may receive it more solid and secure, more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it. The possibility leaves me in despair. I would have expected something better of us.
And if I am in despair, I can only imagine the hurt and anger so many teachers must feel as they are blamed for problems in our schools when, in fact, the real source lies in the systematic purging of our moral and pedagogical infrastructure that has come from the movement to turn our schools, and other public institutions, over to private greed and political self-interest. Our teachers should not be at the center of our scrutiny. Instead, we must turn our attention to the conditions under which they are made to teach—the increasing stranglehold of authoritarian control, the insidious game of academic competition among students of different countries, the refusal to level the playing field of school resources, and the general failure of nerve in our society's social conscience. It is true that those conditions arise from movements outside our schools and that we must resist them there. But it is just as true that they have invaded the curriculum within our schools.

A Curriculum for Democracy

It is time to reclaim a purpose for education that is worth having, one that is forged from the more generous impulses and aspirations of democracy and the democratic way of life, one that demands we take action. We cannot continue to accept the emerging collection of inequitable and miseducative ideas as if they constitute a curriculum worthy of our heritage or of our young people's future. We should begin now to ask something else of the curriculum, something more than the narrow economic and political purposes being forced upon us.
We should ask that the curriculum bring diverse groups of young people together in communities of learning where they can live and work in democratic ways, where their diversity is a prized aspect of the group rather than a criterion for the sort-and-select machine. We should ask that the curriculum focus on topics that are of real significance to both young people and the larger society. Justification for the curriculum should be clear. The curriculum should never insult the intelligence of our young people or their capacity to recognize the irrelevant when they see it. We should ask that the curriculum treat students with dignity, as real people who live in the real world and care about its condition and fate. We should ask that the curriculum value the knowledge and experience young people bring with them to school, as well as what they think would be worth pursuing. They should have a say about their own learning experiences, and their say should really count for something.
We should ask that the curriculum engage important knowledge from many sources and be organized so that it is meaningful and accessible to young people. The rhythms and patterns of their inquiring minds ought to be more important in determining the scope and sequence of knowledge than the recommendations of academics who rarely see young people in schools or bureaucrats to whom they are only anonymous statistics in official reports. We should ask that the curriculum draw knowledge from many sources in academic and popular culture and privilege no one source nor serve the exclusive interests of any particular class or culture. We should want a curriculum that involves knowledge that is as rich in its diversity as our society.
We should ask that the curriculum bring our young people into contact with the most important and current ideas, through the best resources we can find. We have an obligation to help our children become well-informed. We should ask that the curriculum offer our young people a chance to critique existing knowledge and construct new meanings, accepting no fact as authoritative simply because it appears in a book or on the Internet. We should ask that the curriculum offer something better than short-answer, standardized tests, for in their cold impersonalness they insult our humanity, trivialize our desires, and balkanize our young people. We should ask that the goals and expectations of the curriculum be reasonable and achievable for all young people, and that none of them be excluded from those goals for reasons outside their own control.
We should ask that the curriculum be kind to young people, uplifting their hopes and their possibilities, instead of discouraging their spirits and aspirations. Its purpose should be to inspire our children, not to punish them. We should ask that it bring them joy in new insights and exciting discoveries. The work they do should involve more making and doing, more building and creating, and less of the deadening drudgery that too many of our curriculum arrangements still demand.
We should ask that the curriculum challenge our young people to imagine a better world and to try out ways of making it so. We should ask that it bring them justice and equity, that it help them to overcome the narrow prejudices still so evident in our society. We should ask that the curriculum serve the best interests of our young people and our democracy and not be implicated in the ambitions of politicians or the profit desires of the corporate marketplace. In our schools, where the young must come involuntarily, we ought to guarantee that what is sought after is truly in their best interests and not simply the self-interests of others. The curriculum should be better for our young people than it was for us. It should not simply be what we had in school, but what we wished we could have had or, without prejudice, should have had.
Now I know that to publicly ask for a curriculum like this in the politics of our time is to invite ridicule from almost every corner of the profession and the community. It is too idealistic, some would say, for the hard contests of the global marketplace. It is too dangerous, some would say, to give our children ideas like that. It is too ambiguous, some would say, for young people who should be told right or wrong answers. Others will ask, Will it give our businesses a competitive edge in the global economy? Will our students score as well as those of other countries on international comparison tests? Will they get into elite universities? Surely such a curriculum can only be fodder for conservative talk-show hosts.
Perhaps so. But that must not matter, for those of us who are citizen-educators are responsible to watch over the democratic ends of education in our society. The very possibility of such a curriculum is our moral challenge. Ours is the obligation to remember those who struggled to make a progressive democratic history. Ours is the obligation to recapture the nobler purpose of democratic teaching and learning. And ours is the obligation to seek out those courageous teachers who are keeping the progressive dream alive, to ask how we can help expand their efforts in these difficult times and how—to answer Dewey's call—we can make the meaning of their work "more widely accessible and more generously shared than we have received it."
End Notes

1 John Dewey. (1934). A common faith. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

James A. Beane has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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