The Purpose of Education in a Democratic Society

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The purpose of education in a democratic society is to instill the values of cooperation, fairness and justice into the hearts of our students. I would argue that these values are essential to maintaining and improving a functioning democracy in any country. In Canada, our democracy is in serious need of a shake up. We have rising inequality due to an economic system based on competition and profit, we have a Prime Minister who is acting more and more like an authoritarian dictator and we have followed pace with the United States in dismantling the public good over the last forty years.

As a social studies teacher, and a concerned citizen, I often ask myself what do I want my students to be able to contribute to in their lives. Of course I want them to have successful lives in which they are able to follow their passions but I also want them, regardless of their profession, to be able to contribute to our democracy in some way. Democracy is at the heart of my teaching practice as I see my classroom as a microcosm of what our world could be. I want to create the conditions in my classroom where the principles of democracy reign supreme. I want my students to participate in the process of establishing class rules and culture. I want my students to have a voice in how they can demonstrate their knowledge as well as how they are assessed academically. In other words, I want to share the power in the classroom with my students.

Now, for many teachers reading this you may be thinking that I’m crazy to give up “control” in my classroom. But what we have to understand as educators is that our jobs is not to “control” students but to empower them to be critically thinking democratic citizens. Teachers must do away with any form of authoritarian teaching method and embrace a more democratic approach to ensure that our students understand that the work of democracy is important and worth while. We have to understand as teachers that even in democratic spaces we still have the authority to ensure the classroom is a safe space for all students but that we engage in dialogue with our students about the reasons for any decision we make and ask for student feedback on how the classroom is run.

We can’t run our schools and classrooms like a dictatorship and then pretend to think that our students will be prepared to be active citizens participating in our democratic system. We also have to ensure that we present democracy as a system and process that is always happening by being involved in our communities and institutions. Voting every election is only one aspect of being an active democratic citizen. Part of our responsibilities as citizens is to work with others collaboratively to accomplish shared goals and dreams. Any rights or freedoms that have been granted by politicians have rarely come independent of citizens demanding them as part of a larger social movement.

We have a crisis of democracy in Canada and Alberta with low voter turnouts and a lack of community in many areas. In Alberta, as students have began demanding Gay-Straight Alliances over more than the past decade it has made many social-conservatives in the province uneasy to say the least. These students are exercising their democratic voice and this week the province has decided that they will not protect this democratic right as the province has chosen to make the very political decision to strike a “balance” between those advocating for GSA’s and those who wish to suppress the voice of marginalized students in our schools.

Democracy is not for the faint of heart and it is something that must be protected by citizens of any country. Our schools must be places where students have a voice that is heard and they must be able to take action on issues that they care about. If we adults seek to limit or silence student voice in our schools and education system then we are condemning our democracy to further degradation. It’s time we make the shift towards a democratic approach to education in our classrooms and schools. If we don’t, our democracy and all of us will suffer for it.

Democratic Education Resources:

  1. Bringing Democratic Education to your Classroom and School

  2. What is Democratic Education

  3. Democratic Classrooms

McCutcheon Decision: Anatomy of a Policy Distraction

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It is not my intent to diminish the import or significance of the McCutcheon v FEC decision. Obviously, this court composition has shown itself to be happy to adjudicate cases erring on the side of pure Juris prudence even when in opposition to precedence. I have an opinion on that, but my current point is that THAT DISCUSSION about the make-up, activism, and bias of the court is not the story of democracy.

Let’s engage in an exercise where we actually break down the logic in the ways that we are taught as policy analyst rather than resorting to emotional reactions based on a basic mistrust of money. I am in favor of laws requiring full disclosure of donors and sources of sponsorship. Yet, I am not with those who lament that the latest Supreme Court decision on related to campaign finance spells doom to our democracy. My analysis pivots on two questions. First, what is the fundamental activity of our democracy? Second, how do we operationalize that fundamental activity?

Two Questions
These two questions are important because their answers demonstrate the perspective guiding those who answer. I am in favor of a perspective that recognizes how grassroots organizing carries the day beyond political ads and fundraising dinners. The bottom line is that if the candidates I support are upset because they are outmatched by the money, they have lost sight of the equation that 3.2 million dollars from one donor is matched with $1 from 3.2 million individuals. I will wait while you make the larger realization… 3.2 million individuals offer a greater voting block—the core of democracy—when compared to the money of one individual.

Content Analysis
What is the fundamental activity of our democracy? It is the right and responsibility of every citizen to vote. Universally across the country, the voting experience is a private, unencumbered activity between an individual citizen and a ballot. In some polling places, the action is still shrouded in a booth with a physical curtain separating the voter from the influences of the world outside.

We must not lose sight of this fundamental activity. As policy analysts, we see content analysis as our opportunity to examine McCutcheon v FEC for its literal content. The decision limits the ability of the government to set limits on the contributions of any one citizen to a political campaign. Any argument based on the content of the decision necessarily sets up agreement or disagreement with governmental powers. We can have that discussion, even that disagreement, but the content of the case must not be a proxy for other discussions. The content of this case was not about corruption–bribery of elected officials. As shown in other criminal cases, most recently the verdict concerning Ray Nagin, the former New Orleans mayor, money accepted by elected officials in order to provide unfair advantage to donors remains illegal.

Process Analysis
How do we operationalize that fundamental activity of democracy? We have to activate our abilities as citizens within our sphere of influence. Get involved at whatever level you are comfortable with. Then, challenge yourself to act beyond that level of comfort. Every phone call, every presentation, every door you knock on, every check you write counteracts the money spent. We have to educate ourselves, inform others, mobilize voters, and construct the narrative.

As policy analysts, we see process analysis a our chance to examine what the McCutcheon case will mean in practice. This is where every citizen has real opportunity. One characteristic that separates the wealthy from the middle and poor is their political activity. Wealthy folks, certainly for a number of reasons, are more politically active. Yet, as far back as Howard Dean fundraising and as recently as Obama 2008, we are witness to what well-organized, grassroots campaigns with dedicated volunteers can do.

This case is a good example. Keep in mind, according to the NY Times, 43 percent of the 1% are non-republican. Republican-leaning citizens making more than $500,000 per year are deficit over economy focused, comfortable with more non-government solutions, and active in politics. We cannot allow the faulty logic of money amplifying one opinion over another to mask the reality that we each have a way to provide alternatives to those highly financed voices. We can vote. What’s more, we can support the vote of others. Not just the right, but the actual activity. Realize what the NY Times revealed about those with money. They are politically active, and that activity is not confined only to making contributions. They support others to make contributions, but they also make phone calls, host dinners, message friends, and speak within their venues of influence. Do not fail to realize the reality that those venues have fewer people in attendance than the other 99% of venues.

Appeal
Granted, the Citizens United decision allowed for contributions from corporations. Granted, this McCutcheon decision increases limits for individuals. Still, I would like to think that people make their decisions about who to elect based on merits and research rather than political ads and billboards. I am further willing to ensure that reality through informing others. I will reiterate my appeal that we support disclosure so that we know where the money comes from and who all the donors are.

Please do not acquiesce to the position that the people, all of us, are less powerful than the relatively few, extremely wealthy individuals. Once we give in to that view, it ceases to matter what the law is. At that point, we have relinquished our greatest power– to organize ourselves.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Constitution Center

Advocacy Series: Advocacy for Beginners

We live in a democracy, and it takes a certain amount of citizen participation to make any democracy work.  I have decided to write a series on advocacy because many people do not become aware of issues until after the decision is made. Laws become passed and then affect lives before many people ever notice.

10825063-dictionary-definition-of-the-word-advocacy1Staying active on policy issues may be a chore for many, however, we live in a society where decisions are made by those that speak up.

There are many ways to stay current on issues in your area. You can register to the newsletters of those that represent you, find bills on the NCGA website, or “call to action” sites like Progress NC.

While calls to action are crucial, direct contact to your legislators are more important. Be strategic and contact your legislators when they are not in session, they will have more time to talk to you.. There are three main reasons or strategies to contact your legislators.

  •  To build the relationship
  • Provide them with information
  • Ask for action.

Politicians are less likely to listen to your call for action if they have never heard from you before, or if people only respond for a call to action like on a lobby day. Lobby days are a great way to get the message out that a lot of people feel strongly about something. However, it can be overwhelming for legislators and if you want them to have a personal response to your issue, it might be more effective to communicate with them when they are not so busy.

Take time to set up a meeting when they are not in Raleigh and in their home district. Schedule a meeting and introduce yourself, let them know you are a constituent, provide them with information that you know about. Developing a personal relationship is the most effective way to influence the legislators’ positions on an issue. Phone calls, faxes, e-mails and letters are all great but are not as effective as face-to-face meeting.  They are not experts and many times are so removed from the lives of “everyday people”, that they welcome any perspective or feedback.

Some things to remember…

  • Ask for your legislators’ view on an issue. Be kind and don’t react angrily if you don’t get the response you want. Stay calm and be polite always.
  • Use the specific bill or legislative action. Give several brief points why your member should support this legislation.
  • Research your issue and back to them if you cannot provide information about an issue on the spot.
  • Remember to say thank you; and send a thank you note after your visit. This letter helps build a relationship over time with the legislator.

Whatever your preferred method, communication is key for having the society that we want.  Next in the series Tactics and Strategy in Advocacy.

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