Monday, June 11, 2007

Community Organizing and Urban Education X: Is Progressive Democratic Education Undemocratic?

[To read the entire series, go here.]

Progressive reformers at the turn of the century undertook the project of reclaiming citizens from the “human junk” produced by industrialization . . . .

In the short run, as many historians have shown, Progressive reform of the political process narrowed rather than expanded the circle of citizenship. Dewey and most Progressives . . . failed to acknowledge this process of exclusion. . . .

The Progressive movement[‘s] . . . vision of the people, although universal in its claims, was in fact more limited and culturally bounded. New immigrants and African Americans were consigned to the margins, their capacity for assimilation dependent on their slow progress, their citizenship claims contingent.

--Stromquist, Re-Inventing “The People,” pp. 5, 7, & 10

Among progressive educators, today as in the past, the key contribution schools can make to social transformation is through education in practices of democracy. But is this effort to inculcate democracy itself anti-democratic?

Two key points are important to emphasize, here.

First, it is important to understand the intensity of the Deweyan model that nearly all progressive educators look to. In Democracy and Education, Dewey lays out an intensive process of transformation designed to develop individuals who think and interact with the world in a very specific manner. To become democratic, children must learn a complex model of intelligent inquiry. And they must develop a subtle set of social capacities that will allow each engage in a fluid collaboration with each other, drawing out and valuing the unique contributions of each participant.

What Dewey describes is an ongoing process of social development that reconstructs children’s perceptions of and actions into the world in fundamental ways. It involves a deep operation on the workings of their body/minds.

Second, as Stromquist and McGerr and others have argued, this progressive “democratic” individual is not simply a neutral model. Instead, it drew from the middle-class culture that was emerging at the same time at the turn of the 20th century, and that was shared by nearly all prominent progressives. Dewey’s vision of democratic collaboration, for example, was deeply informed by a developing culture of professional dialogue and of educated middle-class families like his own.

It is important to acknowledge that progressives like Dewey were critical of the middle class as well. While their vision was rooted in the cultural practices they were most familiar with, they sought to build upon and improve what the thought was best about it. Thus, the middle-class children in Dewey’s Laboratory School still had much to learn if they were to fully embody the capacities of a democratic society.

Nonetheless, members of the professional middle class were (and remain today) closest to the Deweyan ideal. Members of the working class, and most members of oppressed cultures like those of African Americans and new immigrants had the farthest to go, the most to learn.

Thus, it is accurate in a limited sense to say that progressives sought a society in which everyone interacted more like they and their class interacted. Dewey developed an educational model designed, in part, then, to make people more like him.

Why is this discussion relevant to a series on community organizing?

I would argue that models of community organizing, like the ones I have been discussing in previous posts, embody a much less elaborate vision of democratic practice. In contrast with the kind of deep transformation that Dewey aimed at (and that schools have almost universally failed to achieve) community organizers have much more modest aims.

For purely pragmatic reasons of limited resources, among others, neo-Alinsky organizing groups take people largely as they are. Instead of trying to transform how participants conceptualize the world in deep ways, organizers provide people with a collection of fairly basic tools for making sense of inequality and for bringing disparate groups of marginalized and sympathetic actors together to fight for change.

Organizers also have developed a sophisticated conception of the difference between “public” and “private” perceptions of the world. Unlike Deweyan progressives, they leave the vast realm of people’s “private” understandings and practices alone, aiming only to give people skills for acting in and making sense of the “public” realm. Regardless of who you are in your private world, they argue, when you emerge in public you need to play a particular kind of role that can be learned in much less time.

And instead of asking every single participant to embody the sophisticated skills and understandings that these groups have developed over time, they accept a distribution of knowledge. Highly trained organizers work with less well-trained top leaders, who work with emerging leaders, who work with an only marginally involved mass of participants. They balance out the potentially undemocratic implications of this model by constantly working to stay in touch with the passions and desires of individual participants and by constantly seeking to find new leaders who can be brought up into the power structure.

I am grasping for a way to frame differences between the visions of democratic education embraced by Deweyan progressives and neo-Alinsky community organizers. Perhaps it is useful to distinguish between the educational “transformation” sought by Deweyan democratic educators and the more blunt, if often sophisticated “tools” of community organizers.

The Deweyan side focuses on an elaborate and subtle process of individual transformation. The goal is to change “who” people are in quite fundamental ways.

In contrast, the organizing side strips down what is needed for effective democratic engagement to the bare essentials required to contest unequal power.

In other words, it seems at least somewhat true that organizing sees people as more ready, as they are, for political participation in the democratic polity than do progressive educators who often sigh in despair at the incredible amount of work that needs to be done. And, as a result, organizing may, of necessity, be significantly more respectful of the cultural practices that different groups bring with them to the fight.

By teaching less the education involved in community organizing may, in fact, be more “democratic,” than that of progressives.

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