Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Democracy and Education

Democracy and Education.

I want to examine two stories that, on the surface, do not seem to have much in common. I want to point to interesting similarities and from them extract some important lessons about democracy.

The first story comes from Ethiopia – a desperately poor country in East Africa. An American writer, Helen Epstein, visited that country several times and was appalled by the pervasive malnutrition and hunger. The “experts” ascribed it to droughts, poor soil, and other natural conditions. When Epstein asked malnourished women why they did not have enough food for their children and themselves, she was told that the plots of land available to each family are not big enough to feed them. Other problems had to do with low prices for their crops and burdensome taxes. Epstein writes: “There is no simple solution to this crisis... but only the peasants themselves have any hope of finding one. Working with agronomists and other experts, they could confront” their problems. But no one asks the peasants. The government is very repressive; any attempt of the peasants to organize themselves would invite swift reprisals. The NGOs are staffed by people who think that they know better. They don't ask the peasants; they just tell them. The people who know the problems most intimately have no way of applying their knowledge to solve them.

The next story comes from the United States. Everyone knows that our schools have problems. The latest response to this crisis is to blame the teachers and principals. Where schools are not up to test standards, principals are moved out of the schools and teachers are fired or forced to reapply for their job. Very rich and very powerful persons have jumped on the charter school bandwagon. Bill Gates – who, after all, is not infallible; he gave us Windows Vista – and a collection of other big shots, recently got together to agitate for charter schools even though careful studies have shown that, on the average, charter schools fare no better than schools run by local school committees. Some charter schools perform brilliantly, but so do some public schools. Other schools in both categories don't do a very good job.

In Ethiopia a dictatorial government does not allow peasants to organize themselves in order to try to solve their problems. We do not have that problem but share another difficulty with Ethiopia. There the self identified experts of the NGOs just give orders and advice; they do not ask the peasant families what they think even though they see the problems more intimately than anyone else. When it comes to education in the US, the problem is very similar. Collections of big shots jump on one bandwagon or another even though they have no first-hand experience of the problem, nor any expertise in education. No one, that I know of, talks to the parents. No one asks the students in different schools what they think about their schools, what works, what does not, and how their school could be improved. All the wisdom about schools is claimed by people who know no more about schools than anybody else.

In both cases the people who have the problems are not allowed to try to solve them. Big brother, in one form or another – NGOs or Bill Gates –, tells people what their problem is and how they need to fix it. I would have thought that being involved in solving your problems is of the essence of freedom. Democracy requires that no one's problems are solved by persons outside the community that has the problems, and solutions to problems are attempted without elaborate consultation with the people whose problem it is.

But that is not the kind of democracy we have. Here, democracy means that we have elections and choose people to do things for us. The very act of voting is an act of giving responsibility for our lives to the people we vote for and to the armies of bureaucrats who work for the elected government. In the very act of voting I surrender my freedom to solve my own problems and those of my neighborhood in co-operation with my neighbors. As a voter I limit my freedom to run my own life because I give over that task to an elected government. Electoral democracy is paternalistic: the people periodically pick those who will run their lives for them. The spirit of paternalism has expanded so that now people run our lives whom we did not vote for. Who gave the power to Bill Gates to spend a lot of money trying to encourage the founding of charter schools?

Real democracy, democracy that makes us free, must include full participation of everybody in running their own lives. In the case of schools it must involve the parents, the students, their teachers, administrators and counselors and coaches and janitors. They must all be consulted and participate in developing solutions if the process is going to be democratic. Bill Gates has no business meddling in this.