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Pass the Elmer's, Please: Is Education the Glue of Democracy?

Chris Mercogliano has been a teacher at the Albany Free School since 1973 and codirector since 1985. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, and he is the author of In Defense of Childhood: Protecting Kids' Inner Wildness and Teaching the Restless: One School's Remarkable No-Ritalin Approach to Helping Children Learn and Succeed


“Education is the Glue of Democracy,” reads a billboard towering over I 90 just outside the birthplace of the American Revolution.

“It is a sticky business these days, isn’t it?” I mused to myself as I zoomed by. Then a more serious thought: “Shouldn’t it be the other way around? Shouldn’t the right of every student to determine his or her own learning be the glue that holds education together?”

I, for one, think it should. Every day of my thirty years as a teacher confirms that children learn faster and better when they have a voice in the educational process, when they get to choose which interests to pursue, and when and with whom. They also act more responsibly, and with greater maturity and consideration when they are actively involved in making the plans and the rules, and in resolving the conflicts that inevitably crop up when individuals come together to form a community.

3286This is hardly a new idea. The Greeks long ago demonstrated that a society in which the people—dêmos—share the power—krátos—is more likely to flourish on every level. It’s common sense, really. Hell, you might even argue that nature herself is democratic, considering the way she distributes power in the form of genetic variation and refinement so evenly across the spectrum of humanity, thus endowing all children with the potential and the means to develop their inborn talents on their own terms.

But let’s back up for a moment and take that billboard at face value. It goes without saying that democratic societies count on education to prepare the younger generation to become engaged citizens with the skills to do the society’s work and the wisdom to keep it on track. Or as Thomas Jefferson did once say, “An informed citizenry is the only true repository of the public will.” Indeed, if we are going to enjoy “government by the people,” which is Webster’s modern definition of democracy, then don’t we need our children to grow up learning how to govern? Isn’t it important for them to be able to think for themselves and not be intimidated by power-hungry individuals, or swayed by the latest opinion poll?

Here is where my bile always begins to rise, because what do we see when we peek in a typical schoolroom door? Isn’t it rows of seated children simply doing as they’re told? When they raise their hands, it’s seldom in order to enter into the discussion of issues of real import or to exercise their democratic right to participate in the governance of the classroom, or God forbid the school as a whole. Rather it is in order to call out rote answers to preordained questions.

Where in this picture do we see students becoming the informed citizens upon whom Jefferson declared any true democracy depends? If anything, as Ivan Illich pointed out in Deschooling Society, education today has a net effect that is profoundly undemocratic. Compulsory schooling’s latent function—what Illich termed the “hidden curriculum”—is to turn us into dependent people who rely on outside experts to do our thinking for us. Furthermore, schools literally school our minds into believing that learning itself depends on the structure and official sanctions provided by specially designated institutions.

Then there is perhaps education’s most undemocratic aspect: the system that was supposed to create equal opportunities for all uses a set of institutional rankings to deem a small subset of individuals more worthy of advancement than others, thereby compounding the privilege of a select few while degrading everyone else. As an interesting aside, in the democracy developed by the Greek city-state of Athens, 90% of the officeholders carrying out the city’s administration were people who lacked particular expertise initially and were chosen by lot rather than popular ballot. Also, each office could be held by the same person only once.

There were three underlying reasons for this approach to government: trusting individuals to learn the necessary skills on the job raised society’s overall level of competence; elections tended to favor the rich; and it was more important to the Athenians to guard against using office holding as a way of accumulating power than against incompetence.

Meanwhile, the sad irony is that the self-appointed guardian of democracy around the world is grooming its future citizens in an educational system that is entirely autocratic. It’s a totally top-down affair run by a handful of highly credentialed so-called “experts,” with millions of students sitting at the bottom of the pyramid with virtually no power at all—who even need permission to use the bathroom.

Equally ironic is the education revolution that began in certain Soviet Bloc nations soon after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. All of a sudden, groups of parents and teachers emerged who were determined to create a new educational model based on democratic principles, so that they could raise a generation of young people who understand the meaning and practice of democracy and who would then form the core of a truly democratic society. These groups created schools like the Stork School in the Ukraine and Moscow’s School for Self-Determination, in which students have substantial freedom of choice and a real say in the terms and conditions of their learning.

These schools have joined a loosely united coalition of other “democratic schools” around the world that likewise empower children to codirect their educations and participate in the direction of their schools. No two “member” schools are alike; but they all hold in common a belief in the critical importance of enabling young people to learn real citizenship skills now and not have to wait until they are voting age adults.

Initially I had a problem with labeling schools like the one I have always taught in “democratic” because of a concern that the term’s strong political connotations may mislead outsiders into thinking the primary aim is to train children in the mechanics of parliamentary government. But then one day I somewhat stumbled upon some fascinating research done in the late-1930s and early ‘40s by psychologist Kurt Lewin. Lewin, the first to apply quantum principles to depth psychology and also a pioneer in the field of group dynamics, was one of a group of scientists and intellectuals—including Hannah Arrendt, Wilhelm Reich, and Erich Fromm, among others—that was trying to uncover the root causes of the alarming spread of fascism.

Lewin wanted to understand how adult leadership styles affect children’s individual and group behavior, and so he and his associates conducted a number of unusual field experiments in summer camps and after-school programs. He identified three basic leadership styles, and not surprisingly he referred to them in political terms: autocratic, democratic, and laissez-faire.

The autocratic group leaders were strict and highly controlling. They unilaterally determined what kind of projects the kids would do, and tended to closely supervise them to make sure they all followed the same uniform steps. These leaders also tightly structured who worked with whom, and remained aloof from group participation except to issue individual praise or criticism of each child’s performance.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the laissez-faire counselors gave the kids permission to do whatever they wanted and generally didn’t participate in any group process, other than to make it known that they would supply information and materials when asked. Otherwise they limited their role to making infrequent comments on the activities of the members.

In the democratic groups, the members decided the activities collectively, with the counselors encouraging everyone to express their opinions. The counselors began with an overview of the various possible techniques and media, and then they allowed the kids to choose their own approaches, leaving it to them to work with whomever they pleased and to structure the tasks as they saw fit. The counselors let the kids do the actual work and only gave instruction or assistance as needed. They also tended only to give criticism and praise to the group as a whole.

 The difference between the behavior and the performance of each group was striking.

The children in the autocratic groups expressed as much as 40 times more hostility. They also tended to be careless and leave their work unfinished, and to dissolve into chaos whenever the counselor left the room. The morale of the autocratic leaders was much lower as well.

Interestingly, the children in the laissez-faire groups exhibited similar, though less extreme tendencies, while the democratic groups showed a much higher level of enthusiasm and persistence, and a significantly higher degree of self-discipline. The quantity and quality of the children’s work was dramatically higher too, and they often chose on their own to tackle challenging long-range projects. The morale of the counselors, who reported that their jobs felt challenging and meaningful, was also higher. They particularly reported feeling more relaxed because the responsibility for the group’s behavior didn’t fall solely on them.

There’s a great deal more depth and detail to Lewin’s studies; however, the real reason for sharing them here is to point out that his use of “democratic” includes both the idea of power sharing and a leadership style that leaves initiative and responsibility in the hands of the children, with the adults fully present as models and advisors but not as top-of-the-pyramid controllers. The distinction is crucial, I think, because in the context of children and education, “democratic” is much more than a political concept that can be taught in a semester-long civics class.

In a democratic school, democracy means more than just the sharing of governmental power. It is a multi-dimensional practice that runs deeper than the outward manifestations of electing leaders, following Roberts’ Rules of Order, and voting on motions. It involves the sense of mutuality and connection, of being part of a community centered on shared interests and concerns. It means being responsible to more than just oneself, and being an active, caring, contributing member of a group. And it takes practice, which is why the structure of democratic schools includes regular forums in which children as young as five or six can express their opinions on community issues and propose their own solutions to community problems. This kind of structure offers myriad opportunities for leadership and engagement, and by the time those five- and six-year-olds reach graduation age, they will have a profound and enduring understanding of what it means to be a good citizen.

But there’s more: by encouraging both community responsibility and self-direction, democratic schools encourage students to take ownership of their learning. Because they learn by choice, motivated by learning’s intrinsic pleasure, meaning, and value rather than competition and external rewards, their education is more likely to be purposeful and connect forward into their adult lives.

In democratic schools, in other words, democracy is indeed the Elmer’s of education.

"Bottle of Glue" photo from Bigstock