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The Spirit of Democratic Education (Part 1 of 3)

Democracy is a tool we think about using in education.  But, what is this tool called democracy?  And towards what ends would we take up democracy as a mode of raising our young?

The History of humanity is marked by numerous brilliant inventions.  These inventions are born as realizations about the world we inhabit, become manifest as tools, and ultimately alter the conditions of humanity.  The manipulation of fire, in all its varied forms, is an example.  Humans broke free of the mosquito, turned questionable meat delicious, worked native metals into blades, created water-tight vessels from earth, transformed stone into metal and so on.  As there grew to be increasingly more techniques to master and possibilities to imagine and create, we see the creative capacity of humanity increase along with the real possibilities for expression.

Pure democracy has influenced the real possibilities available to humans perhaps as much as the harnessing of intense heat .  Direct democracy was born from the radical realization that every individual is sentient and ultimately self-sovereign, engaged in a truth that is dialectic.  This means that as evolving contexts rewrite the meaning of history (international, national and personal), there is no final interpretation we can rely upon.  Authority turns out to have no intrinsic support, and must be held in place by informed agreement, deception, or violence.

Pure democracy, as fidelity to the imperfectness of truth, does not necessarily yield the power to make superior decisions.  Nor does it bestow the power to get the most done, or provide for the benefit of the greatest number of people, or to ease their suffering.  An efficient and benevolent authoritarian could possibly better meet these goals.  But then, in a reality where the frailty of truth is covered over in the name of efficacy, what real possibilities for the evolution of freedom exist?

Abstract, existential freedom has greater value than any objective standard of living we can manufacture.  This is perhaps best demonstrated by the modern inhabitants of the Chiapas region in Mexico.  They have lived under oppression and in squalor, excluded from the resources abundant in the area.  The Mexican government has perpetrated siege and arson against these people as simply the business of the day.  Against this background of institutionalized violence,  they stood up.  And they were beaten down even more savagely than expected.  But they stood back up, and they stood back up, and they shouted their demands to the world.

They demanded dignity.  Electricity and adequately equipped hospitals are a demand arbitrary power can ignore. Dignity is a demand no authority has the power to deny.  They demanded unconditionally that they be the ones to make the decisions that effect the conditions of their lives.  They then made for themselves the democratic process, the schools and the hospitals that the state would not allow them.

The fundamental realization of this successful revolution is that dignity is the inherent condition of sentient, self-sovereign individuals.  Authority held in place by informed agreement is to these humble people the only authority.  Violence and deception have only brute, meaningless power.

(To be continued…)


Photo by Travis S. The ceramic hierarchy of the Mayans, 1ra Secc Del Bosque de Chapultepec, Mexico City, Mexico. Dec 2008.

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