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The Spirit of Democratic Education (Part 3 of 3)

The author B. Traven captures the essence of false, unsupported freedom in his epic Jungle Novels.  In them, he describes the conditions in the Chiapas region of Mexico which became the foundation of the First Mexican Revolution in 1910.

One character, a moderately well off ox cart driver, is certain of his freedom which proves false.  He feels his freedom to make a passable living and direct his own life, but the ridiculous systems of indebtedness that others casually impose on him makes authentic independence impossible.  The fortunate cart driver has the freedom to love and marry, and to enjoy the simple pleasures of poetry, but he never considers what it would be like to have equal access to the Law.  Such a ridiculous idea was never presented to him.  Behind the formalities of signing contracts and writing receipts is a hierarchy of overwhelming physical power.  There is ultimately nothing for the ox cart driver but a fate as helpless and painful as the beasts of burden he drives.

The people of Chiapas would never create such a system for themselves, but they have no real access to the Law.  For them, there is no law by which to challenge “the way things are”.  They have no recourse.  The prosecutor and the police man, even the court appointed attorney, draw their salary from the same boss.  The authorities all know each other personally. A debtor has no recourse against a creditor whose father-in-law is the mayor and whose drinking buddy is the police chief.

The public school system lacks the raw brutality of the reign of Porfio Diaz over Mexico prior to the First Mexican Revolution.  Being pushed to do well on standardized tests does not compare to the vicious work in the montarias that drove people to murder and revolution.  But is the school administrator raising up his school critically different from the Mexican officials bringing Mexico into the first world?  Or are the intentions essentially the same?

Set up in an arbitrary system of indebtedness and an arbitrary system of rewards, students are denied equal access to the law.  The parents, teachers, administrators, judges and police have all agreed already, and there is nothing to do but follow the plan or be put into more rigid institutions.  With little other option, students labor in accordance with the demands of experts they will never meet, carrying out a vision that is not their own.

If education is to be democratic, we must respect and accept participants’ responsibility for their own lives.  There must be rule of law, and there must be rules of order.  No amount of benevolence can make up for presenting a deceptive half truth, which may be unlearned in adulthood or not.  Set upon a false path, it could take a person any number of years to find a way to bring dignity and intention into their life.  Many of us have seen that it is possible to go an entire career (or an entire life) without finding purpose.  In a nightmare, we awake one morning to find ourself already too old, the possibilities for creating meaning having eluded us.

I wonder if someday, the residents of the education factories (young as they are) will come to demand their dignity.  “Ya Basta!” they will yell, “Enough! We refuse 13 years of being the details of someone else’s meaningless project!  We will educate ourselves!”  Even if not done so dramatically, there will continue to be those who advocate for dignity.  Pockets of young and old gather and dream and conspire under the belief that every human being is without debt, free to speak their opinion, and to manifest it.  We deserve to live our own dreams, not someone else’s.

(End of series.)

Galo Galecio(1908-93). “Beggars”, c.1943-47. Two Indian country woman dressed in dark shawls sit begging at the side of a busy city street. (Photo by Julia Manzerova.)

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