The following interview is shared with you by both Ron Miller and Isaac Graves. To learn about this interview series and reproduction, citation, and copyright information, please click here. To find out more about Ron Miller and his work, click here.
Isaac Graves: What does community mean to you?
Ron Miller: A community is a group of people who have a meaningful shared experience. It could be based on where they live or the kind of work they do or ideals they hold—in each case there is some common experience that forms a bond. Of course some such experiences are much deeper and more significant than others, and so the qualities of a community depend on the situation.
IG: How does community play out in your life?
RM: In a community of peers I can talk openly. I can express myself and people understand me, even though my thinking is pretty far outside the mainstream. In the community where I live, there's an underlying desire to accept each other because we're sharing a place and want to be comfortable in that place, to feel at home.
IG: What do you find most meaningful about community?
RM: Probably the sense of solidarity or camaraderie. It's hard to go through life feeling alone, especially when you are doing more radical kinds of work. If you're fighting against the system, it's nice to have allies and not feel that you're entirely detached from the social world. And having community, a sense of place, where I've been living the last few years is a precious experience in this over-developed, over-technologied, mass culture. I love the feeling of living in a small Vermont town, recognizing people and being recognized wherever I go.
IG: What's missing in community?
RM: In most places—less so where I'm living now but even there to some extent—there can be a lack of connection. I think a lot of people are very busy these days or we're preoccupied with our own private affairs. There is so much distraction, online and everywhere else. I've found that if I don't make a very deliberate effort to reach out to people, we don't get together very easily. In a truly strong community, our lives would more naturally overlap.
IG: What is an ideal community to you?
RM: A blend of commonality and diversity. There's enough commonality to be the basis for collaboration and mutual understanding, but at the same time, there is a celebration of people's differences and welcoming everyone into the community. I think it's pretty easy to have one or the other, but to have both is kind of the challenge.
IG: What does a democratic education mean to you?
RM: Well, it naturally follows from my definition of an ideal community. It's an approach that respects every person, that honors diversity, even while it builds a sense of community where everyone feels that they belong. Everyone has a voice and can participate as they are, be themselves. They can pursue their own learning interests and inclinations, yet they are challenged to go outside themselves and accommodate others' needs and perspectives as well.
IG: How does education play out in your life?
RM: I tend to be very intellectual. I love intellectual stimulation, so education has always been nourishing to me, whether it's formal study for degrees or just my own reading. I get a lot of satisfaction from expanding my awareness of the world. And then I have always loved to share that sense of discovery. I'm essentially a teacher; that's been my major aim in life.
I've loved teaching college and graduate students, younger children, and retired adults. I even enjoy being a tour guide or giving directions to a visitor. Although I retired from my work in alternative education, I'm coming back to it in a way because I'll be running a community learning center in our small town. I just can't stray too far from being an educator!
IG: What do you find most meaningful about your work in education?
RM: I think I'm gratified by how I've been able to think outside the box, to discover or create new ideas, a different framework for understanding what education is. I guess my work has been meaningful to a certain number of people. None of my books have been bestsellers, but to the extent that they have inspired a few hundred readers, it was certainly worth the effort. I'm mostly talking about work I did work or decades ago. What is currently most meaningful are the informal classes I've been teaching, mostly to retired adults, on American history. I've got my own little group of followers who love these classes. And I love the research preparing for them; I completely immerse myself in the topic.
IG: What's missing in education?
RM: For myself, I have made my own education so if there's a gap, I tend to fill it pretty quickly. What's missing for education for the world, for kids today, is what I wrote about for 30 years. What's missing is a sense of the wholeness of our humanity. Education is defined so narrowly as academic achievement, the acquisition of a list of bits of knowledge, and it really needs to be an expansion of human consciousness, which is much more then adding different knowledge.
IG: What is an ideal education to you?
RM: An ideal education is one that allows every one of us to find the best within us, find what our potential is and what our calling is, and to grow into that and to express it, and contribute to a society or culture that also nourishes us.
IG: What do you think people should know about the relationship between community and education?
RM: I don't know how to even think about education without the context of community. The dominant definition of education as individual aptitude, as a system for testing everyone to see where they fit on a mechanistic scale, is such a narrow and impoverished view! Genuine learning is a social and cultural activity and community is essential to it. What can it even mean to learn something, to know something, outside of a social context? That is a view that treats human beings as information processing machines, a view I find revolting. All real education is community-based, and wise educators are ones who recognize that and work with that reality.