Toward a Better Democracy: Lessons from the Black Freedom Movement

...our current way of organizing our schools not only alienates students from authentic learning... but also reinforces our already existing desires for authoritarianism and other antidemocratic impulses.


13 min read
Toward a Better Democracy: 
Lessons from the Black Freedom Movement

During a recent visit to a local public school, I overheard a teacher reminding his students that his classroom was “not a democracy.” Sadly, this was not the first time that I’d heard a teacher talk to students in this way. In fact, in that moment, I was reminded of how often I had heard teachers use this phrase in schools. While the statement never sat well with me, until recently, I hadn’t considered its implications beyond an individual classroom.

How could it be that in a country that seems to stake so much of its global identity and reputation on the idea of not just being a democracy, but being the democracy that all others should emulate and aspire to be like, could a teacher in a public school be so proudly dismissive of this shared ideal? What was it about our schools that allowed us to mostly ignore the idea of democracy as a framework for organizing our educational spaces? When I brought up these questions with a fellow educator, he suggested that I re-watch Fredrick Weisman’s 1968 cinéma vérité documentary, High School, where students find themselves navigating the precarious terrain of one of America’s defining public institutions. The film depicts a day in the life of high school students in the late sixties attending a large, urban high school in Philadelphia. While there are several notable moments in the film, what stands out above any individual incident is the fact that there seem to be no opportunities for students to participate in democratic decision making. In fact, the students appear to have very little voice or agency at the school and are shown to be under the ever-present surveillance of the adults around them.

Weisman’s camera floats in and out of classrooms and reveals the strange authoritarian world of high school from the perspective of the young people who sit in neat rows while being lectured to (or reprimanded by) stern looking adults. There’s very little joy depicted in the film, where many of the adults appear exasperated and on edge and where most of the students seem bored and unhappy. When we consider the world of high school from this point of view—the point of view of our young people—it becomes easier to see how much of schooling for them is an experience of keeping your head down and staying in line. A big part of school, it seems, is about following rules and obeying orders from adults. So much of the school day turns out to be about reinforcing the idea that schools are places where adults tell students what to do and how to do it and where democracy is just another abstract ideal surfacing now and again in inconsequential debates.

These aren’t particularly new observations, of course. Many critics of public education have noted the way our public schools reward obedience and conformity. However, what I’m suggesting here is that our current way of organizing our schools not only alienates students from authentic learning and potentially reduces schools to oversized childcare centers (or worse, warehouses for containing and pacifying youth), but also reinforces our already existing desires for authoritarianism and other antidemocratic impulses. Having taught in challenging public high school settings in Chicago and Seattle, I know that teaching is not easy work and that it takes a lot of time and resources to plan engaging activities that connect with the interests of students. I also know that just turning our schools over to the students to run them, will strike many experienced educators as ill-advised.

However, I do believe that most educators would be sympathetic to the idea that we can begin to make our schools more democratic simply by listening to our students about how to improve schools. In most public schools, there are very few mechanisms in place to allow for student voices to be heard, considered, and respected in meaningful ways. How often, for example, are students consulted about curricular questions, like which kinds of courses are offered, or how and when they are scheduled? When, if ever, do students get to participate in the decisions that truly determine how schools operate? Why, we might ask, aren’t students involved in the hiring of new teachers or given the chance to honestly review and critique their current courses and teachers? These are fundamental questions that we should be asking as we think about how best to organize schools and promote a healthy democracy.

Pictured: Many different colored lockers.

If we believe, for example, that our democracy works best when more people participate, then shouldn’t our schools and our society reflect this ideal by providing opportunities for authentic democratic participation? The problem, however, is not simply a problem of not enough democracy in schools (although that’s certainly a problem), rather the problem of more and better democracy is directly connected to how educators have come to think about questions of student empowerment and community revitalization. For the last several decades, schools of education and teacher educators have framed their work too narrowly around the question of how to make better teachers. As part of these efforts, our focus has been primarily on developing teachers who are able to teach their content more efficiently or effectively in order to reach a set of external standards, rather than on developing and supporting teachers capable of reimagining existing educational spaces in ways that encourage more democracy, more equity, more creativity, and more engagement with communities.

Our focus on creating better teachers has framed our social problems as problems of education, and by extension, problems to be solved, not by more democratic participation as a way to change existing social and economic policies, but by improving teacher quality (i.e., making better content delivery systems). This approach to education has steered us away from asking critical questions about our economic and political systems, not to mention the role of schools in a democratic society, the purpose of teachers in schools and communities, the effects of communities on schools, as well as the goals of education for democracy and liberation. What we decide to care about in turn helps us define what we think makes a good teacher and a good school. If testing and accountability (i.e., competition) become our priorities, then that’s what teacher educators and teachers will focus on. In a similar way, how we define a qualified teacher in turn structures how we prepare teachers and for what purposes. If we don’t much care about things like racism, equity, justice, sustainable communities, clean drinking water, living wage jobs, and democratic participation, then teachers will not be required to know much (or anything) about these things, nor how to address them.

For many schools and communities, the barriers to academic success are similar to the barriers that prevent students and community members from fully participating in democratic processes. More specifically, many of our schools and communities exist in spaces of intentional disinvestment, where poverty, racism, violence, and inequality shape daily life in ways that make democratic participation in schools and communities less likely. Developing teachers and students who are good at following a prescribed curriculum will not help us address any of the issues I have listed above. What, then, are the real needs of children and their families? This is the question which should be at the heart of the work we do in schools. For starters, teacher educators can respond to the call from communities by supporting and developing educators and leaders who see schools as spaces that reflect community needs and who are willing to actively seek out ways to address them.

Any project to bring more justice, equity, and democracy to schools also requires that educators begin a process of decolonization so that schools and curricula reflect, honor, and connect with local ways of knowing, doing, and being. This does not mean that we jettison the existing curriculum in its entirety or stop teaching students important academic skills that they will need to thrive in the wider world. It does, however, mean that we reconsider the goals of our work as educators and then actively work to place things like democratic practices and civic engagement at the center.

Instead, many education reformers have offered us more standards, more testing, more grit, and more quick fixes to improve students and teachers, while ignoring systemic issues that exacerbate existing social inequities. These approaches leave important questions unanswered—questions about fair and adequate housing, clean water, safe communities, systemic racism, climate justice, concentrated poverty, and growing economic inequality. In place of a comprehensive vision for social change, we are offered performance assessments for teachers and more standardized testing for students. As Gert Biesta reminds us, “The danger here is that we end up valuing what is measured,” and we forget to “engage in measurement of what we value.” If, for example, we value democracy, equity, diversity, fairness, and justice, then we must ask what are doing in teacher education to ensure that our democracy is strong and that our teachers work for more justice?

In order for this re-centering to occur, however, teacher educators will need to develop educators and education leaders who see themselves as actively engaged members of a democracy, or as citizen teachers, who are capable decolonizing the curriculum and working in solidarity with communities for social change. Preparing citizen teachers means preparing teachers and education leaders who work to uphold, promote, and engage in democratic practices, principles, and ideals in the classroom and in the community. When teacher educators see their work in terms of developing civically engaged teachers, we help establish the conditions for creating more holistic, more just, and more democratic frameworks for organizing schools. Such frameworks need to include anti-racist and anti-colonial practices that center historically marginalized voices. When, for example, teacher educators bring community leaders, organizers, and activist into the classroom, we model an important practice and create opportunities for citizen teachers to connect with other leaders and learn the tools of collective action and engagement—tools that will help educators to critique and challenge prevailing logics about learning, race, efficiency, success, failure, and intelligence.

In order to bring about more democracy, teacher educators need to work with future teachers and education leaders to examine difficult questions about our society. Educators need to grapple with questions of race and racism, economic inequality, colonialism, democracy and democratic practices, as well as the fundamental purposes of education. These issues need to take center stage in our classroom. Our classrooms need to be spaces where we discuss and critique past and current social movements, activist traditions, and community organizing strategies, as a way to initiate discussions about democratic practices and modes of participation and deliberation. Class discussions and projects need to center around ways to increase democratic participation in our communities, as well as how to go about changing society. Teaching toward freedom and democracy requires that we think together to develop new ways to do old things (e.g., teach students about democracy, collective action, and responsibility to community). Many past and current educators have linked schooling and democracy, and some have even set out to create radically democratic spaces (e.g., Summerhill, the Freedom Schools, the Highlander Research and Education Center, the Nova Project, etc.). These are models for education that we not only need to share with students, but also teach about in teacher education programs.

Pictured: Many students watching a music performance at a Mississippi Freedom School.

Educators and education leaders need opportunities to debate questions about what it means to live in a democracy with others, as well as how to create inclusive schools and classrooms that aim to promote freedom and justice in society. We need educators to take courses that allow them to consider and then develop action plans to structure schools and society more democratically and in ways that create greater equality and opportunity. As Rick Ayers notes, this means educators need to see the strengths and potential of students and their communities and work toward more democratic participation:

Strong democratic education demands that children be encouraged to celebrate their identities and their culture, to connect their intellectual and embodied work to their own communities. The assets of communities, including elders and those  who have been marginalized, must be recognized and mobilized in the projects of education. Looking toward current and past efforts within communities to increase democratic participation and bring about more justice and equity in the world would be a good place for teacher educators to begin this work.

Ayers suggests that “our trajectory of liberation must go through DuBois and Woodson, to work like the Algebra project of education activist like Bob Moses and Jay Gillen,” as a way to help future educators and educational leaders imagine what is possible. This means that teachers and teacher leaders need to see and understand the history of democratic schooling in the US, as well as a range of alternative education models that point toward democratic engagement in schools and communities.

Can we imagine schools that embrace democracy as a dynamic process that involves students and has real consequences for those making the decisions? Can we imagine an authentic democratic process in schools that requires all of us to participate in decision making, so that everyone has some say over what is done and why? What might our schools look like if we were to adopt such a framework for governance? These questions should be at the center of teacher education programs and, perhaps, even more importantly, they should frame the way we structure our schools. That is, our schools should be vibrant laboratories of democracy where students have opportunities to participate in authentic decision making about their lives.

Our schools and communities need to be places where everyone can participate; we need to identify, encourage, and support different forms of direct democratic participation in schools and society. This means modeling and enacting democracy in our classrooms and across our campuses. At the university where I teach, many of my students come to class with a working definition of democracy, but they are often limited in their vision of what a more democratic world could look like. The things most often mentioned by students have to do with electoral politics—things like voting, voter registration, and running for office. All of which, of course, are important vehicles for participating in the democratic process. However, not many students can define the public good, and even fewer have ever participated in direct action, non-violent protest, shared decision making, marches, policy development, or arts-based activism. While none of this is surprising, given the way we talk about and teach democratic practices in schools, it’s also not very encouraging. When it comes to imagining possible futures that are more just and more democratic and where there is a robust investment in public goods, students struggle to articulate what such a future might look like, not to mention how we might bring it into being.

For many students, their experiences with American culture and politics has left them feeling disconnected from democratic practices and powerless to change fundamental economic and social arrangements. They often note that they do not see their interests or ideas represented in government. Many students see social action as the ability to consume products that promote fair trade or provide in-kind donations to poor people in faraway countries, rather than having a say in decisions that directly affect their daily lives. Thus, acts of consumption and likes on social media platforms stand-in for more direct democratic participation. However, when examined critically as part of our courses, students can quickly see that individual acts of consumption are a poor substitute for systemic changes to the social, political, and economic arrangements of our society. Educators need opportunities to analyze such practices in order to reveal the contradictions in a society that works in both democratic and undemocratic, racist and anti-racist, as well as oppressive and liberating ways.

Conversations in our classrooms about the public good need to address a series of questions: Do our schools provide opportunities for students to participate meaningfully in democratic decision making? Do our schools operate along principles of shared governance and democratic participation? These questions can encourage interesting discussions about whether or not we live in a healthy democracy. Is it possible to have a healthy democracy when most students and teachers in the nation’s schools have very little practice with governing their own schools or communities? How might schools be reorganized in ways that allow students, teachers, and community members to have a say in how they are organized and operated? Ayers reminds us that these ideas have been around for some time in the US, and that civil rights educators like Septima Clark made them a reality in the Citizenship Schools:

As Black civil rights educator Clark made clear, learning about citizenship  needs to be an active process with students and communities themselves, as knowledge comes from the bottom. The learning process must be a dialectical engagement of theory and practice, an active process of demanding rights—  not simply ingesting citizenship but constructing it through social practice resting on a strong knowledge base.

The problem we face is not a lack of ideas, but rather a lack of faith in people and democracy, as well as a lack of imagination to see and do school differently.

Pictured: The front of Highlander Folk School in Tennessee.

Teacher education programs need to include, as part of the required coursework, classes on race and ethnic studies, community organizing and activist traditions, and the history of social movements. One way to do this work, is for students to read about the Citizenship Schools that emerged in 1957 from the work of Septima Clark, Esau Jenkins and Bernice Robinson at the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee. The Citizenship Schools aimed to create engaged citizens and community leaders and began by teaching literacy skills (so that Black voters could pass literacy tests) by having students read and discuss the US Constitution. Teacher educators also need to study things like the community-organized Freedom Schools that were developed by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) during the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi, or the Algebra Project (organized in Baltimore by Bob Moses and Jay Gillen to teach math literacy), as a way to understand how schools can address larger social, political, and economic inequities, as well as how schools can be organized differently. Teachers could also benefit from reading about historical figures like Ella Baker who developed a vision for a radical democracy as an organizer, teacher, and founding intellectual of the Civil Rights Movement. Being familiar with how this history of democratic social movements connects with more recent social movements like Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and Black Lives Matter (BLM)—that is, drawing the historical connections between these contemporary movements to the work of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the Black Panther Party (BPP)—can help students complicate the relationship between our society and ongoing struggles for more freedom, democracy, and liberation.

Reading and discussing the origins and contemporary manifestations of feminist and queer social movements should also be required for teachers and education leaders with additional emphasis on examining labor movements and studying things like the Second Bill of Rights (often referred to as the Economic Bill of Rights) that was introduced by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in his State of the Union Address in 1944. Teacher education programs could also look carefully at the New Deal (not to mention the Green New Deal), including programs like the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that put 8.5 million Americans to work rebuilding the country’s infrastructure during one of our country’s most severe economic downturns, as well as the origins and passage of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, to name just a few.

While it’s important for educators to study and understand the potential of democratic schooling, they also need practice doing democracy. The point here is that teacher educators can take concrete steps to reshape the ways that we prepare teachers so that aspiring teachers and future education leaders can see a range of possibilities for democratic participation in social movements that aim to change current conditions and bring into being a more just world. Beginning this work with lessons from social movements like the Black Freedom Movement, would be an excellent place to start.

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