Dictating Democracy

As I was reminded last week in the Philadelphia archives, it’s the oldest educational idea in the United States. Larry Cuban points out this morning that our dream of educating a new generation of democratic citizens might take us in surprising directions.

First, my full confessions: I have progressive prejudices that are hard to shake. I want public schools to make society better. I believe that better educational opportunities for all people will help achieve that goal. And…and this is the one that matters this morning…I think what goes on in classrooms matters. As John Dewey argued a century ago, if we want a democratic society we need to start by creating democratic classrooms.


I can’t vote, and I can’t speak when I want to, and I can’t put my pencil where I want to, and I can’t get out of my seat when I want to…

So I join Professor Cuban in wondering if a school can create democratic citizens by controlling students tightly. Cuban looked at a study of Democracy Prep, a new charter network. The schools make one of their goals the civic education of children, meaning mostly that students learn about government, about public decision-making processes, and about getting out the vote.

As one thoughtful former Democracy Prep teacher noted, it’s hard not to think that the way students are educated matters. As he puts it,

schools are invariably where students go to experience the civic engagement of others. No child thinks of it this way, but surely, he or she picks up clear signals about their place in the world, how they are regarded by authority figures who are not their parents, and how much — or how little — is expected of them. If the relationship a child has with a school is coercive, punctuated by frustration and failure, leading to no good end, then there is no reason to expect strong civic outcomes.

And yet, as Prof. Cuban points out, students at Democracy Prep feel the heavy hand of authority at all times. As one visit to a DP school revealed, students’ actions were constantly tracked and dictated. As the visitor found,

Almost everything on a recent visit to a Democracy Prep charter was highly disciplined. Students spoke only when their teachers allowed them. They could lose points for talking out of turn, or chatting in the halls between classes.

Can it really be feasible, Cuban wonders, that this sort of top-down classroom will produce active citizens? That schools can coerce students into active democratic participation? The charter network has claimed some positive results. A recent alumni study by Mathematica Policy Research found that citizens who had attended Democracy Prep were more likely to register and to vote.

I’m skeptical. Surely a school culture that eliminates any possibility of student leadership will have a depressing effect on student political participation. At least, that’s what makes sense to me. Or is it really possible that schools can control their students all the way to active citizenship?

Leave a comment


  1. I believe any top-down, authoritative approach to education isn’t helpful. In addition to providing the interactions with others, school classroom teachers must instill critical thinking skills. By nature, these skills involve skepticism and questioning the status quo. Each child has his or her own agency, and the agency of children is too often overlooked. My two cents for you.

  2. kwolicki

     /  May 20, 2018

    I read Cuban faithfully, and I was interested in this piece too. However, I think I define civic engagement more broadly than expecting that students will register to vote and will vote. An authoritarian environment certainly will produce rule-followers, and if the rule you’re taught is that you should vote, you’ll do that. But will you know why it’s important? Will you be ashamed not to vote? It’s really part of the bigger puzzle, how to teach respect for what “we” as a society value while encouraging students to recognize biases and to question things. So if we can’t have both, which is better? Or can we actually have both? Or can we acknowledge that not voting can be a choice as much as choosing between candidates can be? Do we even agree that voting is an unmitigated good?

    (Reasons I am never popular in staff meetings number 73)

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