Schools Must Teach Democracy

Nicholas Johnson

Iowa City Press-Citizen, "Opinion," August 29, 2000, p. 11A

Why do we have public schools?

To prepare students for democracy.

Aristotle and Plato thought education necessary to the ancient Greeks’ democracy. Thomas Jefferson considered public schools a centerpiece of his vision for American democracy. Our great 19th century educator, Horace Mann, agreed. So did the next century’s John Dewey.

Preparation for democracy is in the forefront of most school districts’ mission statements, including ours (“students capable of making informed decisions in a democratic society”).

So how are we doing?

In the democracy-building work I’ve done in former Soviet bloc countries, we emphasize the institutions that contribute to a civic society. Democracy is not just voting for a nation's elected leaders. It first requires widespread citizen participation in institutions like trade unions and Rotary Clubs, free speech and press, and service on boards and commissions.

But voting’s certainly one measure.

And by that standard we’re not doing very well. Johnson County has the highest educational level of any county in America. And yet we’ll be lucky if 10 percent of the registered voters turn out for the School Board election two weeks from today.

Less than half of America’s voters may bother to vote for president two months later.

All the fault of the schools? Of course not. But democracy is, remember, their primary mission.

It would be interesting to compare the registration and voting numbers for City and West High graduates with county residents from other schools, or high school graduates in other districts.

Democratic schools require school boards and administrators who encourage meaningful participation in decision making by teachers, parents and students. Teachers who welcome, rather than discourage or ignore, parental involvement.

But central to the mission is giving students a democratic experience. Because you can’t teach democracy, you practice it.

In a democratic school students participate in decision-making. They know their opinions are valued. They know because they live with changes students have brought about.

Our district’s elementary and secondary teachers are already practicing a lot of democracy in classrooms and schools with such things as peer mediation of disputes. But we could do more.

Do democratic schools capitulate to every student whim? Of course not. The constitutionally protected rights to assembly, petition, free speech and vote only guarantee the right to genuine consideration and participation. No one has a right to prevail.

But, as our School Board’s governance policies say, “It is difficult to teach democracy in an authoritarian manner.” Our students need some practice, some democracy lab time, as well as texts and lectures.

Fortunately, we have a school district and staff focused on providing it.

Fulfilling that educational mission will pay dividends in our communities for decades to come.

Nicholas Johnson is an Iowa City School Board member. More information is available on his Web site