Are Schools Anti-Democratic?

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January 3, 2013
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Judd Kruger Levingston

My ninth-grade teacher intoned, much to our chagrin: “This may be a democracy, but remember that I get one more vote than all of you combined!” We had just taken a unanimous vote to postpone the upcoming test, but our hopes were dashed when we shared our exit poll with our teacher and she flatly declared that her one vote overruled any collective one we might have taken.

That evening, my father dealt a final blow to my hopes for democracy when he explained that students really can’t expect their votes to count in school because teachers have to be in charge and teenagers just don’t have the life experience of their teachers. In my ninth-grade mind, it was clear that our efforts at democracy were “dead on arrival.”

In the intervening 35 years, I have spent most of my working life as a teacher, school administrator, and writer in the field of moral education. My experience leads me to conclude that while I know better than to contradict my father in public, I also know that democracy plays a significant role in schools — not just in clubs and in student government events, such as new student orientation sessions, charity projects, and homecoming events, but also in academic classrooms and in the ways in which students are invited to participate in discussions about school culture, mission, and policies.

Adult leaders in schools can foster a democratic environment by giving students authentic and legitimate opportunities for written and spoken expression in a free press, in the classroom, and through the arts. Just as Mishnah Peah 4:1-2 teaches that all needy people should have access to tzedakah (communal charity), regardless of their physical ability, our students should feel that they have access to the administration regardless of their religious beliefs, racial or ethnic background, gender orientation, or political point of view.

Although the balance of authority between administrators and students and between teachers and students is unequal — and that could mitigate the possibility of establishing true democracy in a school — students can be prepared to assume the mantle of citizenship in a democratic society through meaningful participation in the moral life of a school.

Moral development comes to young people not only through discussions about ethics and how we treat one another, but also through discussions about meaning (how young people find a sense of purpose and wisdom in the world), identity (how young people come to define the self and understand ethnic labels), civil rights (if discipline and justice are meted out fairly by teachers and the administration), and human dignity (if young people are treated appropriately, with derech eretz, respect and manners).

At the school where I work, the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy (formerly Akiba Hebrew Academy) in Bryn Mawr, Pa., the launch of a schoolwide honor code has spurred a fresh burst of democratic discussion. We call the code “the Derech Eretz Pledge,” using the Hebrew term that encompasses the qualities of honesty, integrity, and decency.

The faculty-student committee that developed this code sought to model democratic discussion for the students. Weekly meetings include a lively give-and-take among five or six teachers and a similar number of students as they sit in a circle, listening carefully to one another and preparing to give up a nuance of wording or a principle for the sake of the majority. Ultimately, the code has identified six core values to emphasize in the school: humility/anava, modesty/tzniut, honesty/yosher, honor/kavod, community/ kehilah, and fellowship/hevruta.

The committee worked to maximize student and faculty acceptance of the code. Students were assured that there would be a safe space and a mechanism for raising concerns about a teacher’s adherence to the code and for addressing questions about their own behavior. Originally, committee members hoped that all students and teachers would sign the pledge. But, after a backlash against that idea, the committee decided to establish an annual schoolwide assembly where everyone would rise and recite the pledge together, creating a new school ritual.

There are times when anti-democratic forces are at work in a school. Students seek to protect each other, observing and enforcing the classic “schoolboy” or “schoolgirl” code to protect friends. Some students may refuse to be associated with a school-wide honor council because they don’t want to sit in judgment of their peers. And some teachers may not want to feel judged by their students for a lapse in derech eretz. For example, what teacher would want to be accused of being immodest, disrespectful, dishonorable, or anti-community? The committee members know that awkward moments may lie ahead.

The journey is worthwhile, however, because a school culture that values democracy must allow students and teachers to discuss moments when they feel their dignity has been compromised, or when academic honesty has been violated, or when someone has challenged or compromised another’s membership in the community.

As the 20th-century educational thinker John Dewey concluded in his classic work, Democracy and Education, each school constitutes “a miniature community” in which students’ experiences with other students, adults, and the outside world shape their moral development and character.

It has been a long time since the 1960s, and our students in 2013 are unlikely to make their demands for democracy heard with a protest march, though they may consider launching an Occupy movement or a Facebook group to make a point. My experience with our pledge leads me to conclude that even if our students can’t outvote their teachers’ test schedules, they are eager to support democracy and the moral life of their school communities.

[1]For the full text of the honor code, see http://rabbilevingston.wordpress.com. For more information about the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, see http://www.jbha.org.”

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Rabbi Judd Kruger Levingston is the author of Sowing the Seeds of Character: The Moral Education of Adolescents in Public and Private Schools (Praeger, 2009). He serves as director of Jewish studies at the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy (formerly Akiba Hebrew Academy) in the Philadelphia area. You can follow him on Twitter @Moraleducation.

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