DSM: democratic classroom

From: Dannyasher@aol.com
Date: Sun Nov 04 2001 - 13:17:40 EST

   When Jesse Fisher wrote, "Would you also criticize the motives of a person
who out of compassion for the captives in a concentration camp, takes a job
as a guard, shows the inmates some mercy, lets them have a small measure of
self-government (at the peril of his own job and life)?", something finally
clicked in my mind about this whole, seemingly endless debate.
   Jesse's example seems forced, something of a straw man, because it is hard
to justify anyone knowingly taking a job in a concentration camp, now that we
know what went on in them. That's somewhat too extreme for the subject at
hand, because no one in his right mind would claim that even the worst public
schools or military academies for high school kids sink to the moral level of
Nazi concentration camps. To do that is to lose all sense of moral
distinctions - sort of like calling a murder "genocide".
   But there are more compelling analogies, which highlight the nature of
this extremely complex moral dilemma. One is the position of members of the
Jewish councils in the Eastern European ghettos set up by the Nazis as the
first step in their annihilation program. These were for the most part
leaders of the Jewish community; none of them had any idea that, regardless
of what they did, every last one of the people in their communities would
ultimately be killed. Most of them served out of a genuine desire to do
everything in their power to ameliorate the condition of the Jews under their
governance. Later in the war, when a few came to realize the ultimate fate
of their charges, several committed suicide; others served to the last. A
second analogy is the situation of countless officials in the Communist
governments in Russia, Eastern Europe, and Asia who, while realizing that the
ideals to which they paid lip service bore little relation to the reality of
their countries, did their best to carry out their governmental duties in a
way that would give some benefit to their charges.
       The point here is that good, well-meaning people often get trapped
into situations that are clearly not "clean", in a world that offers few
opportunities for moral purity. Those situations often involve
responsibility for the welfare of others under their control or tutelage.
They have several options. They can remain in their positions and try to do
as much good as they can within a system they know is flawed or corrupt, thus
at one and the same time helping to maintain the system even as they attempt
to ease the plight of its victims (a terribly difficult dilemma, which in
reality we all face one way or another in our lives). They can leave their
positions and do something else entirely, knowing all the while that someone
else will fill their vacated spot, but nevertheless relieving themselves of
the responsibility for maintaining the system. They can work actively to
overthrow the system, at some level of risk to their lives and/or their
livelihoods, and with no guarantee of success.
   I find it personally difficult, if not impossible, to criticize any
individual for taking any one of these paths, or even to designate one path
as being morally superior to any other, on some scale of absolute morality.
BLATANT HYPOCRISY. That distinction, I believe, is what is missing from the
our debate on schools. Back to our analogies for a moment. While I do not
feel comfortable passing judgment on the members of Jewish councils as a
whole (the exception, of course, being those few who were maliciously
corrupt) or on the entire apparatus of Communist rule (the exception, again,
being those perhaps not-so-few who were blatantly corrupt), I have no
difficulty at all decrying the moral baseness of the Nazi occupiers in
knowingly manipulating Jewish leaders to further their horrid aims, or in
denouncing the moral bankruptcy of the Communist system for hijacking such
concepts as "democracy", "classless society", etc., in a cynical manner to
further its aim of domination and repression.
   Similarly, I do not feel comfortable passing judgment on teachers in
traditional classrooms, _whether or not they actively seek to promote what
they think is "democratization" of their classrooms_, because the
overwhelming majority of teachers occupy their positions out of a genuinely
felt desire to better the lot of children in some manner (the exception, of
course, being the very small number of sadists or power-seekers who see in
teaching an avenue to control others). This does not stop me from passing
extremely critical judgment on the entire system of traditional education for
callously manipulating and oppressing children even as it pays empty lip
service to the democratic ideals of our country. In other words, it is one
thing to call the system as a whole hypocritical and morally reprehensible
(as well as those relatively few people who know how rotten it is and
nevertheless bolster it), and another thing to call every individual person
involved in the system hypocritical and morally reprehensible.
   The standard response to this is that, if everyone in the system left it,
it would collapse, so that its very existence depends on the collaboration of
all its members. This is the old Hannah Arendt plaint: if all the millions
of Jews had simply not "cooperated" with the Nazis, they wouldn't have been
killed. There are several critical fallacies to this argument. First, for
thousands (or millions) of individuals to coordinate their actions requires a
massive organizational infrastructure and a comprehensive system of
communication among all members, neither of which existed among Jewish
leaders, communist apparatchiks, or among teachers and administrators today.
Second, for any such action to take place, there has to be a clear
recognition not only that the system is evil (which is by no means a
consciously known fact to most of the participants) but also that there
exists an alternative which is better - something certainly not known to
virtually any of the participants. Third, there has to be some reason to
believe that the system wouldn't continue to function anyway, without all
these particular participants, so that their concerted action would not be
totally in vain. (Remember the strike of the air traffic controllers at the
outset of the Reagan administration? If ever there was a case of "the
system" - in this case, the entire air travel in our country - would not
function without them, this was it. Yet, they all lost their jobs, and
others were scrounged up to replace them.) Teachers, especially, are easy to
replace - for example, with retirees, with parents, with graduate students,
etc. It would take the whole society to withdraw from the current
educational system for it to fail, and this is exactly what will eventually
happen, but only after the majority of people realize its bankruptcy - just
as happened in the European communist bloc of nations - and that a viable
alternative exists, to wit, true freedom and democracy for children, as well
as for adults.
      Daniel Greenberg, Sudbury Valley School


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