re: DSM: democratic classroom

From: Jesse Fisher (
Date: Tue Nov 06 2001 - 00:42:31 EST

Very much appreciated your response, Mr. Greenberg!

You stated,
> 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...

I've toyed with the idea that a Gandhian-style student revolt might do the trick.

Jesse Fisher

> 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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