[Discuss-sudbury-model] Subtleties of a Democratic School

From: David Rovner <rovners_at_netvision.net.il>
Date: Sun May 18 14:23:00 2003

Item 3: The Rule of Law

         This resembles the previous item in many respects. By "rule of law" I mean the existence of explicit, published rules governing the community, and the existence of rational means for arriving at such rules. The previous item was limited to the procedures of the governing body; this item refers to the actual laws governing individuals and the community as a whole. Conceptually there is much in comon between items #2 and #3.

         The rule of law is generally acknowledge to be a cornerstone of orderly, organized society. In our school, laws are always promulgated in writing, and careful records are kept of the body of precedents surrounding each rule. There is a simple process for the adoption of new laws and repeal of old, obsolete laws -- a democratic process accesible to all members of the community. There is no opening, however small, for arbitrary or capricious authority to step in.

         The public schools remain one of the last bastions of autocratic rule in our society. Power generally resides in the principal, sometimes elsewhere; it is not important to locate where it is, only to note its autocratic nature. There is in fact no rule of law. It is interesting how the public schools have become sensitive to this defect. There is a lot of agitationon the part of various community groups to institute in public schools some of the protections afforded by rule of law. Usually, the schools respond by starting to promulgate sets of rules and regulations, to give the appearence that they're acceding to this demand. This process first started in higher education in the late sixties, and has slowly filtered its way down to the high schools, but rarely lower. What I find so fundamentally dangerous about this trend is that it is basically a fraud, because at no time does the absolute source of power give up its right to change the rules at will. The ruler that hold today can be replaced by a new set tomorrow. The community is getting the external impression that there is a clear set of fair rules, whereas in fact the real power remains where it was before. I guess there are always some people who will say that this is a step in the right direction, but I've always felt that in a situation like this the "step in the right direction" is in fact a step in the wrong direction, because it is meant to pull the wool over the eyes of the public and make them think there is real protection, in order to deflect criticism.

         What is perhaps more surprising is that, by and large, alternative schools do not believe in the rule of law either. They too operate in an atnosphere of arbitrary rules that usually emanate not from a singel power figure, like a principal, but from some rule-making body operating without regular rules of order (see item #2). There is a constant shifting of sands in these alternative schools, depending on the mood of the population each week.

         We had tremendous pressure on us in the sumer of '68 when we first opened, not to codify our rules, since next week we could get together and change them," as many people said. These were real issues in the school; there were groupes who argued vehemently that we shouldn't have written rules. "We want to be able to modify things as the spirit moves us." The first time we mimeographed a collection of rules passed by the School Meeting was at the end of August 1968, and that very act of mimeographing was a stand on this issue. It meant that a code of law was being developed, and it also meant thet we considered the School Meeting to be a continuing legislative body, so that we didn't have to start all over making new rules each year. The promulgation of the August 1968 code of School Meeting Resolutions meant that the results of the summer of '68 were not going to be for the summer only, but for the future as well, until duly modified.

         In alternative schools, power resides in the momentary whim of the majority at a given instant. This is part of a conscious effort by the majority to make sure that the minority will always shift with the majority. Alternative schools are often open about this; they want to submerge the individuality of each member in the community. This is usually explicit in the literature of these schools - that they hold the unity of the community to be of prime value and to take preedence over everything else. So they will usually undermine any attempt to institute the rule of law, since that would tend to make an individual feel secure and protect him when he chooses to stand apart. (see, item 5, Protecting the Rights of Individuals, Subtleties of a Democratic School, Daniel Greenberg, The Sudbury Valley School Experience.- D.R.)

Item 4: Universal Suffrage

         This is the idea that everybody, every citizen has a vote. It is really a simple idea. The American experience has been an inexorable march toward universal suffrage, which hasn't stopped yet. This has been a root trend in American democracy. In the early years, voting used to be subject to all sorts of race and property and age requirements. Slowly, unpropertied males, then blacks, then the females were added, and recently the age has been reduced to eighteen. It's just a matter of time before people start asking why it the direction of universality.

         There is a real difference between a democratic society that believes in universal suffrage and one that doesn't. This difference reflects itself in the whole society in all of its functions. For example, Athenian society was a pure democracy for Athenian male freeman of whom there where several thousands; and it was based on a large substructure of enslaved subjugated peoples and also on a smaller substratum of women, who were not slaves, but were second class citizens. Don't think there was anything unstable about this. It was quite stable, it lasted a long time. The only reason this ever went under, really, was because there were stronger empires around who defeated the Athenians at war; but as far as their internal structure was concerned, it was quite stable. The fact that there wasn't universal suffrage meant that elitism was an inherent part of the Athenian world view, which held that there was a privileged segment of society, and the rest of society was there to serve them. This went to the the heart of the Greek world view, as can be seen, for example, in Plato and Aristotele. Even after Greek democracy disappeared, that idea remained part of Western culture right up to modern times. Elitism allows for for democracy within the privilged group, but this doesn't do any good for the rest of the citizens. I think this trend of privileged democracy, which is so different from the egalitarianism of universal suffrage, is evident right up to the present day. Communist countries often use the word "democratic" honestly, reflecting a genuine belief that there ought to be democratic procedures within an elite - which in their case is the party, the political elite of the proletariate. What I am saying is simply that they do use the word "democratic" in a sense that has a long history in our culture. The American idea, by contrast, is egalitarian. (Social democracies also use the word "democratic," reflecting a genuine belief that there ought to be democratic procedures. The idea of individual rights is paramount in importance in democracies. There exist rights belonging to every individual member of society, and these have to be protected in every way possible, while social democracies put an enormous value on the group, are committed to the idea of the community, put enormous pressure on the individuals to give up their individuality and subject themselves to the idea of a nation, in order to keep it together.- see item 5, Protecting the Rights of Individuals, Subtleties of a Democratic School, Daniel Greenberg, The Sudbury Valley School Experience.- D.R.)

         Universal suffrage was built into the school (Sudbury Valley School.- D.R.) from the beginning. We always felt that every single person who is part of the community has to have a say in it one way or another. We changed our views on exactly how much of a say any segment should have, and exactly where this should be expressed. Much depended on how much we felt we could get away with. In the beginning, we didn't thing we could get away with the School Meeting making financial decisions, because our legal advisors worried that such an arrengement wouldn't stand up contractually in court. Our view was always that everybody in the school, aged four and up, should have an equal access to power. Many years ago, we reached that state.

         If we contrast the situation in other schools, we see again that there have been interesting trends at various levels towrds extending the suffrage to a certain extent. But if we look closely, we will see the true state of affairs more clearly. Let's focus briefly on higher education, which I think is the best example. There was a tremendous amount of hoopla in higher education, especially back in the sixties, about democratizing the universities. This was part of the agitation on campuses. There was much talk of spreading the decision-making power. But when it was all over, who got any real power? The answer is only the faculty. In no case that I know of did any real power go to the students. Even when students were put on Boards of Trustees, the number allowed to serve was strictly limited. Imagine if we (Sudbury Valley School.- D.R.) had in our by-laws that there should be 15 trustees, of whom no more than three should be students, no more than three parents, etc., etc., and you'll see the contrast right away. Our Boards of Trustees is a board of Assembly members, period; anybody can become a trustee. We can have an entire Board of outsiders, or of staff members, or students, or anything. Whereas in the universities they made it look like they were doing somthing to distribute the power, but they really were going to keep it where it was all along. I'm not saying there was no concession made. Real concessions where made within the elite. To the faculty. This is just what I'm talking about, that the idea of democracy as it is sold in Academy, in the heart of our educational system, is a Greek one: democracy is for the privileged. Time and again, if you talk to faculty members, they'll confuse the issues very nicely. They'll say, "There is no equality in real life. I know more about biology than my students. I know more, and I should have more to say about it." And they say this quickly so nobody should see that they're confusing the issue of SUBJECT MATTER with the issue of POLITICAL POWER, with of course are two very different issues. The contrast to our school is instructive.

[ Universal Suffrage, excerpted from Subtleties of a Democratic School, Daniel Greenberg, The Sudbury Valley School Experience, pg. 153. http://www.sudval.org ]

David Rovner rovners_at_netvision.net.il

working for the advancement of democratic schools


"Because Your Liberty is a Precious Thing"

(FIRE - Foundation for Individual Rights in Education


Received on Sun May 18 2003 - 14:22:20 EDT

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