Tag Archives: Government

Some thoughts about "democratic schools"

(-> German translation/Deutsche Übersetzung)


The term “democratic school” has always seemed problematic to me. It’s problematic because democracy isn’t really the point. Democracy is a tool for creating something else: a community where free learning is possible, as much as such a community is possible. All democratic schools should be run by a democracy, but not every school that is run democratically is automatically a democratic school.

A democratic school is a place where students are responsible for how they use their own time. It is a school which does not try to encourage students, explicitly or implicitly, to take classes and tests. It is a place where people are treated with respect, and know they can expect justice to be served when someone disrespects the community or an individual.


It just so happens that certain styles of democracy serve as excellent tools for upholding freedom and respect. However, it’s very easy to get it wrong, which is why Sudbury schools are very insistent on getting it right. These schools set up very well-defined democracies, because democracy is only good so long as it does not overreach — it has to be there to protect students’ freedom in the present, without presuming to know what choices are better for their future, or infringing on the privacy of their feelings.


Incidentally, the word “republic” comes from the Latin res publica, meaning “public matter”. This hints at a very important idea: the polity (the state, the city, the school) is a public institution, and is something you keep separate from private things.

Sudbury schools use a Judicial Committee which focusses on whether school laws were broken (not on why, or what the individual is going through personally). Some in the free school movement express uneasiness about this seemingly severe approach to justice. However, anyone who has spent some time in such a school knows it is a good thing. Judicial Committee deals with the public aspect of disputes — disrespect of community decisions in such a way that bothered someone enough that they fill out a complaint. This process ignores the personal aspects completely and intentionally.

However, it leaves plenty of room for individuals to address these aspects on a truly personal level. And these are things that come across better when they’re truly and sincerely personal (like talking about problems at home, or about issues one is having with the school or with people there). The judicial process may not directly address the problems that lead people to break community decisions, but it does help others see the problem, which allows them to deal with it. And on the upside, it respects people’s privacy — sometimes you don’t feel like telling just anyone about how you feel.


There are other benefits to separation of the public and the personal. When the community has accustomed itself to this habit, democratic meetings work better — being warned by the Chair is a technical issue, not a personal thing you have to get annoyed about; you can argue strongly against a friend’s motion without them taking it as an insult; every member of the community can apply their thinking to the process as much as they’d like without constantly worrying about the conclusions being taken the wrong way.


When a democracy protects the community’s interests and the individuals’ interests while keeping them separate, that democracy can create a democratic school. It can create a place where students develop freely and learn to direct their own learning and gauge their own success. It empowers students to determine their own direction and participate vigorously in community life.

None of these things are automatic, and protecting them is half the secret of success for those democratic schools that have succeeded.

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[Video] Democratic Schools: Where are they Heading?

I participated in a panel at IDEC 2010 titled “Democratic Schools: Where are they Heading?”, moderated by Yaacov Hecht. AERO filmed the discussion and posted it (and other workshops) on the AERO blog.

Below (after the jump) is the part with my thoughts about the future of democratic education. I talked about EUDEC, the power of networks, collective outreach, and suggested we should be emphasizing that democratic education is a human rights issue. Let me know what you think. Continue reading [Video] Democratic Schools: Where are they Heading?

Contra Hecht: A Likelier Success Story for Israeli Democratic Education

I spent most of the day at the IDEC conference in Tel Aviv, and will be going back tomorrow. The first day has already brought up a whole lot of really interesting issues, but I want to address just a small one right now. I want to respond to a claim made by Yaacov Hecht of the Israeli Institute for Democratic Education: that the big secret to Israel’s success in democratic education is the mandatory military service. Continue reading Contra Hecht: A Likelier Success Story for Israeli Democratic Education

[Video/TED] Philip K. Howard: Four ways to fix a broken legal system

I found this new TED Talk video by Philip K. Howard (a lawyer) about simplifying U.S. law pretty interesting. It was particularly interesting that he highlights trust as essential for the rule of law; Sudbury schools have always been based, amongst other things, on trust and on the rule of law. It’s nice to see the connection acknowledged.

About this talk

The land of the free has become a legal minefield, says Philip K. Howard — especially for teachers and doctors, whose work has been paralyzed by fear of suits. What’s the answer? A lawyer himself, Howard has four propositions for simplifying US law.

From TED.com. link

Democracy, Part 1: Elements

What is democracy? The American Heritage Dictionary’s first, most comprehensive definition is “[g]overnment by the people, exercised either directly or through elected representatives.”1 The two last definitions in the same dictionary give the two main elements of this form of government: “Majority rule” and “[t]he principles of social equality and respect for the individual within a community.” How do these two come together?

Majority rule is the most obvious part of democracy. In a democratic meeting, a show of hands determines the group’s decisions. In a democratic state, one way or another, the majority vote puts the administration in power. But if democracy is supposed to be government by the people, can the minority simply be left out of the loop?

This is where the other part comes into play: a democracy leans on principles of social equality and respect for the individual. The majority rules, but only under the condition that it cares for everyone’s interests, not only its own. A democratic state where only the majority has political power can use democratic procedures and have as many votes all it likes; the mere fact of majority rule does not make it a democracy. This is because the procedures of majority rule are mere tools of a greater cause: government by the people, for the people. Individuals belonging to minorities of all sorts – from ethnic groups through political movements – belong to the people no less than their counterparts in the majority and must not be subject to discrimination under a democratic government; government for the people must include them all.

But unlike majority rule, equal treatment of all people is not a simple mechanical measure that can be easily defined and protected. Majority rule is, on the face of it, a simple yes or no question. Not so the principle that all individuals are equal and worthy of respect protects all individuals equally; different democratic organizations and states have wildly different ways of applying to this concept. It is very often a difficult and debatable question whether an organization is acting in accordance with this principle.

One prominent example is the well-known divide between the economical left and right. In some democratic states, it is considered essential to the equal treatment of individuals that they are given equal socio-economical footing regardless of their history and background; such states often collect large amounts of taxes from their citizens and redistribute this wealth to make sure that individuals coming from a background with less money have a fair chance to succeed where others have the advantage of greater resources; this is usually called socialism. In other democratic states, an opposite approach is taken: it is considered essential to the equal treatment of individuals that they get to personally enjoy the fruits of their own labor as much as possible and that the government interferes as little as possible in their lives; such states try to collect less taxes, and accordingly spend less money on financially supporting their citizens, allowing the latter the opportunity to prop support themselves; this is usually called capitalism. Of course, hardly any state is entirely capitalist or entirely socialist, and all Western societies today are somewhere in between.

But there are divides on many other lines, regarding of the equality and respect due to all individuals in a democracy. Taken as a whole, these divides present a very complex picture of equality; there are quite a lot more interpretations of this concept than there are democratic states, if only because these states usually house two or three opinions on each divide, if not more.

Despite the myriad possible interpretations of equality, it is difficult to say which states treat equality in the “right” way for a democracy. This is mostly a matter of opinion and tends to depend on the opining individual’s personal interpretation of the concept; a capitalist will typically claim socialist states are not quite democratic, and a socialist will typically claim the same of capitalist states.

When the question of equality is considered together with that of majority rule, things get even more difficult: a socialist may believe that majority rule is distorted by the richer classes’ ability to manipulate the poorer classes by means of money; a capitalist may believe that government interference in the spheres of private society gives the government undue control over society and subsequently distorts majority rule.

Still, with these two concepts in mind, along with the many ways they interact and affect society, one has a working definition of democracy in the modern sense of the term. In coming posts, I shall discuss a few aspects of democracy (often focussing on its application in Sudbury schools). These definitions may be nothing new, but they form a solid basis to begin a discussion of this rich topic.

1 democracy. Dictionary.com. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/democracy (accessed: February 21, 2009).