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Democracy education under siege and now Trump

“Build the Wall! Build the Wall! BUILD THE WALL!” Update from the US professor of the philosophy of education who was president of the John Dewey Society 2009 - 2011.

Lynda Stone
28 February 2017
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Listening? Donald Trump congratulates Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during a parent-teacher conference listening session in the White House.SIPA USA/Press Agency. All rights reserved.

In early November, Donald Trump won the election if not the popular vote. The next morning a video appeared on national news sites of youth at a Michigan middle school yelling at their peers: “Build the Wall! Build the Wall! BUILD THE WALL!” The election clearly had touched young people. This image remains with me as an American, as a philosopher of education. For many months since, each day has brought a new crisis, strong feelings that the country is imploding. Continuous protests in the streets and in town hall meetings across the nation are occurring, driven by significant potential passions and preferences. This is democratic participation reminiscent of former times.

A conference honoring the 100th anniversary of American philosopher John Dewey’s Democracy and Education took place at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge in the UK in late September 2016. For an American, the conference occurred at the end of a particularly difficult summer over race relations and the middle of a highly contested and divisive presidential election. During this time period, a status quo of emphases in education and schooling remained in place and largely invisible across all political divides: accountability, standardization, achievement gap, testing. Problems of inequality in access and opportunity have also largely been rendered invisible, and are still so today.

But these times feel different as politics at the top is clearly influencing young lives. This is happening outside and inside schools and schooling, directly and indirectly.

National mood on education

Several trends in American life serve as background to the present mood. The first is a widespread belief in what might be called the “familialization” of educating the young. Emphasis is on the roles of family and church especially about values and ideologies. This is connected to decades of economic insecurity and fears of terrorism. Not all fellow-feeling is missing, but a general generosity is less present than in the past. One piece of evidence concerns responses to natural disasters such as tornedos and hurricanes: persons join across cultural differences to help out in emergencies but then retreat to familiar environs when the crisis has passed. I call this “circling the wagons.”

The second trend is the near universal presence of immediate communication via the internet. This is true for nearly all ages and social groups and is especially present in the lives of young people. Everyone has a phone and is in potential contact with intimates and with the society at large. But texts, tweets and emails, instagrams and snapchats are taking the place of face to face interactions. This immediacy replaces the direct human interaction of previous generations in solving common problems. One result has been a change in media composition and its politicization, with sides formed amid charges and countercharges about truth in reporting. Debates abound about what constitutes ‘news.’

These trends have had an impact on education and on schooling. Even though about eighty percent of American children and youth attend public schools, there appears overall less trust in schools and in the people trusted with their operation. While moves toward privatization of schooling are not new, efforts seem more intense today. Another result has been change in the power of teacher unions and associations. The new Secretary of Education had no contact with public education prior to taking office. Even with schooling largely the purview of individual states in the US, it will be important to see how she develops in ‘public’ responsibility.

Political impact on the young

Children and youth learn indirectly from watching the lives of others, and given the communication and media trends outlined above, they will see specific policy in executive orders or legislation target particular groups and individuals, often ‘those most vulnerable.’

Immigration and deportation policy and actions target two obvious groups, [email protected] families with illegals as members and people including refugees from specific Arab/Muslim nations. Recent events have been very disruptive: for example, mothers (already registered and regulated) deported for having long ago used false social security cards to obtain work to support their families. It is difficult to see them as criminals. ‘Dreamers’ – children born in the US – are still protected for now, but the general trepidation in many communities appears palpable. The President’s first ‘travel’ ban order not only disrupted families but higher education institutions and corporations, with people held in immigration facilities or forced to return to sites of departure. One example was a former Iraqi translator for the US forces denied promised entry; after an outcry, this decision was reversed. Importantly, the history of terrorist attacks in the US bears no relation to the nations potentially under ban.     

A second targeted group is transgender youth and peers in the larger community known as LGBTQ. The specific issue from the third week of February is the change in policy of bathroom choice. Federal protection was rescinded as a matter for states and schools to decide. One effect is to increase the potential for harassment and bullying. This comes at a time in American history when gay rights have been much more generally approved and extended. A major advance was a federal court decision allowing gay marriage across the nation. Now, increased fears center on a possible court challenge to marriage and on rights of single gender parents.

A third set of issues often directly concern families, children and youth who are poor: the tenuous condition of available and affordable healthcare. The lives of twenty million Americans are threatened with denial of care under the repeal of Obamacare.

Then there is voter suppression and continuing rhetoric of voter fraud without any evidence. Changing state regulations regarding the removal of voters from lists, change of polling places, limitations of same day registration, early voting opportunities, and voter identification issues have been shown to be racially motivated or impacted. At the least, court challenges presently are under way.

Meanwhile, the most serious issue of racial strife, between law enforcement and typically urban youth has taken the lives of many young men. The national movement, Black Lives Matter, was born as a result.

General results for democracy

In recent decades most Americans have had to live in times of seeming less security. Personal fear is augmented by government instability and divisiveness leading to ineffectivity. One is reminded that there have always been people less secure than others: but today seems worse. One result is a rise in fear of more war. This negative climate has contributed to a clinging to the familial and familiar outlined above. As the middle school incident also shows, it seems to have resulted in less tolerance for difference—and among kids. There has, for example, been a recent rise in anti-semitic threats and vandalism across the country.

Discussion among concerned citizens including educators suggests less faith generally in American democracy and in specific institutions such as the press. It has also discerned a deep decline in civil interactions, in society and with civility: name calling, telling falsehoods, reducing conversation to insults may be a ‘new’ and terrible normal for daily life as well as politics.

Dewey devotees have been active in educational theory since the progressive era of the early twentieth century. My own recent stance has been in part committed to updating Dewey. In schooling, some ‘Deweyan practices’ are relatively common, such as group work. On a personal note, I use group work with university students all of the time because of a pedagogy of shared knowledge. I hope they learn to appreciate each other. But surely more is needed.

One of my favorite sources, Radical Possibilities, by the late Jean Anyon, documented the positive roles of improved access to housing, transportation, and jobs for solving problems of contemporary living. One result, she asserted, is that school problems such as appreciation of difference then resolve themselves. As a longterm Dewey scholar I believe that his inspiration might survive but I am presently much less certain about the prospect of positive effects for democracy education in schools.

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