Working Within the System
“Democratic schools are just groups of privileged kids playing at equality,” says Ted. “That’s not really democracy. You can’t learn about good governance by shutting yourself away from the world.”
“What do you mean?” I ask. “What’s wrong with giving children choices?”
Children Born Into a World of Choices
“Ha, don’t make me laugh!” he scoffs. “Your children are born into a world of choices, aren’t they? What are they going to buy next with mummy and daddy’s money? If you really believed in democracy and equality you would work within the system to bring about change.”
“Well, we live in a democracy, don’t we? There are structures in our democracy for bringing about change. That’s what a democracy is. You are just hiding away in a corner and refusing to accept what our democratically-elected governments have decided.”
“Like what, for example?”
“Like the process of inspection. You guys in democratic education bleat on about inspection, but inspection is an important part of protecting people, isn’t it? If you didn’t have food hygiene inspections people would be dropping dead of botulism in the streets. It’s the same with schools. If you don’t have inspections then teachers and schools are going to be all over the place.”
“But don’t I have a right to do things my own way? It’s not inspection itself I object to, it’s the standardisation of state-controlled education. Why can’t we choose to do things differently?”
“Right. Well, if you say that then you have to accept on the other side that there will be Creationists who have the right to indoctrinate kids with their own nutty ideas, Islamic fundamentalists who can teach their kids to hate the country they grew up in, home educator loonies who can shut their kids away from the world and fill their heads with whatever bollocks comes into their heads. That can’t be good, can it?”
“But you can’t tell me I have to support state school education just because there are extremists out there with ideas I disagree with. That’s just setting up bogeymen to fear, isn’t it? Fear of the other. I reckon dialogue and discussion with those “extremists” in a democratic arena is the best way forward.”
“Sure, I agree,” Tom continues. “That is what we have. It is called a free press, freedom of expression and a democratic process where your vote counts to elect a representative who can discuss these ideas in parliament. If you want to see change you have to learn how to use these processes.”
Eat From Supermarkets Just Because They Are Legal?
“OK, I can accept that. I am ready to write to the newspapers, use my vote and lobby for what I believe is good. But I don’t see that doing all that means that I should not at the same time work in a democratic school. That would be like saying I should feel compelled to eat food from supermarkets just because they are legal.”
“Yes, it is a bit like that, I admit, but there is a difference between raising kids and choosing what you are going to eat.”
“How do you mean?”
“Well, don’t you think the state has the right to make laws that decide how children should be educated? To me that seems like a basic function of the state. The state has the power, after all, to take children into its care if it sees that parents are failing to provide for them. The fact that we live in a democracy protects you from seeing how weak your own position is: it is the state that allows you your little educational experiments. You are not a pioneer. You are a kind of valve through which the state allows eccentrics to let off steam. But you cannot get away from the state’s role in protecting these children. And, if you want to change the way that the state looks after children, there is no other option in a democratic society than to use the processes that are available.”
Ted is convinced that he is right. It is an optimistic vision of a society in which the media provide an open arena for everyone to lay forth their ideas and plans. There are competent and honest leaders who make wise decisions for the good of everyone. They have the expert opinion of specialists, who have risen through the ranks of an educational and employment system that is entirely meritocratic, to guide them. If they make mistakes there is a system of law with an independent judiciary that will correct them.
It doesn’t matter to me whether it is a Socialist or a Conservative that is promoting this vision. I reject it because it is essentially paternalistic and heirarchical. I have to accept that the State has taken on the role of protecting children since it introduced laws about compulsory schooling, but I cannot go along with the idea that the state’s curriculum and the teachers it employs are the best way of educating children.
I have a broader vision of a different world altogether. It is a world where people are used to working in democratic communities on a small scale. They are also educated in the difference between freedom and licence so they are able to healthily pursue their own interests without walking all over their neighbours. This world is a more peaceful world with less control from above and more decision from below.
And in this world you really would be able to work within the system, because the system would be open to you, starting from when you are a child.