To preserve democracy, educate for democracy

The U.S. school system teaches us to obey. It’s time to find a better option.

Alia Jeraj

In 1990, New York City Teacher of the Year Award recipient John Taylor Gatto said in his acceptance speech, “The truth is that schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders.” 
 
In an article titled, “8 Reasons Young Americans Don’t Fight Back,” Bruce E. Levine cites this very idea as a way the United States subdued youth resistance — the country educates for compliance rather than democracy. I tend to agree with him.
 
As I look forward to graduating from 17 years in the American public school system, I’m also starting to look back at what exactly I learned in all those years. I was lucky enough to grow up in a school district with a fairly good reputation and to continue my education at the University of Minnesota, which Forbes Magazine ranks among the top
25 public universities in the U.S. I am extremely thankful for those facts — and slightly concerned about what they say about an average public education in this country.
 
As I progressed through my K-12 years in particular, the emphasis on grades and test scores continually frustrated me. These numbers purportedly signify our intelligence, our academic capability and our worth as students. Thus, the vast majority of our and our instructors’ time and energy is spent trying to raise those prophetic little numbers as high as they can possibly go.
 
Now, I have nothing against encouraging students to do well — I think student success should be educators’ highest priority. However, measuring success with exam scores rather than encouraging reflective, critical thought turns the focus to memorizing and regurgitating facts. 
 
Critical thinking, much like playing the piano, must be actively practiced, or else the keys gather dust and your fingers forget where to place themselves in creating a melody.
 
Thus, if students aren’t able to practice critical thinking in schools, we lose the ability to do so in other areas of our lives. 
 
One major aspect to sustaining a democracy is sustaining a population of educated and active citizens. If students cannot critically think about the issues and events surrounding them, we cannot fairly be called “educated” or “active” members of the democracy. But instead of developing the skill of thoughtful, critical analysis, our education system trains us to take notes, accept class material as fact and store it until we can use it on an exam. 
 
Thinking specifically of Gatto’s claim that “schools don’t really teach anything except how to obey orders,” I am immediately brought back to a sunny day in seventh grade. I was sitting in my social studies class, listening to a teacher who remains on my list of favorite instructors. He handed us each a sheet of paper, telling us to make sure to read
all of the directions carefully and then to complete the activities.
 
Number one said, “Read all the directions until the very end.” Numbers two through 19 were filled with various activities like drawing stars all over your paper, running around the room and even calling another teacher in the building. Instruction number 20 read, “Ignore numbers two through 19; sit quietly until the activity is over. If you followed the
instructions, there should be nothing written on your paper.” 
 
The point of the exercise was to show us the importance of reading all the directions on any given activity before beginning to work on it. As a notorious instruction-skimmer, I understand why this is a necessary lesson. It’s especially important if you’re in a system that relies on tests with often-convoluted instructions to judge your success. 
 
However, the exercise also revealed my classmates’ eagerness to complete the directions listed on the sheet. At 13 years old, we were supposed to be in our “rebellious phase,” and yet there were students racing to the telephone to call a math teacher upstairs and tell him his refrigerator was running. Perhaps it was because Mr. L. was a favorite among many students, but my classmates’ eagerness to please authority makes Gatto’s words ring loud and clear in my ears.
 
It is not enough to angrily grumble about the problems within our education system; we must introduce alternatives. Paulo Freire, a Brazilian writer and educator, has done just that, calling his method “popular education.”
 
Popular education is often referred to as “education for liberation.” Freire bases this methodology on the egalitarian idea that we all possess knowledge we can share. Thus, in popular education there is no distinction between those who teach and those who learn — everyone involved shares their knowledge and gains knowledge from others.
 
This method erases the power structure that is inevitable in a teacher-student relationship, incorporating a facilitator to help guide discussions but placing all learner-teachers on the same plane.
 
Unlike our current education system, popular education fosters an environment which encourages critical thinking as participants learn to place themselves and their experiences within the context of history and other peoples and cultures. The methodology is accessible and inclusive, based on the stories and lived experiences of people of different ethnic groups, nationalities, social classes, ages, genders, sexualities and abilities. 
 
By definition, Freire’s methods cannot simply be instated into the institutions of education we have. However, teachers can begin to incorporate some of his ideas by creating discussion-based curricula and fostering environments in which students can hear and reflect upon all ideas. We, too, can take charge of our education, gathering together diverse groups of people with the common goal of learning.