Our 11th-grade American history teacher didn’t mince words. “I am going to teach you about democracy in an autocratic manner,” he said on the first day of class.
The stab at irony may have produced some smiles, but none of us expected it to be any different. Of course, he would be an autocrat. School was an autocratic institution. We all knew that.
Deborah Meier may have known it, but she didn’t accept it. The renowned progressive educator has spent her career not only preaching but practicing progressive, democratic principles at places like Central Park East schools in New York and Mission Hill School in Boston.
Speaking last week to an audience at the Indiana University School of Education, she said it’s odd that we send our kids to “thoroughly autocratic” schools and expect them to learn democratic citizenship.
“There are very few places where young people experience what democracy looks like,” she said.
Meier’s talk in Indiana was part of the third symposium of the Harmony-Meier Institute, a collaboration between the School of Education, the Harmony Education Center and the Lilly Library. She couldn’t attend in person but spoke via Skype as part of a discussion that also included Jennifer McCormick, the Indiana superintendent of public instruction, and Terry Mason, dean of the School of Education.
Meier has long been an advocate for local, democratic decision-making in which teachers, staff and where possible students decide how a school should run. But read her writings and you’ll see her vision of democratic schools is not wide-eyed and innocent. She describes democracy as hard, messy work in which disagreement and disputation should be honest and public.
When she was a school principal, Meier said, she wanted her students to watch and listen when she argued with central office administrators about matters that affected the school.
“We need to teach noncompliance, creative noncompliance,” she said. “We have a lot more power than we think we do.” She said teachers should “model what it’s like to be a little subversive.”
At age 86, Meier is working on several books, keeps up her own blog and continues Education Week’s “Bridging Differences” blog, which she shared with the education historian Diane Ravitch for five years. When Ravitch left the blog in 2012, she wrote in her sign-off to Meier, “You manage to bring almost every issue back to the fundamental question of democracy.”
At the IU symposium, someone wondered if Meier would have a harder time practicing democratic education in today’s era of test-based accountability and state-driven rules and requirements.
“I hope I would be as disobedient as I was 60 years ago,” she said.