Vision, Policy & Practice Adviser, M.P.Aff.
ProSocial Democracy, Engaged Education and Quality of Work Life
This is the University of Virginia, Mr. Jefferson’s beloved university where in deliberate contrast to the traditions of Europe and Western Civilization up until his revolutionary age that were centered on a religious institution, he placed a library in the Palladian Rotunda (Italian Renaissance). He also oriented this Academical Village Lawn North to South to evoke a sense of timelessness and expansive spaciousness of nature and being unbound again from Europe and its orientation east and west to keep the past constantly present and ubiquitous.
“When describing the University of Virginia: Here, We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”
We fondly hope that the instruction which may flow from this institution, kindly cherished, by advancing the minds of our youth with the growing science of the times, and elevating the views of our citizens generally to the practice of the social duties and the functions of self-government, may ensure to our country the reputation, the safety and prosperity, and all the other blessings which experience proves to result from the cultivation and improvement of the general mind.
Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Board of Visitors Minutes (1821), ME 19:407
Quite simply, education in a democracy is in the spirit that both are essentially an ongoing revolutionary praxis of every living generation as “something new under the sun.” For me, this is best exemplified today by the Finnish Model of Education, the Dialogic Pedagogy of Paulo Friere and others of revolutionary praxis and Liberation Theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez, the comprehensive vision of Rousseau where the whole humane education of every child was vital to the social flourishing and social contract of a good republic, his work as influential as that of Plato’s Republic (which was Martin Luther King Jr’s second favorite book, next to his mentor and mystic, Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited, and Noam Chomsky’s unsurpassed Jeffersonian faith in the promise, creativity and moral sense and authority of the people, and passionate engagement in history, democracy as social, flourishing and self-creating, the whole world come alive in a Renaissance HighLow Dialogo ethos that there are two distinctive kinds of humane creativity, genius, ways of being, seeing, feeling and relating in the world: the high and cultivated genius, and hierarchical aesthetics of value, beauty and excellence, and all corresponding kinds of human and social potential and flourishing, and the low native genius and egalitarian, oceanic, spontaneous, intuitive, mutually and intimately interwoven social being, free and flourishing societies.
For me, the primary focus of everything we do in education is in support of teaching excellence and the excellence of every single child: these two go together, each supporting, challenging, helping, enriching, inspiring, fulfilling and endlessly surpassing and surprising the other. Pasi Sahlberg who recently announcing his new book, In Teachers We Trust, is one of my top five contemporary favorite educators, along with Andy Hargreaves, Jonathan Kozol, Barnett Berry and Linda Darling-Hammond (and of course Thomas Jefferson, and the others I mention in these pages).
The common theme of each: extraordinary teachers are the heart, light and life of a good education that is centered on equally extraordinary students.
Simply stated, education in a democracy, and in all that I write of my twofold dialogical interpretive framework, unified public theology and democracy as two long revolutions of modern sovereignty and realized utopian democracy is twofold: liberation from all poverties, prejudices and barriers to the whole life of the imagination, mind, soul, heart and body of every child and person; and the whole world come alive as completely free, radical amazement, and passionately engaged in ushering in and realizing all the goods, mysteries, truths, justice, virtues and all other promises, needs and desire of our life together in the unified epic grandeur of the grace of our eternal God and the love of our illimitable Humanity.
Education as quality of work life (this is critical to exemplify for students) and overall excellence, values of curiosity, creativity, empathy, integrity and courage, commitment to larger visions and pursuits of justice, peace and solidarity, and the joy of bringing whole worlds alive for students depends first and foremost, last and ultimately, and everywhere in between on investing, valuing and supporting teachers in professional careers of ever greater mastery, leadership and impact as if our democracy, future, flourishing and each and every child’s life depended on it! And literally as if our lives, values and loves depended on it as well!!
I am trying to regain an inspiring “grand narrative” to unify and mobilize an effective democratic solidarity movement that very much includes a robust democratic, socialist, Marxist, utopian (see Ernst Bloch), renaissance humanism, and Christian-based but thoroughly ecumenical universalism. Freire, Gutierrez, James Cone and others of liberation theology are very inspirational in this way. And yes, of course Dewey and his pragmatism philosophy as still evolving (I had Richard Rorty as a professor but do not like his eventual apologetics for a liberal democracy celebrating individuality). To me, the needs, problems and crises of our “moment” are obvious, urgent and over-determining in terms of research and evidentiary support from sciences, humanities, arts and popular social movements (one of multitudes in this vein is Noam Chomsky, the Anthropocene critique, etc.).
This is the energizing principle of hope as realized utopia (rightly understood as people doing what is “not here” due to established hegemonies crowding it out of possibility to even imagine or believe politically accomplishable). I am in spirit in the tradition of engaged democratic historians who believe their primary mission is showing people examples of this principle and democracy (e.g., Lawrence Goodwyn, The Populist Moment). But while much of that “new left” history is rightly outdated, we have yet to replace it with comparable engaged histories that are more expansively humanely inclusive. We as all in this group know are terribly fragmented and splintered as is the ethos of a liberal free-market ideology. Again, this is a problem we can overcome but first must see it as critical to do so.
Note above that it is populist “moment,” not movement. This is an important distinction open to interpretation. I often think Goodwyn was being ironic in the sense that what is only a “brief moment in history” was one of decades in the making, quite challenging, experimental and visionary solidarities of differing peoples across highly varied, complex and shifting realities, problems and conflicts and possibilities of social justice and enduring answers to the incorporating of America into our now total administrative corporatist statism, and these populists also riven with all the ugly historical sins of patriarchy, racism, egoism, nativism, etc. and yet somehow still providing a rare example of a sustainable diverse and expansive democratic social movement, even if only a moment, a profoundly still significant one we can learn from and teach others to act and improve upon with another.
Ours is a rare epochal transition age and that can be a profound clarion call that only needs an interpretive framework and unified “ideology” in the best sense of the word to act on it, or it can be a further descent into general hopelessness, resignation and acceptance of incrementalism, peripheral changes and our ongoing narrow systems thinking, technological-augmented optimization modernizing and vast energizing but stable and self-recreating centrist equipoise of “free arenas of debate” of contesting interests, myriad solidarities, individuals, ideas, identities, institutions. Etc.
I seek to unify, enrich, evoke and weave together all of these democratic urgencies and needs to recall a sense of the epic grandeur of humanity and the dynamic sweep of history toward democracy fully understood and realized as lifting up the importance of all those like our teaching profession who essentially define and transmit “who we are” and in Freire’s dialogic pedagogy, welcome and educate students as critically engaged peers and participatory partners in carrying this momentum forward.
I greatly admire the work, dreams and visions of justice embodied in this approach to education, exemplified by the Finnish Model. It is mine. But I have come to an awful truth that the world we are in requires more than this if we are to change it substantively by addressing the deep causal factors that make the world inherently one of injustice, suffering, poverty and violence, especially for those who do not embrace or cannot live its visions, norms and values of egoism, elitism, privilege, hierarchy and domination. And most of all, it’s reliance upon tropes of irony, dialectics, existential crises, political realism and a tragic underlying reality. We actually need and desire being divided and opposed against one another for it is energizing, drives our sense of justice, moral clarity of the right path and living lives worth dying for as if a sacrificial ethos is the stuff dreams are made of.
Why do I write this here? Only because education, consciousness and being on the right side as “I Am” or “We Are” (i.e., pedagogy & teaching excellence) is horribly and dangerously insufficient when what is liberation and justice to that side is “rightly” oppressive to the other. This dilemma is at the heart of the tragic, violent, divided and impoverishing world we give our children because we thrive on it.
One pragmatic follow-up: one thing most distressing to me in my professional career in education policy was the decline in stature and appeal of teaching as a profession in the U.S. and the careerist and “realist” orientation of the rising generations and the loss of a sense of exhilarating though deeply-grounded “utopian” or romantic inspiration as to “why” we teach or work in any endeavor (e.g., Orwell’s classic essay, Why I Write). This then carries through into our social and political life. It is to me the hideous smile of the Beast now devouring living humanity and the good earth (William Blake and others poetic metaphor, Christian eschatology, Marxist interpretation of abstract commodifying monopoly capitalism as a global interlocking world system).
Thus, my entire praxis is uniquely a harnessing of two revolutionary democratic worlds:
One is the world evolving from the past in a certain kind of totalizing, dialectical and ongoing cumulative fund of the advancing of faiths, sciences, humanities and arts, but also riven with all the problems and historical sins of a long moral and immoral entangled arc: this is the anti-democratic meta-hegemony as a world governability system of the interdependent monopoly powers in all the spheres, tiers and areas of what it is to be a democratic citizenry in a living body public: political, social, cultural, economic, linguistic and intellectual. This richly, dynamic, changing and various complex reality thoroughly saturates, determines and confines the radical dreams, possibilities and achievements of egalite, fraternite, solidarity, justice, peace, international world community, and so on.
The other is the world emerging from the whole world come alive in expansively inclusive humane and social flourishing, freedom, justice, radical amazement, our life together as a mutually-enriching and reinforcing powerful converging of many similar movements of democracy, creativity, imagination, constructive criticism and the enriching new proliferating ways of life, visions, histories and cultures of world civilizations, indigenous peoples and other traditions that make this truly an epochal and revolutionary age and generation where we can proclaim and celebrate again with the first revolutionary generations of America:
We are the people of all living generations, past, present and future, and our unfolding democracy is “something new under the sun!”
To be revolutionary means that praxis must direct itself toward creating global institutional embodiments of these values, toward making them the founding principles of a living institutional reality, and not merely holding them as “ideals” to be worked for in some distant future. See this brief essay.
For me, education as described above is that of the enduring insights, vision and genius of Jean-Jacques Rousseau who was comprehensive, unified and dialogic in all that he imagined, thought and wrote on the origins of inequality, the social contract, the general will, nature, humane and social wholeness and, of course, on education. His novel Émile is perhaps the most significant book on education after Plato’s Republic, and his entire life and body of work still lives and profoundly influences philosophy, political theory and practice, romanticism and literature. I embrace Rousseau like I do Ernst Bloch, in the spirit of utopia, his is the radical amazement that is always before, beyond, after and runs all the way through our world of history that is for liberation.
Why should those concerned with education study Rousseau? He had an unusual childhood with no formal education. He was a poor teacher. Apparently unable to bring up his own children, he committed them to orphanages soon after birth. At times he found living among people difficult, preferring the solitary life. What can such a man offer educators? The answer is that his work offers great insight. Drawing from a broad spectrum of traditions including botany, music and philosophy, his thinking has influenced subsequent generations of educational thinkers – and permeates the practice of informal educators. His book Émile was the most significant book on education after Plato’s Republic, and his other work had a profound impact on political theory and practice, romanticism and the development of the novel (Wokler 1995: 1).
Here are key elements in his writing on education I find palpably enduring and relevant:
- a view of children as very different to adults – as innocent, vulnerable, slow to mature – and entitled to freedom and happiness (Darling 1994: 6). In other words, children are naturally good.
- the idea that people develop through various stages – and that different forms of education may be appropriate to each.
- a guiding principle that what is to be learned should be determined by an understanding of the person’s nature at each stage of their development.
- an appreciation that individuals vary within stages – and that education must as a result be individualized. ‘Every mind has its own form’
- each and every child has some fundamental impulse to activity. Restlessness in time being replaced by curiosity; mental activity being a direct development of bodily activity.
- the power of the environment in determining the success of educational encounters. It was crucial – as Dewey also recognized – that educators attend to the environment. The more they were able to control it – the more effective would be the education.
- the controlling function of the educator – The child, Rousseau argues, should remain in complete ignorance of those ideas which are beyond his/her grasp. (This he sees as a fundamental principle).
- the importance of developing ideas for ourselves, to make sense of the world in our own way. People must be encouraged to reason their way through to their own conclusions – they should not rely on the authority of the teacher. Thus, instead of being taught other people’s ideas, Émile is encouraged to draw his own conclusions from his own experience. What we know today as ‘discovery learning’ One example, Rousseau gives is of Émile breaking a window – only to find he gets cold because it is left unrepaired.
- a concern for both public and individual education.
See Wokler, R. (1996) Rousseau, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Finally, as I wrote in a seminary paper on Gandhi: As a beginning, we can engage in our schools’ unprecedented moment of reenergizing our promise as a “Nation at Hope.” These can be exemplars of equity and excellence in learning and laboratories for more democratic, humane, and social life in our community, work, and economic and political life. Radical advocates like Grace Lee Boggs, who devoted his life to transforming her beloved Detroit, embrace Gandhi as an enduring example of grassroots democracy. Boggs wrote, Gandhi instinctively knew that the struggle for independence:
should not be mainly a struggle for state power. It should revolve around going to people at the grassroots, helping them to transform their inner and outer lives in order to create self-reliant local communities.”
And, as seen in the widening relevance of Brazilian educator and Christian socialist, Paulo Friere, both his Pedagogy of the Oppressed and own exemplary life present a Gandhian praxis of “dialogical,” not dialectical, relationships between students and teachers, and inform a “collective intelligence” for democratic and egalitarian community. Boggs finds both Gandhi and Friere inform a revolutionary educational process and democratic politics that can overcome the “dehumanization that has been fostered by the commodification of everything under capitalism and building more democratic, just, and nourishing relations to people.”
See Grace Lee Boggs, with Scott Kurashige, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century. Paul Friere, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.
My renaissance HighLow “Dialogo” democracy is also this preference for dialogic over dialectic, while simultaneously reexamining, reimagining and reconceiving previous dialectical theories, praxes, histories, movements and practices. Thus: imagine democracy and education as seeing that “we are” in two whole worlds, each its own distinctive dialectic, and both are in creative tension and held together in a dialogical concert of each. This overall unified twofold diaologic than becomes the central underlying and ultimate conceptual framework and operating system for imagination, strategy, analysis and constant creative, evaluative and constructive critical feedback for adapting, revising and strengthening the vision, praxis, policies, strategies, practices and engagements within each, and their dialogical social interdependence and “jolly relativity” that is the combining, unifying and mutually-affirming and collective impact of both together.
This is a profoundly unprecedented and original “two-front” unified “ideology” in the best sense of this word: “not as a way to deceive the uninformed or excite the unreflective” but to mobilize, unify and sustain a democratic solidarity with an exhilarating realized utopian joy and inspiring passionate engagement in history, the present and future (i.e., my embellishing of influences from Clifford Geertz, cultural anthropologist, and his work on ideology as a “web of life that shapes and ties a people together” before, within and beyond their actual, abstract and knowable political, social, economic, cultural and so on life). This is an organizing and mobilizing of twofold popular, radical and revolutionary democracy. It acknowledges the problems of the various public-private distinctions while impossibly overcoming them and using them to the fullest extent possible for driving forward this unified two-front ideology vision, strategy, praxis and daily whole way of life.
I call it a Renaissance HighLow Dialogo Democracy knowing the critical importance of language, poetry, music and communications today in the world of politics, policy and community-based and social movement building. In the Four Literary Tropes of Kenneth Burke, The Spirit of Utopia by Ernst Bloch, it is not surprising to me that those who seek to break through the recurring ideological patterns and praxes, the recurring problems, same solutions and thinking, the confinements of our totalizing modern world that are now a self-annihilating trajectory, they turn to literature, poetry and music as better guides and measures of what is good, true, just and beautiful, in contrast to the impoverishing and abstract and almost dying languages of the sciences and counterparts among the humanities such as theology, philosophy, sociology and political theory.
We all need to enrich our education, self-understanding and critical theory, our understanding and appreciation of one another. This is the spirit of dialogical education in a democracy.
- Dialogical Jesus Christ
- Double Grace
- Dual Processing
- Engaged History
- Epic Grandeur
- Franciscan Spirituality
- Jude the Obscure
- Letters from Utopia
- Leviathans of the Deep
- Modern “Just So” Optimal Ethos
- Political Ideology
- ProSocial Education
- Public Theology
- Renaissance Dialogo
- Unified Public Theology
- Walks with Gracie
- Why I Write