Books on Democracy and Education

by Deborah Meier

Dear friends and readers,

I’m in the process of putting together a collection of my writings on democracy with my friend, editor and co-thinker, Andy Hrycyna. I’m also in the process of straightening up my house—e.g. getting rid of books I’ll never reread (or read), etc. In the process I’ve rediscovered so many books that are about the topic of democracy that I either never read when I got them or have forgotten. I started pulling them out and scanning them—in astonishment. They either said much of what I was trying to say or had ideas I had not yet even considered but that seemed very relevant.

In short, if we all stopped writing new books for about five years and devoted ourselves to doing the same—reading the books we already have—we’d be amazed at how many wonderful ideas are floating out there in the form of books that haven’t been sufficiently appreciated. (I note that when I’m deciding whether to read a book I eagerly look first to see whether my name appears, or a book I’ve written—then I look for Ted Sizer’s name, then Symour Sarason, Eleanor Duckworth, Maxine Green, Herb Kohl, John Holt, Jonathon Kozol, etc etc). But in fact…there are a whole cast of old “new” (or new old) characters I’m determined to add to my list.

For example. Just yesterday I pulled off my selves the following nine “new” books—all 20-49 years old. A generation ago. They are in no order—just the order of the pile next to my desk at the moment.

silbermanCrisis in the Classroom: The Remaking of American Education, by Charles Silberman. 1971. It was a ground breaker. My falling apart copy has notes and underlinings on every page. (It was published by Vintage and I have no idea if it’s still available—except in libraries.)

ParkerEducating the Democratic Mind, a collection edited by Walter C. Parker. (1996). The introduction itself tries to imagine what a society in which there was no effective “government”—that was based on the immediate, material interest of the nuclear family—what Edward Banfield (in 1958) called “a society of amoral familists.” It’s an interesting place to start. Each of the 18 essays would make good reading for today.

 

HillReinventing Public Education by Paul T. Hill. Aha, here’s a provocative precursor to what we now know as the Charter movement, proposed by an ally of democratic decision making. 1995. I think Hill’s ideas are thoughtful and resonate with my own, except… He seems obvious to the risks involved—where it might take us. Of course, that could be said for many of my own favorite ideas—like small self-governing schools of choice. However, alas, Hill seems completely blind to the real dangers that his proposals led to in the real world.  Maybe in a more equal society such a plan could be good for us all.  Alas, not in the one we now live in.

Education and Community, by Donald Oliver. 1976. His development of the complexity of the idea of “community” has stymied me at times. It’s not as simple as I pretend when I remind us the importance of community. Oliver examines it in the real world—studying seven different interesting examples.

Living Voices, Proceedings of Common Ground: A Conference on Progressive Education 1992. “A new wave of progressive education is now gathering momentum,” Carol Montag suggests in the Foreword to this collection of essays that were the focus on the Conference itself. I love that phrase, “A common ground.” I also loved its opening two “principles”: ”I’d like the uneasiness to exist; we should recognize it, not cover it up.” And “People who are not alike have the most to say to each other—we don’t want to go away thinking that we all agree.” That’s Maxine Greene who opened the conference and whose speech starts the book.

Open Education, A Sourcebook edited by Edward Nyquist and Gene Hawes. 1972 There’s not a single chapter that isn’t relevant to us today. In one book we can read Jean Piaget, John Dewey, Charles Silberman, Jay Featherstone, Lillian Weber Vito Perrone George Hein, Ann Bussis, Edward Chittenden, David Armington and on. A must re-read—42 year later. (Is it still accessible? Try.)

hawkinsThe Informed Vision, essays by David Hawkins. 1976 (reissued in 2002), Open it up anywhere and you won’t put it down. “I, Thou. And It” is a classic, and on and on. He offers a picture of what the STEM addicts have missed about the nature of science and mathematics and engineering!

 

 

lappeThe Quickening of America, by Frances Moore Lappe and Paul Martin DuBois. 1992. They start with a chapter on “The Myths That Limit Us,” move onto “America Coming Alive” (yes in 1992 they were as excited as I was by what was happening, and Part Three, “Living Democracy: The Practical Tools.” As important as it was 22 years ago—when progressive educators are “quickening” again—I hope.

 

Small Schools: The Numbers Tell a Story by Michael Klonsky. 1995. A short pamphlet summarizing the existing research and a great bibliography. Mike and I are still small school fans even as we also see how a good idea can become a tool for bad ends!

The Four Roles of Mathematics, A Liberal Arts Approach by George Henderson and Charles Johnson. 1972. This book, like those by David Hawkins, reawakened my fascination with mathematics—and also helped me understand my earlier aversion/ This is not a “how-to” book, but it provokes rethinking what mathematics actually is.

Of course, there are many other too often forgotten old greats—going back centuries–that I’m leaving out. The ones above seem to me just typical good books that we’ve probably mostly never read or forgotten. (The Power of Their Ideas was published, in fact, in 1995. And, if you haven’t read it, quick—buy or borrow it.) The “etc”s are just authors that I haven’t yet pulled off my shelves to reread! You’ll note that I’m taking it for granted that you still “remember” Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise, or John Holt’s How Children Fail, or Kohl’s 36 Children, Sylvia Aston-Warner’s The Teacher, Mike Rose’s Lives on the Boundary, Frank Smith’s Understanding Reading. I have to stop myself, I want so much to add, and add, and add—especially when I discover that most would-be teachers have never heard of John Holt or Sylvia Ashton-Warner, etc. But, the GOOD NEWS is the dozens of books coming off the press these days by teachers—more than I can celebrate or even keep up with. It must be a sign of something good. I’ll make a list of the most recent soon too.

Ah well. To all the writers whose work I’ve thrived on, whom I owe so much to, which includes many not noted above!!! Thanks.



Deborah Meier is a senior scholar at NYU’s Steinhardt School. She spent 45 years working in K-12th grade public schools in New York City (East Harem) and Boston (Roxbury) including leadership of several highly successful small  democratically run urban schools–the Central Park East schools and Mission Hill. This post originally appeared on her website Deborah Meier on Education.

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One Response

  1. Thank you for the post and the reading suggestions. Your writings over the years have been important to me. I have read several of the books listed, and will look for some of the others.
    I offer an addition,
    James Banks. Educating Citizens in a Multicultural Society. (1997) says,
    “A fundamental premise of a democratic society is that citizens will participate in the governing of the nation and that the nation-state will reflect the hopes, dreams, and possibilities of its people. People are not born democrats. Consequently, an important goal of the schools in a democratic society is to help students acquire the knowledge, values, and skills needed to participate effectively in public communities. Educating students to be democrats is a challenge in any kind of society. It is a serious challenge in a society characterized by cultural, ethnic, racial, and language diversity, especially when these variables are used to privilege some individuals from some groups and to deny others equal opportunities to participate.” (p. 1)
    Thus, in my opinion, to consider democracy and education in the U.S., we need to consider the role and function of race, ethnicity, gender and class. We will not be able to understand democracy, our democracy, nor education without these important considerations. An extensive bibliography on these issues is in my book,
    Choosing Democracy: a practical guide to multicultural education. Duane Campbell ( 1994-2010). Allyn and Bacon.

    Thank you for all the work you have done and for the reading suggestions.

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