The Forgotten Promise of Democratic Schools

Laura Runyon described a small school to which she sent her children and in which she taught English and history. In one section of her unpublished notes, she wrote as if she were a parent visiting the school for the first time.

“Everywhere the children were busy, but the morning was half gone and I had heard nothing that reminded me of a school except a class taking Latin as I passed. I had heard a class discussing whether John Smith or George Washington were the greater man, and another group, with a relief map, trying to decide where it would be best to erect forts to protect English colonies from the French aggression from the north and west…. I wondered why the teacher did not tell them [the answers], if she thought it worthwhile, and then have them … name the capitals and principal cities [of the states]. In all of the classes the children talked—sometimes two at once, but with a freedom of expression and an ability to stick to the point which surprised me.”

The perplexed parent asked a teacher to describe what kind of a school this was. The teacher took Runyon to a class of 6 and 7 year olds where the children had spent a few weeks with the help of the teacher figuring out what primitive people had done with they had no clothing, food, shelter, or ways of defending themselves.

“[The teacher} told me how they had thought of a spear by fastening a stick between the split ends of a club, and discussed caves as the first homes, and skins as the first clothing. How they had moulded in clay their ideas of man and animals in those days, and had become so interested that they had begged to write a report of their work for the school paper. This report had been dictated to the teacher, as none of the class could write. It was then typewritten and all read what the whole group had agreed should be a record of their work.”

Using Runyon’s notes, two teachers in this school later wrote about how the school director worked with the staff,

“The administration of the school was, particularly in its formative years, so much a matter of the cooperation of those directing and teaching that it is difficult to say where the executive or administrative responsibilities ended and those of teaching began” (p.9)

Finally, the director described the purposes of the school:

“As regards the Spirit of the School, the chief object is to secure a free and informal community life in which each child will feel that he has a share and his own work to do… [I believe] that the only genuine order and discipline are those which proceed from the child’s own respect for the work which he has to do and his consciousness of the rights of others who are, with himself, taking part in this work” (p. 32)

If readers had guessed that these excerpts about an early 20th century school described parts of the John Dewey’s Laboratory School at the University of Chicago, they are correct. Dewey believed that the school “is primarily a social institution” where education “is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.” A major goal of the Laboratory School was  “the development of a spirit of social cooperation.”*

Between 1896 and 1903, Dewey and his wife Alice Chipman Dewey applied many of these ideas to a non-graded school that housed (in 1903) 140 students between the ages of 6 and mid-teens taught by 23 teachers and ten graduate assistants. In 1901, tuition ran from $75 to $105 with older students who spent more time in school being charged more.*

Here was the first school in the United States that took seriously education for democracy. The Laboratory School explicitly dedicated itself to doing what no other U.S. school had pursued: organizing instruction, curriculum, governance, and the relationships among children and between children and adults to create literate, thinking, morally responsible citizens in a democratic community.

In establishing and running this school—Dewey never again administered a school in the subsequent half-century that he lived– his vision has driven many reformers ever since to replicate this feat in both public and private schools. While many such public and private schools were founded since 1900, few have lasted.

And in 2011, within a reform climate dominated by Common Core Standards, No Child Left Behind,  judging teacher performance on the basis of test scores, and top-down decision-making–no such public school survives.


* John Dewey, “My Pedagogic Creed” in Jo Ann Boydston (ed) The Early Works of John Dewey, 1882-1898, Vol. 5 (Carbondale, Illinois:Southern Illinois Press, 1975), pp. 86, 87, 88; Philip Jackson (ed.), John Dewey, The School and Society; The Child and the Curriculum (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 11.

4 Comments

Filed under Reforming schools

4 responses to “The Forgotten Promise of Democratic Schools

  1. Ken

    Larry,
    Thanks for this reminder about the purpose of school. Dewey’s writing and example are so rich. One of my favorite lines from Dewey involves people who argue that the children like worksheets and busywork – he retorts (a paraphrase): That’s the worst of it. “We get used to the chains we wear, and we miss them when removed.”

    Although the current state of education reform leaves me despairing, I don’t agree with your last comment – that schools for democracy do not, or cannot, survive. I just attended a session featuring students and teachers from Harwood Union High School, and its H-1 change process involving students and community in a democratic process of school improvement. Boston Arts Academy would call itself democratic. Casco Bay High School, in Maine – and other expeditionary learning schools – has links to Deweyan ideals. Souhegan High School, in New Hampshire, involves many students in its leadership team – far more than the token student rep. Urban Academy Laboratory School, in New York, pushes student inquiry as the foundation of intellectual development.

    There is hope!

    • larrycuban

      Ken,
      Thanks for the examples. I agree there is hope. If I didn’t believe there is hope, I could not continue to teach and write.

  2. Pingback: A Democratic Education? - SwingSet Group, Inc

  3. Pingback: A Democratic Education - SwingSet Group, Inc

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