Community Against the Idiots


(The proposed letter at the end of this is substantially what was posted yesterday though I have revised with the intention of making it more communicative across groups in the hopes that it might be shared.)

Yesterday I participated in a “National Issues Forum” focused on the “21st Century Mission for Public Education.”  Sponsored by the Kettering Foundation, the clear and directed (it was directed) intent was to discover which “words” about education were most persuasive to our group.  The materials (yes, foundations can afford to pay for and print full color catalogs and make dvd presentations designed to “capture” the mind of a subgroup) offered three choices of for an ideology that might drive one’s thinking regarding the “mission” of public education.  These three were, 1. developing a labor force to be “globally competitive,” 2. developing a uniquely American citizen with strong focus on history and government, and 3. holistic education with the specific naming of Montessori methods.  Something for everyone!

Kettering’s purpose is to share this fact-finding with Congress.  In other words, instruct Congress and policy-makers as to the best way to persuade a particular voting block that the national mission in education IS exactly the way they voted for it to be in their subgroup.  It doesn’t matter what it is really.  It matters how people can be persuaded it is.  The forms we were asked to fill out require zip code, age and race.  We were in essence a focus group that will help politicians and “leaders” design appropriate talking points in order to win elections and keep us docile.  We answered an open call to participate after all, and those who will participate in these kinds of things might just be the kinds of folks that will spread the word (the gospel according to Kettering!).

Here’s an interview with the Director of the National Issues Forum, William V

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. Muse (irony, why do you treat us so?) in a newsletter for the Agency for Instructional Technology, Technos.  A quick glance at his bio tells you “upper management” and banker.  That ought to be enough now to characterize any person, group or action and take you a long way to discovering intent.  (Not to mention the forum for the interview.)

The materials and the reactions these were designed to elicit were purely manipulative as was clear to the majority of the group participating.  We were being educated after all in the ways the USA is failing (we had stats and charts and graphs of failure) and then being told that these were “ideas” that “advocates” might propose to help us come up to competitive snuff.  Once the group got past an initial parroting of these meaningless rubrics (global competition, etc.), we actually talked about what it means to simply be a person in a community and what education meant to developing people into mature beings.  We were not so happy with culture generally as it is our primary educator.

I proposed in that forum (and here now) that the school is the last hope for being human beings involved in self-directed living.  Sounds paradoxical–a social institution designed to diminish one’s self-direction doesn’t inspire much hope–but schools are still local, still focused on communities, still have parents and teachers and kids involved in the act of daily living together.  We are together there.  NOT watching TV, not playing smaller and smaller implements of gaming technology, not flicking angry birds (well I’m flipping them).

I beg of you to stop Khan Academy video lessons on iPads–all technology teaches itself.  Detachment is its underlying function regardless of the suspect benign intent of its purveyors.

To that end, to the end of remaining human, to the end of living together as humans in local communities of common understanding and empathy, I offer a plea for direct democracy in local education.

Please consider sending this to your school boards, your mayors, your legislators, your friends and neighbors and teachers and churches.

Dear Community Member,

“Going Local” is an idea with its heart in the right place but with its practice in the wrong field.  We will not move anyone to agree to change the way our lives are managed by simply moving our money from one pot to another; from one business to another whether large or small.  We will not make a dent in our capital ideology if we focus on a minor shift in where capital goes; the ideology remains as our primary frame for “the good.”

As we go into another year of major elections about which so many of us have been made cynical by the choice of Corporate-Military D or Corporate-Military R, I propose that the best and maybe only way to affect a difference is to establish a form of direct democracy in our communities; instead of being distracted by media-generated false dichotomies of “choice” at the national and state level, we can truly “go local” and make a difference in our backyards.

Our systems of population management seem complex to be sure, especially as they grow larger and more bureaucratic.  But we have one institution in common that is conveniently subdivided already in a way to strongly encourage local residents to become involved in making meaning together: the school.

Though evolved through decades of management hierarchy, it might also be argued that there is no special knowledge necessary that cannot at the least be intuited by all parties involved in the operations and use of schools.

This is not to belittle any element of its practice.  It takes many and distinct qualities and characteristics to make a good school, a good teacher, a good parent, a good student.  (I include parents and exclude administrators to a purpose.)

Simply, we are all of these elements in ourselves.  We hold them in common.  They are not abstractions.  This I hold to be self-evident.

Any philosophy of human living that pits one against another, that creates experts and specialties, that claims special and or secret knowledge, has already betrayed us as one in common.

That is not to say we are not distinct but that we have in our very natures common characteristics, common needs, common aspirations, common ways.

With this understanding I offer the school as an ideal modern institution for the unique application of direct democracy in which everyone may participate equally.

One practice that a direct democracy encourages beyond all others is dissent.  We require a check against the facile relinquishing or aggressive taking of control and power by coercive ideological interests.  No one in a community of dissenters is allowed to become overly persuasive.  A community of voices, supported and encouraged to be raised in the moment when issues matter, will not acquiesce in meekness to the strong single voice.

To this end I would suggest that there should be no state or municipal government interference in this.  This is a community that must be “self-governed.”

As Thoreau has written, “That government governs best which governs least.”  The state and city in controlling our money and our military (armed forces are all militarized factions) have created in us powerless peasants who are not even allowed to be proper parents.

My position is that the government’s primary purpose is to protect us from predators, including those who would, quietly or violently, insert themselves into that very government.  Money, the dependence on or pursuit thereof as an end in itself, will turn us to its service; the corollary to that clear and evident maxim is that persons of wealth and property will likewise turn persons and systems to their service. This is the world we inhabit at present.

Our families, our communities, our schools can offer the individual forced to inhabit a system of dominance the opportunity to learn a way to conceive of human living in a different way.  We can foster and protect humans as valued beings capable of self-rule; as capable of dissent; but also as capable of joining the society and forcing its ears and eyes wide open to the myriad natures of humanity.  These are measureless.

Coda: The private idiot.

I found this in the Wikipedia entry for Athenian Democracy and I had to share it given the “cult of the private individual” and self-interested property law we suffer through in these days.

Another interesting insight into Athenian democracy comes from the law that excluded from decisions of war those citizens who had property close to the city walls on the basis that they had a personal interest in the outcome of such debates because the practice of an invading army was at the time to destroy the land outside the walls.

A good example of the contempt the first democrats felt for those who did not participate in politics can be found in the modern word ‘idiot’, which finds its origins in the ancient Greek word ἰδιώτης, idiōtēs, meaning a private person, a person who is not actively interested in politics;such characters were talked about with contempt and the word eventually acquired its modern meaning. According to Thucydides; Pericles may have declared in a funeral oration: “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.”

Recommended Reading: Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How it Works

Photo Credit: Robin Iversen Rönnlund

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1 Comment

  1. Jenny Lewis January 31, 2012 at 8:28 am

    This is exquisite beyond words. Thank you.


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