The Power

of

Public Education

By Deborah Meier

As I look out at so many familiar faces, I want to pay tribute to many. But if I start, I'll never stop and I'll leave some out by mistake. But there are two families in the audience tonight whose influence on me were the most powerful: Carl and Marian Shier and Saul and Jennie Mendelson. I met them over forty years ago when I first came to Chicago. Each in their own way contributed to my moral and intellectual development, and to the pictures in my head of what it could be like to live a full and joyous life. Thank you.

And while I didn't personally know all three of the public figures in whose name we are being honored here, all influenced me greatly. Of course, I did personally know Norman Thomas and, above all, Michael Harrington. And I miss them both very much in these difficult times.

My early years of activity in the democratic socialist movement were spent here in Chicago. They made a deep impact and lie at the heart of my way of thinking as a teacher. There are two quotes from Eugene V. Debs that sum up my educational philosophy. I'd like to speak tonight

   

A version of this article was given as an address to the 1996 Debs - Thomas - Harrington Dinner and published in New Ground, July - August, 1996, the bi-monthly newsletter of Chicago Democratic Socialists of America.

   

 
     

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about both. Together they are my credo. I'll begin with the one then later pick up the second.

I would not lead you to the promised land, said Debs, because if I could lead you there, another could lead you back again.

I believed this before I began to teach, and it took time for me to see how it applied to teaching. It lies behind good union or community organizing, after all: don't do for others what they can do for themselves. All other forms of education lead to loss of power; this form alone leads to lifelong power.

Becoming a teacher, however, happened by accident. I wasn't in my youth in love with little kids and I thought of teaching as "typical" women's work. To be avoided. But then I had three children, and needed extra cash and convenient hours. So I figured I'd do a little subbing in local Chicago schools; what could be an easier way to make some money?

Of course, it wasn't easy. But I learned a lot- mostly about how disrespectfully we treat each other in our public schools. So when I had a chance to teach morning kindergarten across the street from my house, I leaped at it. To my surprise, I found being a kindergarten teacher the most emotionally and intellectually invigorating experience!

...I don't want you to follow me or anyone else. If you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of the capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into this promised land if I could, because if I could lead you in, someone else could lead you out.

- Eugene V. Debs

 
     

 
     

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Teaching, I realized, could be interesting- for both the adults and the kids. I read more books than I had ever read before, woke up with more enthusiasm and bored all my political friends by my stories and ideas. This enthusiasm has lasted a lifetime and I still can't get enough.

But if I were to stay in education, I knew I couldn't put up with the level of mutual disrespect. What amazed, during my years as a sub, was that children came back, day after day, and that teachers did too. It seemed admirable but sad. It couldn't be good for our society.

Suppose, instead, we took Debs' quotation to heart and assumed schools were where we learned to "lead ourselves", to be the rulers of a democratic country. What would happen if schools were "simply" interesting places that treated everyone respectfully. What would happen if we kept the spirit of kindergarten alive forever. I concluded that it would be very good for democracy.

For one thing, when we get into the habit early of expecting to be treated disrespectfully, it has a life-long impact. And when we get into the habit of expecting learning to be both boring and irrelevant, we spend our life avoiding learning. These are hard habits to break and neither are good for democracy. How odd that we invented schools for a democratic society that so ill serve it needs.

I've done nothing else for the past thirty years but try to see how one might go about reinventing schools to serve democracy, rather than serve to undermine it. Thirty years later I've concluded that schools, to accomplish this, need to be small enough for everyone to know each other, places

 
     

 
     

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where everyone's voice is heard and counts, and places we all want to be. Once we get these three right then we need to attend to the "details": what and how we teach!

Small self-governing schools of choice- while not easy to organize- produce impressive results no matter how we measure them. If we knew how to use them even better it would be even better- and we're learning every day. If we spent the kind of money on the schools that most children attend as we do on the schools the rich send their kids to, that would make it a heck of a lot easier to do. And finally, if the larger public treated the expertise of those closest to the classroom- kids, parents and teachers- with greater respect, that would help a lot.

Twenty-two years ago, in New York's inner city, I got a chance to gather some colleagues together to organize a school around these simple propositions. More money we didn't get. Greater official power we didn't get. We took as much as we could- unofficially.

Central Park East Elementary school was started in 1974 for a few hundred children in East Harlem. It's popularity soon required us to start two other schools in East Harlem. Ten years later a study of the three schools discovered that while its students' families were typical New Yorkers- largely Black and Latino and mostly poor- the results were not typical. Four or five years later, over 90% graduated high school and two-thirds went on to college. Based on this, we agreed, in 1985, to start a secondary school for both our own elementary school graduates and for other neighborhood youngsters. Once again, the data is clear: 90% of our incoming students graduate and more than 90% go on to college,

 
     

 
     

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mostly to four year schools.

To accomplish this, the school built an alliance between families and staff that made it possible for a whole village to raise kids together. This is an empty slogan in too many of our large, anonymous school buildings. But it is not an impossible dream.

Today we've taken our ideas and translated them into dozens and dozens of schools in New York. Our latest success-in-the-making is in the south Bronx, where we've opened six new small schools to replace a failing large neighborhood high school. And the kids and their families are responding. Don't be fooled. Families today care as much as they ever did. They will respond if schools join with them in ways that make us all more powerful not just all more guilty.

Our schools teach kids how to spell and multiply, but even more basic, they teach what it means to be a powerful and thoughtful citizen. We've created schools where the work of the school is valuable and valid and where the relationships between people are respectful and interesting, across generations. Kids who grow up alienated from the influence of grown-ups and grown-up enterprises are not the best prospects for carrying out our shared democratic agenda. So we made sure that kids in our schools were known well by the grown-ups, built strong ties and relationships and belonged to a genuine cross-age community.

Good schooling is built on the oldest idea around: you learn by the company you keep. Kids must belong to cohort groups that include younger and older students, novices and experts; youngsters and adults. Their teachers, at least some

 
     

 
     

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of them, must be people whom they regard as allies, as the kind of people they can and might grow up to be. Schooling must be designed so that all the parts send the same message: messages on behalf of the value of using your mind well. At Central Park East we call these the "habits of mind" of a well - educated person. We demand of our students that they demonstrate such habits over and over again in a series of increasingly complex tasks until they satisfy us that they deserve a diploma. These same habits of mind are the ones we adult live by too. And we use these habits of mind whether we're inside the classrooms, the halls, the lunchroom or the gym. They are the habits of mind of a powerful citizenry.

Getting a good education may or may not solve America's economic problems. It's not a silver bullet. A good education will, however, create a more democratic culture, which can in turn better tackle why we can't have a good society and a strong economy, one that works for virtually all our citizens not just for some.

For a good school lives by Debs' credo. It teaches kids to become the kind of grown-ups who lead themselves to the promised land. But a good school also is a place that lives by my other favorite Debsian quotation, that as long as there's a man in prison, I am not free. A good school cares about all its members, not just its stars.

Unless we see all our children's futures as belonging to

While there is a lower class,

I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; while there is a soul in prison,

I am not free.

- Eugene V. Debs

 
     

 
     

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us, we're in trouble. And if we abandon public education, that is what will happen. Public schooling is the one institution left to us all that we own together and whose future will create our shared future. It is the place where we make decisions about the next generation. That is not something to leave to the so-called free market-place. Making a profit on our kids is not a nice idea. These are issues that go to the heart of democracy, and they belong to all of us. And I mean "all" not just "some of us".

But it all begins with asking the basic question that we so often avoid in America. We will not get the answers right if we don't start by asking: Why? Who cares? What for? I rest my answer on those two quotes from Eugene V. Debs: we need to educate the people well so that the people can rule themselves, and rule themselves with compassion for the weakest of its members, not just the strongest.

It's actually a simple idea: but it's the doing of it that is anything but simple. It's all in the details. That's what Maxie Hill* and I have both spent our lives doing: tending to those daily details. So I thank you for honoring us tonight.

 
     
*Maxie Hill was President of the Bakery, Confectionery and Tobacco Workers International Union Local 1. He was also awarded the Debs - Thomas - Harrington Dinner that year.  
     

                                                           
 

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