Apple and Beane on Democratic Schools

Those of us who live in the United States claim that democracy is the central tenet of our social and political relations. It is, we say, the basis for how we govern ourselves, the concept by which we measure the wisdom and worth of social policies and shifts, the ethical anchor we seek when our political ship seems to drift. And it is the standard we use to measure the political progress of other countries as well as their trade status with our own.

It is not surprising, then, that the word democracy seems to be heard more frequently these days. In many places around the world, oppressed peoples struggle for human and civil rights. Dictatorships and popularly elected governments are overthrown at a startling rate. In the United States, growing numbers of people claim that politicians at all levels are no longer in touch with their constituents. Conflict among political, religious, and cultural groups fuels debate over free speech, privacy, land use, lifestyles, and, throughout it all, the rights of the individual in relation to the interests of the larger society. Amid this dissonance, the idea of democracy presumably serves as a crucial benchmark for judging events and ideas.

Central tenets and ethical anchors, however, also tend to be converted into rhetorical slogans and political codes to gain popular support for all manner of ideas. Thus, they are fraught with ambiguity. Democracy is no exception. Woodrow Wilson understood this well when he deflected opposition to U.S. involvement in World War I with the virtually unassailable statement that our soldiers were fighting “to make the world safe for democracy.” Calling for the word democracy did trick then and has done so for a wide array of political and military maneuvers since. ….

[If] the meaning of democracy is so confused in the larger society, how can we possibly settle on its meaning for everyday life in schools? That risk in mind, we have gone ahead, buoyed by certain beliefs. We believe that democracy does mean something and that bringing that meaning to light is critical at a time when many citizens are vigorously debating the future course of our schools. Moreover, we find it hard to imagine that people who have known the privileges of democracy would so easily give them up. We find it even harder to imagine that they would not want these privileges for their children, indeed for all people. We admit to having what Dewey and others have called the “democratic faith,” the fundamental belief that democracy has a powerful meaning, that it can work, and that it is necessary if we are to maintain human dignity, equity, freedom, and justice in our social affairs.

Democracy works in multiple ways in social affairs. Most of us who attended school in the United States (and perhaps elsewhere) were taught that democracy is a form of political governance involving the consent of the governed and equality of opportunity. For example, we learned that citizens may directly and fully participate in such events as elections while being “represented” in other matters by those we elect to federal and state legislatures as well as boards and committees governing local school policy.

But democracy is not only a “process.” It also involves values and principles that make up the foundations of “the democratic way of life” … .

This “content” of democracy and its extension through education is a central concern of democratic schools. Among such values and principles are the following:

  • Concern for the dignity and rights of individuals and minorities.
  • Concern for the welfare of others and “the common good.”
  • Faith in the individual and collective capacity of people to create possibilities for resolving problems.
  • The open flow of ideas, regardless of their popularity that enables people to be as fully informed as possible.
  • The use of critical reflection and analysis to evaluate ideas, problems, and policies.
  • An understanding that democracy is not so much an “ideal” to be pursued as an “idealized” set of values that we must live and that must guide our life as a people.
  • The organization of social institutions to promote and extend the democratic way of life.

If people are to secure and maintain a democratic way of life, they must have opportunities to learn what that way of life means and how it might be led … . Although common sense alone tells us this is a true statement, there is perhaps no more problematic concept m education than that of democratic schools, a concept that some consider almost an oxymoron. How can this be so? Simply put, many people believe that democracy is nothing more than a form of federal government and thus does not apply to schools and other social institutions. Many also believe that democracy is a right of adults, not of young people. And some believe that democracy simply cannot work in schools.

But others are committed to the idea that the democratic way of life is built upon opportunities to learn what it is about and how to lead it. They believe that the schools, as a common experience of virtually all young people, have a moral obligation to bring the democratic way to life in the culture and curriculum of the school. They know, as well, that such a life is learned by experience. It is not a status to be attained only after other things are learned. Moreover, they believe that a robust and equitable democracy should extend to all people, including the young. Finally, they believe that democracy is neither cumbersome nor dangerous, that it can work in societies and it can work in schools. …

Those committed to creating democratic schools also understand that doing so involves more than the education of the young. Democratic schools are meant to be democratic places, so the idea of democracy also extends to the many roles that adults play in the schools. This means that professional educators as well as parents, community activists, and other citizens have a right to fully informed and critical participation in creating school policies and programs for themselves and young people. …

Since democracy involves the informed consent of people, a democratic curriculum emphasizes access to a wide range of information and the right of those of varied opinion to have their viewpoints heard. Educators in a democratic society have an obligation to help young people seek out a range of ideas and to voice their own. Unfortunately, many schools persistently shirk this obligation in several ways. First, they narrow the range of school-sponsored knowledge to what we might call “official” or high-status knowledge that is produced or endorsed by the dominant culture … . Second, despite decades of pressure for change, they continue to silence the voices of those outside the dominant culture, particularly people of color, women, and, of course, the young … . This observation can be substantiated with little more than a glance at textbooks, reading lists, and curriculum guides.

What’s most disturbing is that all too many schools have taught this official, high-status knowledge as though it were “truth” arisen from some immutable, infallible source. Those committed to a more participatory curriculum understand that knowledge is socially constructed, that it is produced and disseminated by people who have particular values, interests, and biases. This is simply a fact of life, since all of us are formed by our cultures, genders, geographies, and so on. In a democratic curriculum, however, young people learn to be “critical readers” of their society. When confronted with some knowledge or viewpoint, they are encouraged to ask questions like: Who said this? Why did they say it? Why should we believe this? and Who benefits if we believe this and act upon it? To clarify this point, consider two examples from actual classrooms. …

In a democratic society, no one individual or interest group can claim sole ownership of possible knowledge and meaning. Likewise, a democratic curriculum includes not only what adults think is important, but also the questions and concerns that young people have about themselves and their world … . A democratic curriculum invites young people to shed the passive role of knowledge consumers and assume the active role of “meaning makers.” It recognizes that people acquire knowledge by both studying external sources and engaging in complex activities that require them to construct their own knowledge. …

[T]he democratic way of life engages the creative process of seeking ways to extend and expand the values of democracy. This process, however, is not simply a participatory conversation about just anything. Rather, it is directed toward intelligent and reflective consideration of problems, events, and issues that arise in the course of our collective lives. A democratic curriculum involves continuous opportunities to explore such issues, to imagine responses to problems, and to act upon those responses. For this reason, such a curriculum includes learning experiences organized around the kinds of problems and issues that are found in the larger society such as “Conflict,”

“The Future of Our Community,” “Justice,” “Environmental Politics,” and so on.

Moreover, the disciplines of knowledge are not simply categories of “high culture” for children to absorb and accumulate; they are sources of insight and information that might be brought to bear on problems of living, lenses through which to look at those issues that confront us … . It is this last point that we can use to understand, for example, how talk about integrative curriculum units and projects needs to move beyond mere questions about how to connect pieces of school subjects to a larger conversation about the issues and problems those connections might be about. …

[D]emocratic schools are in part distinguished from other kinds of progressive schools in that they explicitly seek change in antidemocratic conditions in the school and society. Educators who work in democratic schools, however, are also acutely aware that such conditions, and the obstacles to larger access, must be reckoned with until they are changed. For this reason, a democratic curriculum seeks to help students become knowledgeable and skilled in many ways, including those required by the gatekeepers of socioeconomic access. In short, democratic educators live with the constant tension of seeking a more significant education for young people while still attending to the knowledge and skills expected by powerful educational forces whose interests are anything but democratic. We cannot ignore dominant knowledge; having it does open some doors. But we must be careful in our interpretation here, because we do not want to endorse a continuation of the rigid “drill and skill” programs that are so often used as a weapon to manage and control the school lives of nonprivileged children … . These children, too, have a right to the best of our progressive ideas. Our task is to find ways to organize dominant knowledge so that it is accessible to the least privileged children without compromising their right to rich educational experiences. This task is more urgent now as standardized programs and tests increasingly strip the curriculum of all but the most trivial and disintegrated facts and skills.

The matter of creating a democratic curriculum is almost certain to involve conflict and contention. Practically all that is included in this sketch comes up against much of the dominant and longstanding view of what the planned curriculum ought to be about.

The possibility of hearing a wide range of views and voices is often seen as a threat to the dominant culture, especially since some of those voices offer interpretations of issues and events quite different from those traditionally taught in schools. Worse yet, encouraging young people to critically analyze issues and events raises the possibility that they might call dominant interpretations (and teachings) into question. The same is true for organizing the curriculum around major social problems and issues, but this arrangement also comes into conflict with the sterilized version of knowledge and skill that is part of the strictly separate-subject, discipline-centered, “high culture” approach to curriculum. And, finally, the possibility that young people might contribute their own questions and concerns to the curriculum raises the threat of touching on issues that reveal the ethical and political contradictions that permeate our society.


Beane, James A. and Apple, Michael. “The Case for Democratic Schools.”  In Apple, Michael W. and James A. Beane. 2007. Democratic Schools: Lessons in Powerful Education. Portsmouth NH: Heinemann, pp.5-8, 14-19.|| Amazon || Worldcat


Previous || Chapter 6: Directory || Next