Spotted a very interesting post over at the Institute for Democratic Education in America. It started as a response to the following comment:

I used to direct an after-school program, which was housed in a public school classroom, and I tried to implement a democratic meeting with my middle school students (a diverse group in terms of race and family income). As well-intentioned as I was, the students didn’t respect me as a leader because I was offering them decision-making power. They seemed so used to an authoritarian school day that they didn’t know what to do with an unexpected dose of freedom. It was also just a drop in the bucket compared to the way they spent the majority of their time. How would you have handled this situation?
– Redwood City, CA

Jonah Canner responded to the above scenario with an excellent post about how we are all democratic by nature, even little kids respond to each other democratically while playing, and it is school that imposes an authoritarian structure upon us. The following years stuck in school become a long, tired battle between authority and resistance to it. With all the harm that school does it is hard to reverse it over night, it is hard also to avoid getting caught in the crossfire of that ongoing battle of authority and resistance. Especially when you don’t seem to fit easily into expected roles. I definitely encourage you to click the link and read the post. It was an insightful response.

But since I’m a bit of a jerk, I’m gonna offer up an alternative, less supportive response to the fella from Redwood City. I personally wonder if the way democracy was introduced to the students played a role. The initial comment was light on detail, but I can picture a few ways things went bad.

He/she said “I tried to implement a democratic meeting.” I’m not an educator and I don’t have much direct experience in running after-school programs or classrooms, but trying to see things through the student’s eyes I can imagine an adult coming into the room and saying “ok kids, now we’re going to do a democratic meeting” as being viewed no different from “ok kids, now we’re gonna do geometry.”

It is still an adult coming in and imposing a set of rules and guidelines on you. Still an adult telling you how things are going to be. Still an adult hoping you fit into their expectations and parameters. In my school days there were plenty of instances when the teacher would try to shake things up by doing an activity or group project or some other “fun” activity. The teachers no doubt thought to themselves, “Aren’t I an innovative, creative teacher? I’m making them draw a picture instead of write an essay.” The artistic kids liked it, but for the rest of us it was just one more piece of drudgery, the only difference is the teacher wanted credit for “thinking outside the box.”

The idea of an adult coming in and trying to implement democracy in a setting that has known only authoritarianism seems somewhat like the US invading an authoritarian nation to make them democratic. The intentions are pure, but it seems to me that true, authentic democracy can’t be given to someone or imposed upon them. It only works when it bubbles up from below.

Also, and here there are parallels to the mideast as well, if we give someone freedom and democracy, what happens if they don’t use their freedom in a way we like? The initial writer said, “they didn’t know what to do with an unexpected dose of freedom.” Obviously we don’t know exactly what happened, but what if they knew exactly what to do with a dose of freedom and it just wasn’t what the writer expected them to do with it?

Adult – Ok, we’re going to change things up today. Instead of me standing up here telling you guys what to do, I’m gonna let you guys have control. You can decide what we learn and accomplish today. You are free to decide.

Students – Great! We’re going to play video games and tell dirty jokes! (or talk amongst ourselves and ignore you, or rough-house and otherwise screw around).

Adults – Now, now, that’s not what I meant.

It seems the adult here had pretty clear parameters in mind. One of which was pretty clear from the paragraph:

the students didn’t respect me as a leader because I was offering them decision-making power.

So you were expecting them to greet you as a liberator? You wanted them to make decisions, but still wanted to be the leader? The success of letting them make decisions is dependent upon how much they respect you? What if the first decision they reached was to decide they didn’t like you very much? (sorry, happens to the best of us) I can’t imagine President Obama telling us, “Ok, guys, I let you vote, I let you decide your political future, but all you crazy tea party folks really don’t respect me, I guess this democracy thing isn’t working out.”

Again, I don’t know all the details and I feel bad calling out someone who seems to have good intentions, but democracy is messy. Freedom is messy. It rarely turns out like we want it to. Despite my cutting him down, I can totally sympathize with the writer. You try to do something really nice for someone and they spit in your face. It sucks. But whether or not you get the recognition and respect you deserve, it is still worth it for youth to make decisions. Even, and dare I say it, especially decisions you don’t agree with. If they aren’t able to make decisions that to you are absurd, ridiculous, and stupid, then they don’t really have the ability to make decisions in the first place. You are just asking them whether they want Coke or Pepsi, or whether they want to draw a picture or write an essay. Giving them a constrained field of pre-approved choices or outcomes to pick between isn’t true choice and isn’t true democracy.

So don’t get frustrated. Keep at it. But make sure that whatever democracy exists in your program it is created by the students, otherwise it’ll be empty and they’ll realize it. If, after all that, they still don’t like you very much? Well I guess that’s just politics. Just think of yourself as someone trying to provide healthcare only to find people demanding to see your birth certificate. Ain’t pretty, but that’s democracy, and believe it or not, it is worth fighting for.