The Dilemma of Democratic Education
David E. Schafer
You can’t always get what you want…— from the song of the same title, by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, featured in the film The Big Chill
I. The Predicament
pre-dic-a-ment syn dilemma, quandary, plight, fix, jam, pickle.im-passe 2a: a predicament affording no obvious escape [italics mine].
di-lem-ma 2b: a problem seemingly incapable of a satisfactory solution [italics mine].
Third New International Dictionary (Springfield, Mass.: G. & C. Merriam Company, 1961).
Throughout the brief history of our movement, Humanists have been strongly and unambiguously committed to both education and democracy. The eleventh principle of Humanist Manifesto II (1973) affirms, “we believe in the right to universal education. Everyone has a right to the cultural opportunity to fulfill his or her unique capacities and talents. The schools should foster satisfying and productive living. They should be open at all levels to any and all; the achievement of excellence should be encouraged. Innovative and experimental forms of education are to be welcomed. The energy and idealism of the young deserve to be appreciated and channeled to constructive purposes.”
Equally explicit is our Humanist commitment to some kind of democracy as the most desirable form of government. The eighth principle of Humanist Manifesto II holds that “we are committed to an open and democratic society. We must extend participatory democracy in its true sense to the economy, the school, the family, the workplace, and voluntary associations… All persons should have a voice in developing the values and goals that determine their lives… ” Again, the Council for Secular Humanism has propounded twenty-one “Affirmations of Humanism,” the fourth of which is that “we believe in an open and pluralistic society and that democracy is the best guarantee of protecting human rights from authoritarian elites and repressive majorities.”
Statements like these not only affirm our support for the concepts expressed in the terms “education” and “democracy” but also provide some idea–albeit minimal–of what kinds of “education” and “democracy” they refer to, and why it is we support them. What they do not make clear, however, is what the Humanist position(s) might be on a variety of possible destructive interactions between “education” and “democracy.” What if, for instance, a democratic electorate, following democratic procedures, should make a terribly wrong choice–or two, or three, or many–with respect to the education of its children?
Various hypothetical examples leap to mind–but not nearly so hypothetical, unfortunately, as we might wish:
1. A community whose voters preponderantly do not have children of school age, and do not expect to have any, decides democratically not to support its public schools adequately.
2. A community whose voters are mainly white decides democratically not to provide adequate support to schools whose students are mainly African-American.
3. A community whose voters regard democratic citizenship as a “natural” facility, and therefore do not see the point of social studies for its children, decides democratically against social studies instruction–political science, history, etc.–in the public schools.
4. A community whose voters regard as the work of Satan the teaching of such diverse subjects as sexual health and hygiene, the evolution of species, and the historical and comparative study of religions decides democratically to eliminate such subjects from the public school curriculum.
5. A community whose voters generally believe that the primary or sole function of education is to prepare young people for higher-paying jobs decides democratically to reduce support for the liberal arts in the public school curriculum.
6. A community whose voters believe that teaching mathematics and the natural sciences is much too expensive, and of value to only a relatively few students, declines democratically to support the teaching of these subjects in the public schools.
7. A community whose voters represent a particular immigrant language group decides democratically to have that language taught in the public schools to the exclusion of other foreign languages.
And so on and on and on…
Examples like these show that situations are at least conceivable (and in reality they are all too common) where the free exercise of democracy might lead to what many Humanists would consider profoundly undesirable results in public education, depriving many students of a minimal education and in some measure, perhaps, all students, of the education necessary to function optimally in society. These examples show that a dysfunctional democracy can easily deprive a society’s members of that other Humanist goal, an education with “the opportunity to fulfill [their] unique capacities and talents.”
Worse yet–and this raises a point not made explicitly in the Humanist statements quoted–these adverse effects on public education not only are exerted on the educational rights of the children directly affected but must almost inevitably be reflected in the future practice of democracy by those same children as adults! In other words, the serious defects in public education that can, and do, result from the free but dysfunctional exercise of democracy can then lead to progressive deterioration not only of education but of democracy itself–a “vicious circle.” As a frightening example, the tragic mammoth scientific illiteracy running throughout our population can be seen as both cause and consequence in such a “vicious circle.” It seems obvious, moreover, that as society and technology increase in complexity, the importance of a well-educated electorate to the democratic process only increases at an accelerating pace.
One commentator recently remarked, “An ignorant democracy is an oxymoron.” Yet it should be clear from the preceding examples of malfunctioning democracy that the function of “education” in a democracy can not be solely to inform but must also be to help future citizens develop values and behavioral skills of the kind on which successful democracies ultimately depend. The great irony here is that a democracy cannot yet be counted upon to provide for its citizens the sort of education without which that same democracy cannot be counted upon to function properly. In practice, then, the attempt to support both “democracy” and “education” potentially creates a genuine dilemma for Humanists. Since no Humanist has seriously suggested that we abandon our commitment to either “democracy” or “education,” we ought to ask ourselves how we can best manage this “Dilemma of Democratic Education.”
II. The Past
…Politics presented the Enlightenment with a dilemma of heroic proportions… Reform and freedom were for them two faces of a single hope… But the realities tore this alliance apart:… freedom and reform were often incompatible… The very methods used to distribute the fruits of enlightenment seemed calculated to frustrate enlightenment itself… …All the philosophes, more or less consciously, thought of themselves as educators, and enlightenment was what they taught…
…The question of the lower orders is the great unexamined political question of the Enlightenment… What is missing is a serious attempt at working out the logic implicit in the philosophes’ view of Enlightenment, which….was in essence pedagogic.”
— excerpts from Peter Gay, The Enlightenment, vol. ii, The Science of Freedom, ch. x, “The Politics of Education.”
For all of us the past is a very long time, and a very big place. The best we can hope to do here is to look in some likely spots for a few helpful clues to the origins of our present dilemma, and perhaps–just possibly–to its solution. For this purpose it is productive, I believe, to adopt a very broad view of “education.” (Sometimes, as I will suggest again below, we can ameliorate or at least mitigate a difficulty by broadening a definition, and I suspect this will prove to be the case here.) So, if we are to adopt a broad view, let’s go for it. And what could be “broader” in this case than biology?
The “human genome”–the set of all human genomes, past and present–varies enormously across the human spectrum. The number of possible combinations of genes (individual genomes) is inconceivable in the terms of everyday discourse. With all this variety, whatever changes may have taken place in the human genome during the past 20,000 years or so seem pretty inconsequential by comparison. We can imagine, for instance, that a fertilized human ovum transplanted from an early human female to a modern one, or vice versa, would grow up (if we control for complicating variables like size and skin color) to take on the cultural characteristics of its adopted parents. Yet the practical differences between a modern adult human and one of 20,000 years ago are incalculably vast. To what are these vast differences due, if not to genetic evolution?
The answer, of course, is that these differences are mainly due to what is sometimes called “accumulation of wisdom” and what I am here going to call “education” in the broadest sense. This kind of “education” is actually a continuation of Darwinian evolution beyond the genetic phase. Like Darwinian evolution it also consists of variation, partly random and partly not, coupled with selection, in the long run, of what, in some practical sense, “works best.” It includes a myriad mechanisms, conscious and unconscious, by which we humans influence each other’s behavior. Many of these mechanisms have always been far more powerful forces of “education,” I think, than the much narrower, structured formal “education” we usually talk about nowadays; and I will claim below that in the end this broader view of “education” may offer Humanists more hope for the future–of Humanism, democracy, and humanity.
We can be sure that through most of recorded and unrecorded history, “education” has consisted mainly of learning the basic arts of survival. Even today, for most reasonable people, the main incentive for formal education is still to “get a good job.” When urbanization first emerged, the children of a highly privileged few began to be taught (for example in the Sumerian edubba of around 2,500 BCE ) skills intended to prepare them to perform important jobs in the upper levels of society–as scribes, for example–and possibly even to produce creative works appropriate to the leisure class. But the primary goal of formal education from the point of view of the student was then, as now, to ensure his (usually not “her,” of course) economic well-being, and not to make him a better or happier citizen or neighbor or husband–except as he might chance to become one by virtue of his comparatively secure economic status.
Toward the middle of the first millennium BCE, some of the Greek city-states began to experiment with demokratia, a form of government vividly described by Pericles in his Funeral Oration (431 BCE), and since then widely associated in people’s minds with the ideals of equality and liberty. The alphabet had been introduced into Greece a bit earlier, and by the time the experiment in demokratia was at its peak (in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE), fairly elaborate educational systems had evolved.
It is tempting to assume that these Greek experiments in demokratia could not have arisen without a dramatically new and different way to prepare young people for eventual citizenship, and in fact, some features of Athenian education were distinctive. The sons of the aristocracy (and later, of other citizens) were regularly escorted by a slave (paidogogos) to three kinds of school, devoted respectively to athletics, music, and roughly “the three R’s.” The value of athletic training was warmly disputed (in Sparta physical education clearly had first priority!). Still, some balance among these curricula was considered appropriate for the citizen-to-be. Older adolescents or young adults able to pay could also study arete (“civic virtue”) and allied skills at the feet of the sophists. Socrates and Plato, of course, rejected the sophists’ claims to knowledge, but in the Republic and the Laws, Plato emphasized the political role of education even more than the sophists did, limiting his ideal curriculum to subjects that would serve the state’s interests. (But Plato’s ideal state, we must also remember, was hardly a demokratia!)
The presumed debt of Athenian demokratia to Athenian formal education is not so clear as we might wish, however. On the one hand, group schooling must have helped the boys learn something about getting along together, and the advanced curriculum included politically useful arts such as rhetoric and logic. Even more important, no doubt, was the extension of educational opportunities to children of all or most citizens, not only the aristocracy. On the other hand, before acquiring full political rights at age 30 all citizens were required to undergo a ten-year apprenticeship in government–probably a much more significant practical education for demokratia. Then, too, there were elaborate governmental structures, which were forever being tinkered with as conditions changed, ensuring that everybody on the voting rolls, regardless of the quality or quantity of his formal education, had a share in the responsibility of government, and only a few ever rose to positions of maximum power and responsibility.
But the most obvious reason why Athenian demokratia worked at all was that the citizenry was highly homogeneous. Differences in outlook were held to a minimum, because citizenship was limited to perhaps one person in fifteen among the Athenian population; not only children but foreigners, slaves, and women were excluded. After 451, a citizen had to be the legitimate son of an Athenian mother and an Athenian father. For a time, such homogeneity stabilized the fragile Athenian experiment, protecting it from internal strains that could easily have torn it apart. Demokratia was never thought suitable for a large-scale political system. At its best, this comparatively elite “democracy” nurtured masterpieces of art, architecture, drama, history, oratory, and philosophy (all, of course, in the context of a mature and sophisticated Mediterranean Greek civilization). At its worst, it was incapable of meeting repeated challenges from the outside, and the ultimate insult was its abolition in 322 BCE, after the death of Alexander of Macedon.
Along with Socrates and Plato another, even more severe, Greek critic of demokratia was Plato’s student and Alexander’s teacher, Aristotle. His criticism was based on a very different approach from theirs, one that objectively examined the possible forms and goals of government and how they might realistically be related to various human conditions and motivations, and only then proposed his solution (Dahl, op. cit., p. 25): “a mixed government of democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy so constituted that all three components will finally concur in the good of all.” So Aristotle, in effect the first political scientist, invented the republican constitutional form of government, with some elements of demokratia–but only some–that has survived in its main features, with the important eighteenth-century addition of representative government, to the present.
For many centuries afterward in the West, as we know, “democracy” was almost forgotten, and power remained in the hands of the very few. Formal education was likewise the privilege of a few, and its elitist curriculum, modeled in large part on the pedagogical ideas of the great Roman scholar and–for his time–humanist Marcus Terentius Varro (116 BCE-27 BCE), in its emphasis on religious and other traditional teachings was designed primarily to serve the interests of the Christian church or the state.
Finally, the Enlightenment, with great travail, ushered in two of history’s most consequential revolutions in thinking–first, about human freedom and the nature of government and its relation to the governed; and second, about the nature of education, the uses to which it ought to be put, and how widely its fruits should be enjoyed. The novel and intoxicating ideas that emerged at this time have never been fully reconciled.
Peter Gay’s superb The Enlightenment (a book I heartily recommend to all Humanists and non-Humanists alike) is in two volumes: The Rise of Modern Paganism describes the origins of the Enlightenment’s many diverse strands, and The Science of Freedom (most fittingly named!) details the ensuing struggles of the philosophes to articulate some sort of realizable framework within which the new vision of freedom could go forward. The final chapter of the second volume, entitled “The Program in Practice,” appropriately portrays the American Revolution as establishing a kind of laboratory for the application and further refinement of Enlightenment ideas. The chapter that immediately precedes it, “The Politics of Education,” accurately adumbrates one of the most persistent predicaments still plaguing that laboratory: the subject of this essay. Rather than attempt to summarize these complex chapters succinctly, I offer herewith my own very free interpretive paraphrase of certain relevant parts of the argument::
It was intuitively evident to most Enlightenment minds that the masses, the riffraff, the canaille were incapable of learning, of becoming truly free, of governing themselves. Freedom, for them, seems to have meant a benevolent aristocracy of philosophes or enlightened rulers. Only slowly did some of them, like Voltaire, begin to acknowledge the remote possibility that a few ordinary people could want to read, to improve their minds, to think for themselves. For justice to prevail and for plans to succeed, Wisdom and Power must reside in the same persons. If free people are to have Power, they must also have Wisdom. The romantic-idealist-optimist might insist that people free to decide for themselves will naturally decide wisely–individually, or if not individually, then collectively, by some sort of Invisible Hand, the unwise (selfish) decisions cancelling each other out. The cynic-realist-pessimist, by contrast, would argue that Wisdom can only be gradually acquired by the people (if at all), and that Wisdom and Power must both therefore be achieved gradually by them, and pari passu; in the meantime, Power must always remain in the hands of Wisdom, preferably a Wisdom that is Benevolent, and general freedom must be postponed as long as necessary–maybe even indefinitely. “There is nothing better than the arbitrary government of princes who are just, humane, and virtuous” (p. 515). It was dangerous to give the canaille power, or more knowledge than they knew how to handle.
Even Rousseau, an authentic democrat, and the most radical thinker of his time in many ways, unrealistically idealized his “moral man” existing “in a moral society” (ibid., sect. 3), with the consequence that “Rousseau’s society can function only if all its citizens are Émiles” (p. 551). The fact that Rousseau cast his vision of humanity’s entire condition in what amounts to an extended educational metaphor, in the context of a treatise subtitled “On Education,” emphasizes his far-sighted view of the global nature of education–the “broad view,” if you will. In this broad view he was able to see the multiple roles of education from the diverse and even conflicting viewpoints of society, the teacher, the student, and the student’s associates. It is no coincidence, then, that the young 18th-century Italian philosopher and criminologist Cesare Beccaria (one of the many Enlightenment thinkers who strongly influenced Thomas Jefferson), inspired by Rousseau, saw education as the ultimate, but most difficult, solution to crime (Finalmente il più sicuro, ma più difficil mezzo di prevenire i delitti, si è di perfezionare l’educazione).
In the great Enlightenment laboratory, the United States, optimism about both democracy and education reigned, at least for a time. The young Jefferson voiced his legendary confidence in the ability of a free people to acquire the knowledge and expertise to govern themselves in a constitutional representative democracy–especially with the help of a free press, which he believed, in the tradition of John Milton, would be both the messenger and the defender of the truth on behalf of the American people. (In his later years, severely bruised by his own encounters with the press and the politicians, he would qualify his enthusiasm.) In 1831-1832 Alexis de Tocqueville observed that Americans wherever he went took it for granted that ordinary people could and would master whatever arts might be necessary to govern themselves democratically. (Significantly, he was likewise impressed with the American faith in religion, and concluded that religion and education were the twin “spiritual safeguards” of American democracy.)
The reader will be acutely and perhaps painfully aware of the general course of developments in American “democracy” and “education” over the past century and a half. Anyhow, it is not my purpose here to delineate them, but only to mention a few relevant points. The course of “representative democracy” in this country has been turbulent, but for a while we had managed to grow somewhat accustomed to it, in some measure (it would seem) because each time we, the people, began to grow restless a new unifying threat would arise from beyond our borders, causing us to suppress whatever reservations we may have felt. Over the past two decades, however, the system of representative government has shown signs of growing stress, for a list of reasons perhaps too easily characterized as creating “lack of trust”–the fears of the Cold War, the cultural changes of the 60’s and beyond, the divisive Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, the assassinations of the two Kennedys and Dr. Martin Luther King, followed by increasing globalization of the economy. With the end of the Cold War, it is widely agreed, the national attention has felt freer to turn inward, to problems at home. The whole world has responded the same way, and with the emergence of “connectivity” (below) as a world force and global economic and cultural competition a growing reality, dissatisfaction with “representative democracy” as a reflection of the status quo became increasingly intense. People, in short, wanted to feel in control of their own lives.
The greatest change in American education during the same 150-year period was the rise of national public education, usually credited in large part to Horace Mann (“the father of American public education”), who began his crusade in the 1830’s, at about the same time that Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States. Several facts deserve to be pointed out in this connection. First, public education was not new in this country, having been in existence in Massachusetts since 1647. Horace Mann’s initiative toward public education in this country was undertaken to bring local schools in Massachusetts under the Commonwealth’s control; it was successful because the Commonwealth had sufficient authority to enforce it. This fact is worth remembering at a time when local government is being held up by some, in theory, at least, as the ideal for America (see below). The latter idea is even more ironic when we consider the public schools are among the most publicly reviled products of government in this country.
Second, as John Dewey emphasized, the concept of public education (state-sponsored, universal, compulsory) was not originally a democratic one, having developed first in Germany. It is clear that at the very moment when universal public education was introduced in the United States, the relationship between “democracy” and “education” was altered dramatically. A case could be made that in some sense the “dilemma of democratic education” was born at that instant.
Third, as soon as people everywhere began to vote on the public school curriculum, the door was opened for all problems known to society, from driver education to band uniforms to inequities in funding for minorities to condom distribution, to be introduced into the public educational system. This is not necessarily to imply that the schools shouldn’t deal with some or all of these problems, but only that the task of the school was thereby astronomically complicated, without any corresponding increase in resources–let alone authority–to carry out this task.
Fourth, in this emerging context, the altogether admirable efforts of John Dewey and others to develop democratic (public) education were primarily focused on the need for a democratic outcome–i.e., the need to train enlightened citizens–and (like the efforts of the Enlightenment philosophes) these efforts utterly failed to solve or even address the potential problems of imperfect (unenlightened) democratic control of the schools. On top of that, the actual effect of such educational experiments was to prepare students “for life in a society that did not exist.”
III. The Possibilities
…but you have to know how.from The Cat in the Hat, by Theodore Geisel (“Dr. Seuss”)
Dilemmas are inherent in value systems. By their very nature, values vie for human favor. Humanism is a global philosophy, intended to supplant other comprehensive value systems based on supernatural world views, most of which have been generating attitudes and approaches to every conceivable human concern for hundreds or thousands of years. These have all struggled to resolve conflicts among widely divergent value impulses, using a variety of different stratagems. Hinduism, for example, has attempted to reconcile the four principal aims of life–pleasure (kama), profit (artha), duty (dharma), and release (moksha), recognized as “fundamentally in conflict with one another” –by means of the traditional formulation in terms of four ashramas, or successive stages of life, each appropriate to one of these four aims. It should hardly be surprising, then, that Humanist manifestos and statements of principles too, representing efforts to advance de novo internally consistent alternatives to such elaborate value systems in all areas of life, should initially, at least, encounter dilemmas of the sort we are considering here.
But although such dilemmas are potentially always present, they usually succumb to determined critical analysis, for the simple reason that most people, faced with a clear, realistic, and elemental choice, are able to make up their minds. A is more important than B, C is better than D, and so on. The usefulness of assembling a laundry list of values like Humanist Manifesto II is that it acknowledges our legitimate concern about, and our positions on, the whole wide spectrum of issues that matter to the human race. On the other hand, the problem with such a list is its apparent promiscuity, treating each issue in turn as if it were paramount. The solution to this problem is to disentangle the various “principles” and think carefully about what each one in turn means, why it is important, and how each is ultimately related to the others. In most cases it will be obvious to individual persons (here individual Humanists) that some principles are simply more important than others, and usually that one principle (which may not even have been explicitly mentioned in the original list) is most important or fundamental of all. In the unfortunate event that different Humanists express different priorities, what we have is no longer a dilemma, but a disagreement; unless the disagreement can be ironed out, the potential for schism exists. (Sadly, we see this potential from time to time.)
The framers of the Humanist statements on “education” and “democracy” at the beginning of this essay were unquestionably aware of potential problems like the ones imagined there. Clearly, though, these statements were “political,” made in an effort to unite adherents and persuade potential sympathizers to join a budding movement, and therefore intended to create the greatest impact in the fewest words. For this reason they were inevitably rather broad, general, vague, abstract, and theoretical. But now, as the Humanist movement is maturing and taking its success more seriously, it must begin to confront the detailed implications of those succinct pronouncements, and work to develop more extended formulations, substituting narrow, specific, precise, concrete, and practical language.
Another conspicuous feature of those earlier Humanist statements is their emphasis on empowerment (“rights” and “having a voice”). That is the language of the powerless. Outsiders assert “rights”; insiders stress “responsibilities.” An assertion of a right cannot stand alone. By itself it means little, because it does not specify the agent from whom the right is demanded–how and by whom it is to be implemented. Every meaningful assertion of someone’s rights implies a shadow-statement imposing an obligation on somebody else. As the Humanist movement strives to establish its mainstream credentials, it may become increasingly concerned to formulate more carefully-worded statements emphasizing not only the rights of individuals but also their responsibilities to other individuals, to groups, to their local communities, and ultimately to the global community.
Fortunately, none of this is necessary to enable most people to decide on their own priorities among Humanist principles. In the case of “education” vs. “democracy,” what we might aim for here is just enough clarification to deal reasonably with the horrible examples listed at the outset of this essay. Without knowing for certain what others might choose, I offer the following simple-minded analysis (with maximum trepidation), purely as an illustrative example: Humanists favor democracy as that form of government that allows the most self-determination for human beings, because self-determination is usually considered fairer than oppression. A school board majority that imposes an unjust decision on those within its jurisdiction is acting contrary to the purpose of democracy, and Humanism would therefore oppose that action, even though it was technically carried out in accordance with the form of democracy, and would seek to correct it, e.g., at the ballot box and by a campaign of information and persuasion.
On the other hand, a school board that imposed an unwise decision in accordance with the wishes of those affected by it would not be subject to the same criticism, but Humanism would still oppose the decision anyway just because it was unwise, and would seek all the more to correct it by information and persuasion. In either case, Humanism would recognize that while an ideal democracy is the best form of government, and while an imperfect democracy is here firmly established in the institution of the school board, Humanism sees no immediate practical alternative to this school board as a governing body for this public school, and might therefore attempt to correct the overall situation in such ways as these: (1) supporting possible new alternative schools that are consistent with Humanist goals; (2) working to improve the way this democracy functions by changing the composition, by-laws, etc. of the school board; and (3) working to educate the school board, its constituents, and the students in ways that will help to correct and compensate for the unwise and undesirable decision(s) of the present board.
While this particular simple-minded analysis will not satisfy everyone, and will seem much too simple to some, it illustrates my main point that Humanists can eliminate the apparent dilemma of democratic education for themselves, since they can resolve the problem created by uncritical support for both “democracy” and “education” in some such manner. A similar approach may even be able to erase what is perhaps the severest dilemma of all those connected with democracy–what I call “The Fundamental Dilemma of Democracy”: By accepting “democracy” I agree to accept the majority decision on any subject, even when that decision directly violates some other principle that I hold very deeply. I’ll leave this for the reader as a homework problem. (Hint: one possible approach could be to establish a limit beyond which one will abandon one’s commitment to “democracy” or to the other deeply held principle–in other words, to define the relative strengths of the two commitments.) In all such cases, however, Humanism can help us to set priorities by asking us what is the relation of a particular principle to whatever we consider to be the most fundamental Humanist values–whether justice, human fulfillment, love, cooperation, development of Humanism, or something else. It appears to me that in the present stage of Humanist development, the answers to these questions have not yet been fully elaborated by the Humanist community.
IV. The Prospects
You can’t always get what you want (Repeat twice),But if you try sometimes, you just might find… YOU GET WHAT YOU NEED!
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards
From what I have been able to discern up to now, in the course of my research for this essay, the prospect is for rapid and profound change permeating human society as far into the future as the eye can see. Nobelist Arno Penzias has described some of the ways he thinks “connectivity,” the electronic one-two punch of communication-plus-computers, will continue to remold our existence. If there are physical limits to the technological advances driving this change–as we have good reason to suspect there are–they have not yet been reached. One major area of advance, for instance, is in microminiaturization. On July 25, 1997, USA Today published a front-page photomicrograph of a man-made guitar a few microns long, about the size of a red blood cell! Never mind that there is nobody to play it (yet), the purpose behind its construction was largely to demonstrate symbolically what might be technologically possible even now.
Both “democracy” and “education” have begun, but only begun, to suggest the coming revolutionary effects of the electronic transformation of humanity through connectivity. As with all technological change, we need to remind ourselves continually that the consequences of such change can be anything from utopian to catastrophic, and are sure to lie somewhere in between. Humanists, always receptive to the possibilities in change, hoping that change will be for the best and working to make it so, know that the outcomes will depend on human agency, and that, so far as we are concerned, they will depend on us.
“Connectivity”-driven changes are now taking place in “democracy,” not only in America and Europe but all over the world, brought about by such effects as huge increases in the mobility of capital and the public availability of visual and auditory information: sight and sound. It is clear from the unprecedented intensity of semi-informed public discussion of politics and government on C-SPAN and other TV channels that a new era of some form of increased public involvement in democracy is approaching.
According to many recent books and articles, one of the most likely changes that electronic technology will produce is a distinct turn toward more participatory, “direct” democracy and less representative democracy. “Direct” democracy is a very old idea, as we have seen, but its application has always been severely limited by the impracticability of bringing a very large population of people together, let alone getting them to agree on anything important. The thought of an “electronic village,” where huge numbers of people might virtually assemble and interact electronically in an “electronic town meeting,” has energized many who long for more direct participation in the democratic process.
Presumably direct democracy on a state and national scale would still be confined largely to voting on candidates and selected issues, since it does not appear to be adaptable to the daily functions of large governments–administrative, legislative, and judiciary. In particular, it does not lend itself well to rational debate or the drafting of legislation or policy, especially on matters at all technical in nature. There is simply no way to give everyone a turn to talk, or an adequate background on the most complex issues. Certain precautions would be imperative, such as the preservation of constitutional protections to prevent a “tyranny of the majority” and steps to avoid wild, destabilizing mood swings of the electorate analogous to the roller-coaster phenomena displayed by stock markets under lightning-fast computer responses. Even on a comparatively limited scale, direct democracy could prove enormously time-consuming, considering possible demands of homework and frequent voting. We may have an opportunity to find out.
How would direct participatory democracy measure up by Humanist standards? Here might be an opportunity for Humanists to help direct technological change toward desirable goals. It is noteworthy that Humanist Manifesto II called for an extension of “participatory democracy in its true sense.” Evidently the optimistic framers of that 1973 statement felt confident that if people were empowered to “develop their own values and goals” they would be freed to throw off the shackles of traditional dogmas and uncritical thought. Maybe so, but events of the intervening 24 years would suggest that a great deal of Humanist convincing might be required.
At the same time, realistic objections aside, the importance–not to say the appeal–of having your own views count can’t be denied, and shouldn’t be minimized. On an even more positive note, it is just conceivable that if issues that have too often and too long been kept off the table as beyond discussion could be opened up for full and honest debate, Humanists might find many of these issues amenable to rational consideration by minds previously closed, and might discover in themselves new debating strengths previously unrecognized. This possibility seems worth serious examination, at the least.
But whether or not direct participatory democracy is ever introduced on a large scale in this country, we Humanists will find it clearly to our advantage to participate in democracy to the fullest extent feasible, and to open up on our own initiative many controversies we have previously been content to keep in the box. Perhaps our greatest weakness is that we are so inaccurately and so little known; participation in the democratic process offers innumerable small opportunities to remedy that ill. The great beauty of “connectivity” is that it is empowering, as much for Humanists as for our adversaries, and maybe more so.
At the same time, as a movement we have much to learn about how to bring people over to our side in private and public discussions. Perhaps our second greatest weakness is that when we have engaged in debates about Humanism we have too often gone about it in the wrong way, i.e., counterproductively. Our skills of persuasion have for too long languished in desuetude. One of the great popularizers of unpopular ideas, the late Carl Sagan, has left us several clues to his extraordinary success, including this one, where he is referring not to Humanism per se but the allied movement of skepticism:
And yet, the chief deficiency I see in the skeptical movement is in its polarization: Us vs. Them–the sense that we have a monopoly on the truth; that those other people who believe in all these stupid doctrines are morons; that if you’re sensible, you’ll listen to us; and if not, you’re beyond redemption. This is unconstructive. It does not get the message across. It condemns the skeptics to permanent minority status; whereas, a compassionate approach that from the beginning acknowledges the human roots of pseudoscience and superstition might be much more widely accepted.
It has seemed to me in the past that we Humanists often exhibit a strange blend of over-diffidence (not to say hopelessness) and over-confidence. Over-diffidence, perhaps because of the feeling that nobody would be interested in, let alone be persuaded by, the unpopular views of a small Humanist minority. Over-confidence, perhaps because of the semi-mystical, and probably over-compensating, hope that the Inexorable Currents of History would somehow eventually enable Truth to prevail without any need whatever for Humanists to lift a voice or a finger and possibly incur the scorn and wrath of society. Both these attitudes, needless to say, are in my view fatally inappropriate.
But if we seriously plan to engage our movement’s adversaries as well as the uncommitted in debate in the political arena about Humanist issues, we will do well to nurture within ourselves, first, an attitude of respect for the worth and dignity of our opponents as human beings, and second, some practical appreciation for the way people’s minds work when they disagree out loud. To put it another way, we ought to study the application of conflict resolution to so-called (and misnamed) “rational” debate. Among the many recent guides to this subject are those dealing with what is variously called “communicative action,” “discourse ethics,” “deliberative rationality” (or “deliberative democracy”), and the like. What all of these have in common is their concern with people’s efforts to reach some measure of nontrivial agreement when they disagree, often profoundly in the extreme, on fundamental principles. This is clearly a fertile subject for Humanist investigation; if we can master this art/science, many benefits will accrue to Humanism and humanity.
One approach that might sometimes help us to achieve an accommodation with “Them” in the democratic arena could be to redefine our goals–and specifically, to settle (initially, at least) for something less than Humanist perfection. Was it not, after all, Voltaire himself who said, “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien”? Avishai Margalit has adopted this tone in his recent book The Decent Society, arguing that the just society is an ideal that is often beyond reach. In another book recently published Martin Marty reasons in a somewhat similar vein that the goal of “community” is, in Glenn Linder’s phrase, a “tragic ideal,” and unattainable, and should be replaced by the milder concept of “association.” He recommends open exchange of beloved narratives as a technique for creating freer and more productive discourse across group boundaries.
What I have been saying about the prospect for Humanists and “democracy” applies equally to Humanists and “education.” There is, in fact, a great deal of overlap between the two in this respect. It should be axiomatic, for example, that the same technology that can do grave harm when used for the irresponsible dissemination of misinformation and vile hatreds can be turned to the best possible uses for the spread of Humanist ideas. The potential educational power of “connectivity” is almost beyond our present comprehension. Craig Crawford, Editor-in-chief of The Hotline, recently said with respect to the Internet, “It’s almost like we’re getting back to the days of colonial times, you know, when printing presses became so cheap and everybody could publish a newsletter, whether it was Benjamin Franklin or some of the lesser knowns… There are no standards, so you always have to take a lot of it with a grain of salt, but there’s a lot more information out there from a real variety of sources.” And a few days later, the following breathless exchange took place between Charlie Rose and FCC Chairman Reed Hundt:
Rose: What would you most like to see happen in the next ten years? What’s good for America?”Hundt: I would like to see every kid in America have the opportunity to be on the Information Highway in every classroom, and I’d like to see every adult be able to go to any library and to get right on the computer terminal and go anywhere on the Information Highway, because that would be equality of opportunity in education [italics mine] such as we have never had before in this country, and that’s what I think we’re going to see, Charlie, because about two weeks ago at the FCC we passed a rule, after three years of work under the President’s leadership and the leadership of Senators Snow and Rockefeller, to connect every classroom and every library in the country to the Information Highway. We’re going to spend in this country four billion dollars a year–the biggest single program ever, K through 12, at the national level, to get just that done… All we’re going to do is put these networks–wireless and wire, high-speed, big-bandwidth networks–in every classroom and in every library in the country–that’s 55 million kids who will be able to be on line.
Making due allowances for the obvious hype and the understandable enthusiasm in these remarks, there is still no mistaking the strong possibility of a major upheaval in American (and world) education, one that could open up the general population to ideas and information that have always before been hidden from view. In remote regions of the United States and other countries, “distance learning” is already recognized among educators as a great success. And now, this latest kind of “education” not only could give everyone an opportunity for a genuine understanding of science, for example, or civics, but also could give Humanists far more access to American classrooms and libraries than we have ever had before. Even now, the change in Humanist access to the wider audience is palpable. To illustrate what I mean, within the past two years almost all the inquiries I have been getting about Humanism as president of the Humanist Association of Connecticut have suddenly been coming from people who have found our organization on the World Wide Web! Reality is definitely trying to tell us something.
If we actually do connect with all these people, though, what are we going to say to them? This is not a question of content–we’ve always had plenty of that–so much as of style. Having been, so to speak, mute all these years, how can we find our effective authentic voice? Or, as a savvy TV panelist, discussing uses of the Internet, recently said, “Anybody can go online, but who will pay attention?” Here I turn to the words of another legendary communicator in our caravan, Nobel prize-winner Leon Lederman, along with Carl Sagan one of the most successful of all scientists in reaching those reluctant to be reached. On a recent panel discussing “Science and the Media” Lederman used a style not popularly associated with his generation to describe, by implication, how he would speak to a mass audience:
Moderator (Kerry Brock): Let’s say you had the heads of all the major networks sitting at this table right now…Lederman (interrupting): CUT ‘EM OFF!
Brock (smiling): Well, you and many other people might like to do that… In a serious vein, what would you tell them you want them to do?
Lederman (choosing his words carefully): I would want them to be better entertainers, by being more truthful, by exploiting the natural curiosity of people, and by being honest and… profitable!… by looking at the excitement of the world around us, and our growing knowledge about that world!
Very much like Carl Sagan, Lederman is talking to us about going to the audience wherever they may be rather than waiting for them to come to us, being acutely aware of what stirs them, what thrills them, what moves them to tears, and even what frightens them, but always “being more truthful” and “being honest.” What a concept! In Humanist terms, Lederman is telling us to be communicators of the sort Robert G. Ingersoll would surely be if he were alive today and on the radio, the TV, or the Web! Come to think of it, Humanists, the creators of technological change are singing our song! Of all people on Earth, don’t we welcome human evolution most ardently? What is this but the next stage?
V. The Postscript
To return to the “dilemma of democratic education,” which seemed so intractable, at least to me, at the opening of this essay: It appears to me now that the “dilemma” lies largely in the way we have formulated our Humanist values, and that if we will put our fundamental concerns in perspective (historical, geographical, economic, political, philosophic, and whatever); define our terms of discourse so that they do not intrude upon and damage each other; establish workable priorities for our most important goals; and above all, welcome the possibilities for human good inherent in change–then, even though the very real and serious problems we face in both democracy and education almost certainly will not disappear, BUT the “dilemma” will.
© 1997 by the North American Committee for Humanism (NACH) All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof in any form, including electronic media, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.