A more democratic society requires a more democratic public school system

By Damon Krane
October 15, 1999
Free Student Press staff outreach flier/pamphlet

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At Free Student Press, we see the current US public school system as a serious impediment to positive social change and achieving a genuinely democratic society.

A critically-minded public, able to effectively engage in dialogue to express concerns, is necessary for a healthy democracy. Also necessary is a citizenry comprised of individuals concerned with the common good of all and not simply the furtherance of their own self-interest at the expense of others. Above all perhaps, a healthy democracy depends on the idea that social change should come from ordinary people and not from bureaucrats, “experts’, or political/economic elites. Yet our public schools work against all of this.

We enter school as curious, bright-eyed children; eager to learn. But what happens? We are immediately taught that our interests and questions have no bearing on our education. Our concerns and potential input are forcibly severed from the arrangements we will live and work under for the next 12 years. Rules which we had no part in making are imposed upon us with no formal opportunity provided for students to amend the rules.

Regardless of the class or subject matter, one lesson remains constant being “good” means passively complying with authority. Students are coerced into obedience through grades and discipline. Those who quietly obey orders are rewarded; those who speak out, ask critical questions or, worst of all, choose to make their own decisions are punished and marginalized. Schools inculcate in students an adversarial view of others by inciting competition among students though academics and athletics.

Since nearly all of us attended school in this manner, it is often something we take for granted. But we need to realize that schools are inherently political institutions. They do not operate in a vacuum, insulated from outside cultural and political pressures. Schools bring together people of different genders, cultures, races, socioeconomic classes and sexual orientations. Power dynamics exist between students, teachers, administrators, school boards, parents and the community – as well as between the dominant and subordinate groups within a patriarchal, Anglo-centric, capitalist dominant culture. Public education is a public concern because schools have great impact on our society. Indeed, as children, school is our introduction to public life.

FSP StaffLit_1

Schools exist to prepare students for the future, but that future is about more than basic academic proficiencies and job related skills. Isn’t part of that future participation within a democracy? How are our schools preparing students for the future of American democracy?

Like anything else, the skills of democratic participation are learned through practice.
Oligopolistic student councils, empowered with the great responsibility of decorating for the prom, do not provide students with any opportunity to practice democracy. Nor do civics courses that teach democracy as a spectator sport prepare students for democratic participation.

How, by vigorously suppressing democracy for 12 years, do schools encourage its emergence upon graduation day? How does conditioning students to believe that it is not their place to shape the world around them – that change comes not from the people but from the people in charge advance the cause of democracy? It is ridiculous enough that a supposedly democratic government compels its citizens to attend authoritarian institutions, but it would be completely absurd to think that these authoritarian institutions could somehow prepare students for democratic citizenship. What authoritarian schools prepare us for is a future of submission to authority and our part in maintaining the status quo. Is that the kind of future that we want??

FSP StaffLit_2

At a time when schools are becoming more and more restrictive and the corporate model is being increasingly applied to schools in an equation that reduces students to “products,” democratic education reform is desperately needed.

Although Free Student Press advocates democratic education reform in the form of everything from progressive teaching practices to equity in school funding and the institutional restructuring of schools, we strongly feel that democratic reforms are most effective when they come from the people most affected by them. When it comes to school, that means the students.

Without free speech there can be no democracy. That’s why FREE STUDENT PRESS is dedicated to helping students bring fee speech back to school. Basically, our role is to tell students what their authoritarian school officials don’t want them to know – that students enjoy the legal protection of the First Amendment at school.

Though school-sponsored publications may be legally censored by school officials’, those officials cannot legally prevent students from peacefully distributing their own publications on school grounds, nor can they censor these publications’ content – even if that content contains opinions critical of school officials! (See Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, 1988, and Tinkerv. Des Moines Independent Community School District, 1969)

Independent student publications (sometimes called “underground newspapers’) are a way for students to bring free speech back to school. They provide a forum for fee-flowing dialogue where common concerns can be identified, and they can be run by students in a democratic fashion free from the hierarchical power structures imposed on even most professional journalists. Independent student publications have the potential to give students the practice they need to become critically-minded, articulate, democratic participants – even in the most authoritarian schools!

The ideas at the heart of FREE STUDENT PRESS are as much education reform as they are media activism. Whenever powerful elites – be they corporate media conglomerates or high school administrators – are able to control the means of communication, democracy is at risk. However, just as the negative effects of an authoritarian school system last long after graduation, the empowering experiences learned from creating independent media at the high school level can have lasting influence as well.

Currently FREE STUDENT PRESS is based in Athens, Ohio and working in conjunction with the Institute for Democracy in Education with assistance from the Student Press Law Center and the American Civil Liberties Union. This is only FSP’s tenth month of existence, but we have every intention of turning Free Student Press a broad national movement. If you’d like to be a part of it, please contact us at freestudentpress@*****.com or by calling 597-**** (Damon) or 589-**** (Lisa).

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