An earlier version of this essay is found in educational Horizons, Fall 2008.

DEMOCRATIC CLASSROOMS: Impediments and Possibilities
©2008 Gary K. Clabaugh, Ed. D.
La Salle University

edited 8/17/11

In "Democratic Classrooms: Promises and Challenges of Student Voice and Choice," Kristan A. Morrison argues that students must experience autonomy, freedom and choice if schools are ever going to be appealing and truly embody democracy. Those who found or find school tedious, oppressive and uninteresting may be quick to agree. But how realistic is this proposal?

Cutting Costs With Mass Production

It has been well over one hundred years since America embarked on the ambitious venture of universal public schooling. The costs of this endeavor quickly became burdensome, and it was decided to carry it out in as cost effective a manner as possible. The consequence of this push for efficiency was schools modeled on factories with an emphasis on mass production and cost-effectiveness, rather than democracy or individuality.

For the most part, today's public schools still are factories. Management is top-down all the way. The federal government sets basic rules. State authorities implement the rules while adding many more. School boards make decisions based on federal and state rules plus fiscal and political realities. The superintendent executes the will of the board through his or her principals. They, in turn, tell teachers what to do and when to do it; and the teachers direct the youngsters in similar manner. Knowledge is fragmented and atomized. Children are compared to one another. Social and emotional development is neglected for more measurable outcomes. Economies of scale are sought at the expense of individuality. Teachers and students are managed.

Sometimes this industrial approach produces not only undemocratic, but peculiarly inefficient results. One Superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, for example, boasted to the press that she could tell them what was happening in any classroom in the city at any given moment. What was actually happening was administratively induced chaos because her standardized, teacher-proof curriculum was incapable of accommodating individual differences. Second grade teachers were forbidden to use anything other than second grade readers and the canned lesson of the day even if some of the kids still couldn't read. Similarly, seventh grade math teachers were forced to "teach" algebra to kids who couldn't even do fractions or long division.

In this kind of school system, autonomy, freedom and choice are anathema. The focus is on standardization, teacher proofing, measured outcomes and the prison shuffle.

Compulsory Freedom?

We should also consider that democratic and freedom based schooling would be introduced into an institution where attendance is compulsory. True, if one can afford an alternative, there is no requirement that kids attend public school. But in every state in the union school attendance of some kind, even if it is only home schooling, is required.

"Democratic Classrooms" indicates that democratic and freedom-based education '"is grounded in the premise that people are naturally curious and have an innate desire to learn and grow. If left un-fettered, un-coerced and un-manipulated, people will pursue their interests vigorously and with gusto." Trouble is, when one is compelled to go to school they already are fettered, coerced and manipulated. That's what we mean by compulsion. Wouldn't compulsory education have to be abolished before freedom-based education could be meaningfully initiated?

And why imagine that youngster's natural curiosity will be directed at constructive things? One can imagine six year olds happily burning insects to death with sunlight and a magnifying glass, or sixteen year old inner city gang kids fulfilling their urgent desire to learn small unit military tactics. Besides which, why assume that everyone is naturally curious? I've taught seventh graders whose curiosity seemed decidedly undersized.

Of course kids of this age were terribly concerned about peer acceptance and that placed a profound limit on their freedom. Do advocates of freedom-based education adequately consider the tyranny of peers?

The Feds Weigh In

Remember too that there is a powerful new restriction on autonomy, freedom, choice, and democracy in schooling. With its emphasis on measurable results, quality control, instrumental and extrinsic motivations, atomization and fragmentation of knowledge, No Child Left Behind represents the near total triumph of factory model schooling in contemporary America. The whole weight of the federal government welds the public school as factory in place as never before.

"Democratic Classrooms" offers the happy prospect of dismantling factory schools and refocusing on student voice and choice. But it's not as if the article advocates moving from A to B. Given the present environment it advocates moving from A to Z. What are the chances?

"The Business of America is Business"[i]

Another factor militating against the success of the "Democratic Classrooms" prescription is that most Americans spend far more time in the business world than they do where they have a voice and a choice.

What are the work world's characteristics? It's competitive; instrumental and extrinsic motivations dominate, tasks are atomized and fragmented, obedience is required, believing what one is told is valued over criticality and a person's worth is defined by comparison to others. In short, world of work values are virtually identical to the present school values decried in "Democratic Classsrooms". Surely this is not an accident.

What would happen if business leaders suddenly found themselves confronted with employees who expected a voice and a choice? Would the CEO of General Electric or Macy's, for example, be grateful? And could our lawmakers be able to sleep if the nation's corporate moguls were dissatisfied?

The claim here isn't that the business of America SHOULD be business. It is that the business of America IS business, and this reality has to be taken into account in any prescription written for the public schools.

Freedom, a Modern Luxury?

The article comments, "In democratic and freedom-based education, students are free to decide what they study, and how, and when they study it." The article links that to "the form of learning found in most pre-industrial societies" where "the children are actively engaged in the lives of a given society; they learn skills and knowledge by means of imitation, apprenticeship, modeling and conversation rather than in any formal school setting."

Pre-industrial education was not all that free and spontaneous. In my youth, for example, I learned barbering by means of an apprenticeship that was very similar in form to the apprentice system of the pre-industrial guilds; and I was most emphatically NOT free to decide what to learn, or how and when to learnt it. The master barber decided.

Remember too that in the pre-industrial era the majority of children grew up on farms. And while those youngsters did learn to farm by imitation, modeling and conversation, they did NOT have the luxury of freely choosing what they wanted to do and how and when they were going to do it. That's not farm life.

If you are haying and it looks like rain you have to work like hell to get the hay in the barn before it gets wet and spoils, otherwise the livestock starves that winter. Similarly, a kid might prefer not to spend hour after hour in the broiling sun picking potato bugs, but he or she still had to do it for the family to eat potatoes.

Perhaps freedom-based education is a luxury reserved for well-fixed modern kids who aren't required by harsh reality to do tasks of immediate and urgent importance.

The True Secret of Education

In On Education John Locke (1632 – 1704), a philosopher who inspired the nation's founders observes, " if the mind be curb'd, and humbled too much in children; if their spirits be abas'd and broken much, by too strict an hand over them, they lose all their vigour and industry." But Locke also cautions that "He that has not a mastery over his inclinations, he that knows not how to resist the importunity of present pleasure or pain, for the sake of what reason tells him is fit to be done, wants the true principle of virtue and industry, and is in danger never to be good for anything.

To avoid the danger that is on either hand, is the great art; and he that has found a way how to keep up a child's spirit easy, active, and free, and yet at the same time to restrain him from many things he has a mind to, and to draw him to things that are uneasy to him; he, I say, that knows how to reconcile these seeming contradictions, has, in my opinion, got the true secret of education.[ii] (Emphasis added.)

The advocates of freedom-based education may have avoided the first error Locke cautions against only to stumble into the second. They seem to be overlooking the fact that some measure of mastery over one's inclinations is necessary to ever be good at anything. How can anyone learn to accomplish a truly skilled enterprise such as ballet, glass blowing, or engineering for example, in a reasonable period of time if the initiate, not the expert, decides what to learn and when to learn it?

To be sure, present day schooling hasn't got the balance right either. Here, in Locke's words the mind is, "curb"d and humbled too much" and the youngsters too frequently "lose all their vigour and industry." This is what "Democratic Classrooms" quite rightly condemns.

The Principle of Correspondence

Historically there has always been a close correspondence between any society's social structure, values and norms, and its schooling practices. In fact, a case can be made that such correspondence is a universal feature of schooling. And "Democratic Classrooms" gets it wrong when it says, "schools and society are reflections of one another." No, the history of education demonstrates that schooling practices reflect the values and structures of the host society.

That is not to say that alternative schools of a much freer, more democratic nature can't exist in less free societies. Various forms of them can be found in nations as different as Israel, Japan, New Zealand, Thailand and the United States, with the most well known of them, A.S. Neill's Summerhill, being in Suffolk, England. [iii] But these schools owe their uniqueness to the fact that they do not serve the broad masses at public expense. They have a self-selecting clientele and do not depend on public consensus or public funding. Even still, it's instructive to know that in 1999 Summerhill ran into difficulties with the UK's educational bureaucracy.

Despite the schools higher than national average exam pass rates and extraordinary parental and pupil satisfaction, the UK's education bureaucracy inspected the school and found it wanting. It called Summerhill's pupils "foul-mouthed," and accused them of "mistaking idleness for personal liberty." In effect, the report called for the school's closure if Summerhill failed to abandon the key freedoms it afforded its pupils.

Summerhill took the government to court and won the right to continue its practices. The school survived and in 2007 another government inspection produced entirely different results. The Guardian quotes the new report as saying. "Pupils' personal development, including their spiritual, moral, social and cultural development, is outstanding." Students are "courteous, polite and considerate", make "good progress" and are "well-rounded, confident and mature" when they leave.

Zoe Readhead, the head teacher and daughter of founder A S Neill, said, "The government has persistently refused to acknowledge the individual philosophy of the school, such as that children can learn just as well out of the classroom. We feel vindicated." She also added, " it is not the school that changed." [iv] Her point, of course, was that it was the UK that had changed.[v]

Undemocratic Americans

"Democratic Classrooms"" seems at least as out of step with 2008 American values as Summerhill was the UK's in 1999. Certainly the values that "Democratic Classrooms" hopes to promote are not all that widespread. Only some Americans "truly value diversity, and are truly autonomous yet cognizant of other's needs and rights?" And only some Americans "are open-minded yet equipped with critical thinking skills to analyze contradictory ideas." Other Americans angrily deny marriage to gay couples; salivate whenever Rush Limbaugh and his ilk rings a bell, and don't have the vaguest understanding of either freedom or democracy. (They eagerly deny the former to anyone that's different and think of American democracy merely as majority rule.)

Individuals of this persuasion pack a political punch. And they will undoubtedly regard as un-American the values "Democratic Classrooms" prescribes for US public schools. Its new freedoms for students would be understood as self-indulgence and an attack on traditional values such as hard work, discipline and self-denial -- none of which are they particularly keen on practicing themselves.

Remember too that day-to-day US public school policy is set at the local level by some 15,000 elected school boards and, except for large urban districts, is broadly representative of village values. So America's public schools have achieved their undemocratic condition in a decidedly democratic manner.


History suggests that public schools rarely, if ever, get out ahead of society. Indeed, they generally lag behind. That is why student voice and choice and all that goes with it will have to await a freer, more democratic America. If and when that societal change happens, the public schools will follow. Until then, support will be lacking. That's not to say that what "Democratic Classrooms" champions is undesirable. But it may be unattainable and is certainly unlikely in the near or intermediate future

Happily, reform need not be all or nothing. One can, with a little luck, quietly introduce more student voice and choice into one's own classroom. And we should all congratulate any teacher who can elevate the importance of intrinsic motivation; emphasize social and emotional development as well as academics; deemphasize mere obedience; and get the kids to define their own worth rather than let others do it for them. But it had better be done without fanfare and well out of sight of the philistines.


[i] A statement made by Calvin Coolidge in the 1920's.

[ii]John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education. Sections 41-50. The Harvard Classics,

[iii] See Summerhill School's website

[iv] Jessica Shepherd, The Guardian, Saturday December 1, 2007.

[v] Summerhill,