Outline of Gutmann Essay: Democratic Education

"Were students ready for citizenship, compulsory schooling ... would be unjustifiable."

Thesis: Public schools must be democratic institutions if they are to fulfill their mission of preparing citizens capable of engaging in democratic deliberation. 

The danger of schools is that they become politically REPRESSIVE institutions. This happens when they are structured to reinforce DOMINANT perspectives on life. [Gutmann's idea seems to be that schools strip adults of autonomy if they merely reinforce dominant values (as opposed to genuine democratic processes).]

TWO ISSUES emerge: 

  • Are American public school teachers really professionals? Not really.
  • If they were professionals with a DEMOCRATIC mission, how would schools operate?

Primary evidence that we do not treat our teachers as professionals can be found in the four rewards of being a professional:

  1. Pleasures of job performance [mentally stimulating]
  2. High Salary
  3. High Status
  4. Authority over other people

"Few" teachers are rewarded in these ways. By comparison, doctors and lawyers have too much of 2, 3, 4. Public school teachers

Teaching conditions in America are so bad that professionalism is almost non-existent. [In other words, the structure of placing teachers under professional administrators who deal with school boards (which represent the schools' true clients, the public) has resulted in a REPRESSIVE system for teachers.] How can teachers support democratic process when it is so fully denied them by current practices?


Because of their mission (democratic empowerment of students) and their client (the public), teachers cannot be allowed unlimited "educational authority." [In other words, their mode of professionalism cannot be paternalistic toward their clients.] 

However, we are so far to the opposite extreme [mere agency professionalism] that teachers' unions have a role in forcing their employers to "cede" [i.e., surrender] some limited control over the teachers' work conditions and some limited classroom autonomy. In practice, they are mainly engaged in a struggle over work hours and salary.

The real problem is that state and federal governments mandate so much of what happens (and, in large cities, city government adds another layer of restrictions). There is no room left for teacher autonomy in the management of their own schools. Combine this with low salaries, and we create the conditions that remove professionalism from teaching.

[Notice that this was written in 1987, years before No Child Left Behind.] 


If we could reverse the lack of professionalism, what would teachers have to do to support their real mission, with is democratic education? 

We must avoid two extremes:

  • Disciplinary model: Many teachers us their autonomy paternalistically and will prioritize classroom management ("order") and knowledge that can be tested -- but these priorities represses democratic processes within the schools. Clearly, we need more of this in primary education than in secondary, but we must have a gradual decrease in it as students age.
  • Nondirective Guidance: Thinking that students are already competent citizens, and letting STUDENTS determine what their education consists of, and facilitating it. However, this approach wrongly treats children as being more competent than they really are. (In fact, if they were competent, we'd lose our justification for public education!) At best, this might work with a limited range of situations with secondary students.

The AMOUNT of participatory democracy among students must be balanced by the amount of paternalism (disciplinary model), with the balance decided by the mix  that is democratically desirable. 

The balance can only be determined EMPIRICALLY, by experimenting with different approaches and seeing the actual results. [As Dewey proposed, democratic public schools are educational laboratories.] 


Return to Course
Home Page
Return to Theodore Gracyk's Home Page 

            Last updated Feb 22, 2008