Education in a Democracy: Fall 2008 Leaders Associates

With the entire nation awash in the politics of the presidential campaign, use of the phrase "The Agenda for Education in Democracy" might very well raise eyebrows and turn heads to the work of the Brigham Young University-Public School Partnership.

While many U.S. citizens perceive school systems as failing because of a supposed lack of commitment and caring, the BYU-Public School Partnership brings together education leaders from eight BYU colleges and five Utah school districts twice each year. This diverse group looks at education's big questions and then discusses how to apply and implement the ideas in their collective and individual stewardships. This philosophy of simultaneous renewal by both schools and teacher training programs is the basis of the 25-year-old partnership.

Meeting Agenda

The agenda for the fall Leaders Associates could have been derived from David O. McKay. He said, "In my opinion the highest, noblest purpose in all our education from the grades to the university, is to teach citizenship and noble character." Indeed citizenship and noble character were at the heart of these meetings. The group first examined the virtue of reverence in the community, and then discussed the public purposes of education within the context of examining moral systems of education. Social contracts were also explored, along with an explicit discussion on the Agenda for Democracy in Education--a mission-driven research agenda developed by John Goodlad and perpetuated through the work of the Institute for Educational Inquiry and by university/public school partnerships across the country.

Reverence in a Community

Greg Clark, English professor and associate dean in the College of Humanities, led a discussion on Paul Woodruff's book, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue. Woodruff purports that essential elements of democracy include: freedom from tyranny, harmony, rule of law, citizen wisdom, reasoning, and education. Education, Woodruff says, facilitates all the other elements. He also suggests that these elements are built upon a virtue of individual character that must be shared: that of reverence.

"Thus, reverence becomes the foundation of democracy," said Clark.

The group of almost 100 high level administrators struggled to define reverence, and also to detach it from religious feelings. "Let's quit worrying about defining it and talk about applying it," Clark advised. The group accepted Clark's counsel and concluded that teachers needed to create a climate of reverence, or, the word the group preferred, awe.

Scott Ferrin, professor of educational leadership and education law, commented that in an education setting teachers "command the reverence of students through how they live." Duane Merrell, assistant professor of physical sciences, suggested that awe for the subject, the student, and the pedagogy of teaching, combine to form a reverence for others and a sense of community.

Dr. Clark concluded the session by stating, "What I have heard in this discussion is people trying to work toward values that are legitimate to share in our work as educators. The trying is enough. The trying is where we can take some satisfaction. I have experienced feelings of reverence in listening to your positions."

Moral Systems of Education

Certain assumptions about education were noted early in the next session: Public purposes of education must be acknowledged, be recognized through democratic means, and have real value. Presenter Gary Daynes, associate provost for integrative learning at Westminster College, then noted that democratic means evolve into systems of education.

In groups, participants were asked to illustrate either an ideal or a realist version of a system of education. Two themes evolved. The groups assigned to be realists depicted systems in which the child, family, and community needs were dictated from the top down--often making these needs almost an afterthought.

Idealist groups illustrated policy, financial planning, and goals, flowing from the needs of the child, family, and community. One participant, on seeing the apparent clash of reality to the thoughts of idealists, asked the obvious question, "So why can't we do that?"

The conclusion drawn by the group was to attempt to understand the limits of the present education system while working tirelessly to influence this system to make the child its center.

Social Contract

Just what is a social contract? Is it the same as a social democracy? Many participants struggled with these questions. Barry Graff, administrator of curriculum and instruction for Alpine School District, encouraged reflection as he led the discussion.

Al Merkley, assistant dean in the School of Education, was one of the first to express his thoughts. He said, "[A social contract] is the agreement that allows us to live with some modicum of courtesy with one another."

Others stated that social contracts include basic respect. One participant applied the concept to the need for social capital in Iraq in order to establish a democracy. Tiffany Hall, associate director for professional development in CITES, suggested that social democracy is the part of democracy that has no laws; it is the part that mothers should teach their children.

Though they never agreed on an explicit definition, even after listening to real-life stories of social democracy at work, the group acknowledged the need for such a concept. Dr. Graff noted, "I think the fruits of a social democracy can really be wonderful."

Agenda for Education in a Democracy

Steven Baugh, executive director of the BYU-Public School Partnership, led a discussion to help BYU-PSP administrators think deeply about the meaning and purposes of The Agenda for Education in a Democracy as well as the Moral Dimensions of Education, another element in the guiding principles of the BYU-PSP. The Moral Dimensions, as stated by John Goodlad, include enculturating youth into a social and democracy, providing equal access to knowledge, practicing nurturing pedagogy, and ensuring responsible stewardship.

In a later discussion, Vern Henshaw, superintendent of Alpine School District, described the moral dimensions as the Partnership's foundation. He said, "It's these principles that help us become who we want to be--as people and institutions."

Baugh also affirmed the AED and the Moral Dimensions as the underlying principles of the BYU-PSP. "We believe we would not stay together and do what we do without these underlying principles," he said. Asking the group to ponder the relationship of education, schooling, and democracy, Baugh concluded, "We believe there is a very direct tie between education, schooling and democracy . . . we can't continue the American form of democracy without a healthy, vibrant education system."

Application

Closing the meetings, Richard Young, dean of the School of Education, quoted David O. McKay, who said, "In the light of self-evident facts is it not apparent to every thinking mind that the noblest of all noble professions is that of teaching, that upon the effectiveness of that teaching hangs the destiny of nations?"

As evidence of the truth of this statement, Dean Young talked about the education system in Afghanistan. He explained how Iran, not America, helped to rebuild the country's education system years ago. He then noted differences in ideology--and outcomes--suggesting that if America had assisted the country in rebuilding their schools, the world might be a different place. "We must have ways to enculturate our youth into a democracy and into civility," Dean Young concluded.

10 October 2008