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The Problem Behind the Problem: What Does It Take To Make Our Democracy Work As It Should?

The thesis of the book, “Reclaiming Public Education by Reclaiming Our Democracy,” written by David Matthews, is succinctly summarized in the book’s title. Matthews writes, “We must have the public we need before we matthewscan have the schools we want.” To improve education, the book argues, there must be a more engaged, more informed, more active public: to improve education we must improve our democracy.

Matthews has an impressive resume; he was in charge of HEW during the Ford administration; he served as president of The University of Alabama. Now, Matthews serves as president of the Charles F. Kettering Foundation located here in Dayton.

In a transcript posted on Public Agenda, Matthews says, “The Kettering Foundation’s work is not about the argument that education is essential to democracy. That’s already been made. This book is about the reverse argument: that democracy is essential to education.” Matthews emphasizes that he is talking about education in a broad sense.  He says, “As opposed to being about the school, which is an institution, it is about education, meaning a process by which a society transmits its skills and values to the next generation through a host of institutions and social conventions, one of which is the schools.”

The Kettering Foundation was founded by Charles F. Kettering in 1927, “to sponsor and carry out scientific research for the benefit of humanity.” Over time, according to its web-site, the emphasis of the foundation evolved and, “Since the early 1990s, the foundation has worked on strategies to strengthen democracy. The primary question addressed by its research today is ‘What does it take to make democracy work as it should?’”

The foundation has offices on a 20 acre campus in Kettering, evidently within a few miles of where I live, so I want to visit the foundation’s offices. I want to browse, if allowed, the literature that the foundation produces. The foundation has a big interest in “deliberative forums,” and works in cooperation with another 501C(3), The National Issues Forum, and evidently produces literature used in these forums.

I think it is great that one of Dayton’s most creative and most successful citizens has bequeathed an organization whose purpose is to study democracy. The web-site says,

Kettering believed in sticking with big problems and taking them on in all their complexity, not breaking them into pieces. One needed, he was fond of saying, to “learn how to fail intelligently” – to develop and test new ideas and then to learn from what happened. Few important questions, he believed, were simple. One had to get at “the problem behind the problem.” During Kettering’s lifetime, the foundation’s work focused on projects he found interesting: basic scientific research on photosynthesis and cancer, as well as grants to promote scientific education and work-study programs at colleges and universities.

In keeping with Kettering’s insight — that one should identify and solve the problem behind the problem — in the 1970’s the foundation ceased using its income to make grants and instead focused its financial resources on conducting its own research. The web-site says,

As that work evolved, researchers at the foundation began to believe that lasting solutions to the world’s problems were increasingly social and political in nature rather than technical and scientific. Moving away from its tradition of basic scientific research, the foundation began to focus on basic political research – striving to understand how citizens and political systems can work together.

Eventually this work evolved to focus on democracy itself.

The idea that making democracy work is the problem behind the problem is an idea that rings true to me. I developed this idea in a post entitled, Our Democracy Must Be Revived — If We Hope To Achieve The Dreams of Our Wisest and Best. Matthews and the Kettering Foundation seem to assert the principle, that I agree with, that says, if our democracy was working as it should, the public good would be advanced in ways that are only hinted at now. How to make democracy work is the problem behind the problem.

David Esrati recently wrote a post in which he asked this interesting question: “Why would people want to live in LA and fight traffic, live in NYC and pay crazy rent for a closet to live in, when they could be in Dayton?” I wrote an extended response to Esrati’s question that resonates with Matthews’ insight that “democracy is essential to education.” Not only is democracy essential to education, but, I believe, democracy is essential to the fulfillment of all other aspects of our community’s potential as well. My judgment is that the answer to Esrati’s question must be anchored in our faith in democracy. It must be based on the principle that if democracy was working in the Dayton region as it should be working, people eventually would be powerfully attracted to our community.

In my response to Esrati, I wrote, “Dayton needs to ask itself what it should be doing, as a system, to inspire and empower its citizens to attain new levels of personal motivation, entrepreneurship, leadership and creativity.” What Dayton needs to do, if it is to move in the direction of becoming known as a ‘City of Opportunity,’ is to vitalize its democracy.

Because of the bequest of one of its most notable citizens and most successful problem solvers, Charles F. Kettering, Dayton is fortunate to be home to a foundation whose mission is to answer the question, “What does it take to make democracy work as it should?” The foundation has identified the key question because the problem behind the problems facing our community is the dysfunction of our democracy. For Dayton to answer this key question in such a way that it becomes a city and region known for its vibrant democracy is no small goal. For the sake of the future of our city and region, however, it is a question that we must focus our energies on answering.

I intend on making a future post discussing some of the ideas in Matthews’ book.

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20 comments to The Problem Behind the Problem: What Does It Take To Make Our Democracy Work As It Should?

  • I wonder if this idea of “meaningful community” can be brought about through collective action.

    Collective action is often more than voting; it involves movements, commitment to certain ideals, willingness to volunteer, etc. The key is what moves people to collective action? What will move the people of Dayton to rally around a common cause to improve the city?

  • Eric

    Mike,
    The Kettering publication you might be looking for is Framing Issues for Public Deliberation: A Curriculum Guide for Workshops.

    Check out these links to National Issues Forums, The “Too Many Children Left Behind” Project Launch in Texas, and customizing Kettering materials for Texas.

  • Eric

    It amazes me that people do not understand that a democracy and a republic are not the same thing. There are fundamental differences and problems associated with each. Note that the US was founded as a republic, the word republic is found in the pledge of allegiance and the constitution — but the word democracy is curiously absent. How do you really want this country run? Look up some historical samples of success and failure for both types of government. Google republic vs democracy and read on… It is also curious that these two types of governmental methods are used to represent the two main political parties — democrats for democracies and republicans for republics — and for the most part represent the differences in ideals between the two.

  • Mike Bock

    Eric, We may have started out by being called a republic rather than a democracy, but, the question is, what term best describes us now?

    Our nation’s founders were distrustful of democracy and would no doubt be shocked to know that today people without property have a right to vote, women have a right to vote, 18 year olds have the right, as do minorities, etc. The founders would be surprised to discover that today U.S. senators are directly elected.

    Lincoln defined the ideal — that we should have a government of the people, by the people and for the people — and the fact that founding fathers might not quite see it Lincoln’s way doesn’t matter. Lincoln’s ideal is what stirs people’s hearts and it is an ideal that describes democracy. The question is: how do we go about realizing that ideal?

  • Eric

    Does the term democracy best describe us now? I’m not sure that it does in many cases. Democracy is essentially majority (mob) rule. How else is it possible for a president get elected without the popular vote? (electoral college). At the state level, though, I would largely agree with you — democracy, majority rule. It is interesting to note that the democratic party which pushes the majority rule ideals operates under and electoral college type system to determine their presidential nominee. However, their process is even more slanted due to the whole ‘super delegate’ issue. I would like an explanation by them of exactly how that is supposed to operate compared to either a democracy or republic.

    I challenge you to find where the right to vote is in the constitution. I read it every few months just to keep it’s right fresh in my mind. The common misconception is that it promises the right to vote for adults, women, etc, which it a serious mischaracterization. The constitution does not promise a right to vote, but rather lists the reasons you cannot be denied the opportunity to vote. (age, gender, race, poll tax). This issue came to light during the al gore / bush court fight back in 2000. It was a complete surprise to me to read court briefs by both candidates making arguments for/against their side of the argument based on the fact that there is no constitutional right to vote.

    We have minimum standards for people to practice medicine, drive a car, even hold a job, is reasonable or responsible not to have them to be able to vote? what about property ownership? or not being on a welfare program? (not saying I agree or disagree with any of that, just for some thinking.) One quote that really got me thinking is:
    “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves money from the public treasure. From that moment on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most money from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world’s great civilizations has been two hundred years. These nations have progressed through the following sequence: from bondage to spiritual faith, from spiritual faith to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependency, from dependency back to bondage.”

    I think the question isn’t what we have today, but rather what form of government should we have to ensure the meaningful survival of our country?

  • Mike Bock

    Eric, The “problem behind the problem,” as Matthews’ book points out, is that our democracy is not working as it should.

    Your extended quote sounds familiar. Its baseline assumption is that citizens cannot be trusted to control the government, and if given the chance, citizens would ruin our country. Yes, there is a lot of fear of a democracy run amuck. But the real potential for democracy is quite different. Our democracy is not working as it should, but, can we imagine what it would look like if it was working as it should? I believe there is such a thing as “group wisdom,” and that through democracy we have the best chance that effective leaders and sound ideas will emerge. Such group wisdom would require that as a society we reach new levels of citizen education and citizen engagement. Reaching such levels will not be easy — but there is simply no other option.

    It seems useless to speculate about alternate forms of government. We are not going to change our form of government. Our only hope for a good future is to make the form of government that we already have work as it should.

  • Original Eric

    Hi Mike,

    This is Eric (Eric on April 10th, 2008 11:13 pm–not the other Eric); I think the three of us (you and I with David Mathews–actually all of Kettering Foundation) are agreed on the importance of making our representative democracy/federal republic work.

    Kettering has blazed the trail you’re seeking (see: Framing Issues for Public Deliberation: A Curriculum Guide for Workshops). One important discussion to have is how high school civics can promote responsible citizenship–since that sets a baseline for all citizens.

    Ohio’s Academic Content Standards for Social Studies are a bit inadequate, and that could be a specific issue to bring to the State Board of Education. Of course, you and i disagree on whether the Montgomery Democratic Party was negligent in its DPS endorsements, so there’s an opportunity for deliberation locally before raising the issue with the State Board.

    Moreover, Dr. Ruddick feels the state’s standards already ask too much of students. Oh well, one person’s kinder & gentler expectations are another’s threat to national longevity…

  • Stan Hirtle

    Can someone explain what they think the differences between a “republic” and a “democracy” are? Mostly Republics are things that are not kingdoms or dictatorships, but then what? It seems like conservatives like the distinction because they like to have the power in the hands of elites, often by bodies of government that are somewhat representative but in large part isolated from the power of outsiders, while democracy suggests that the lower classes might be entitled to some power. Conservatives assume that non-elites will abuse this power, often by looting a public treasury if not otherwise taking away or limiting the power of the wealthy. But where is the line drawn?

    I am not sure our present system is defined by any of these classical political science definitions. We have a system where elites govern subject to some constraint via broad consent of the governed. However the elites have a great deal of ability to manipulate the system to stay in power. The two main methods are private financing of political campaigns, which requires that public officials serve the interests of the wealthy, and the ability to manipulate legislative districts to their own advantage. However there is also the maintenance of power on other institutions of government, courts and specialized boards, as well as the news media, which essentially controls the debate.

    Some may suggest that there is some wisdom of both worlds, in that the elites are best equipped to make wise decisions, sort of Plato like, and since they are the wealthy and trained in getting and keeping wealth, they are most likely increase the wealth of the larger group. Meanwhile the democratic aspects keep them from getting too far out of hand. It does seem that the democratic aspects are getting weaker, more committed to making the rich richer and protecting their abuses than to promoting any sort of common good. Meanwhile Bush and Cheney continually push to expand the power of the President, calling it a “unitary executive” which sounds a lot like a king or emperor.

    For democracy to thrive in complex societies like ours, we have to have institutions through which democratic power can be exercised by ordinary people rather than elites. Just having elections is insufficient because the elites will manipulate the election, something we may recognize more easily when it happens in say, Zimbabwe, than when it happens here. We need to have ways to give feedback from the street level, into the major institutions, and also to combine the views of everyone, so that it is not the elites running things from the top down. The theory is not that the person on top knows everything but that the larger group knows everything and the leader’s job is to bring that out. This may be considered enlightened orgnization theory but in practice that tends not to happen. You have a lot of things done for appearances, or things like focus groups which essentially take wisdom without providing power in exchange. This of course makes some demands on the public to participate with some initiative and integrity, which today’s strressed working parents do not always have time or energy left for. However government and corporate boards should have to share power with some non-elite people (who are not necessarily captive or seeking approval, but actually act independently) where the non-elites really do have some power. That would be a more democratic system.

  • Original Eric

    Stan writes, “For democracy to thrive in complex societies like ours, we have to have institutions through which democratic power can be exercised by ordinary people rather than elites.”

    Does this address your concerns: “We anticipate that 60-80 people of various backgrounds will participate in small group forums in each of seven communities, for total regional participation of approximately 500 people. These local forums will culminate in a regional forum attended by at least 10 representatives of each community and approximately 30 ‘thought leaders’

    The theme of Reclaiming Public Education by Reclaiming Our Democracy iis restoring democratic localism to public school district governance. This would increase the influence of community members at the (near term) expense of “elites.”

  • The fundamental problem with America’s system is the complete lack of faith in it. I think it is much more of a partisan ploy than anything else but then again the approval rates of our representatives are at all time lows….

    Eric interesting point about high school civics. I am studying to be a social studies teacher 7-12 and feel I will be forced to teach water downed propaganda rather than anything that will resonate with anyone. So much of the civics course is spent on what I consider ancient history without regard for the application of it in todays society (way too much time spent on the founding fathers and pre civil war America). Instead of working from history to present I wish to work present to history…..

  • Original Eric

    J.R. writes, “way too much time spent on …”

    J.R., this sounds more like a course of study or pacing guide than the state’s actual academic content standards, or even the state’s model lesson plans. Local districts are free to adopt the state’s material, including weighting it as they see fit.

    Examples of the state’s model lessons include Mansa Musa and Rousseau. From J.R. comments, these could be deemphasized in favor of other content standards like these:

    3. Explain how an individual participates in primary and general elections including:
    a. Registering to vote;
    b. Identifying the major duties, responsibilities and qualifications required for a particular position;
    c. Becoming informed about candidates and issues;

    Thoughts, anyone?

  • T. Ruddick

    Well. no one seems to be addressing Stan’s query.

    In a pure democracy, decisions are made by the majority of all eligible voters.

    In a republic, eligible voters elect representatives who then decide on all matters of law or policy through their majority votes.

    Now, constitutional democracies and republics are those that, in addition to featuring a “majority rules” decision-making process, also retain a core document that defines certain rights that the government may not abrogate.

    It’s the “constitutional” part, and not the “democracy” or “republic” part, that I think makes America great. Let’s face it, there have been enlightened monarchs and even dictators who have made life good for their citizenry–and there have been US presidents whose disdain for the constitution has cheapened our lives and damaged the nation generally.

  • Stan Hirtle

    Stan writes, “For democracy to thrive in complex societies like ours, we have to have institutions through which democratic power can be exercised by ordinary people rather than elites.”

    Does this address your concerns: “We anticipate that 60-80 people of various backgrounds will participate in small group forums in each of seven communities, for total regional participation of approximately 500 people. These local forums will culminate in a regional forum attended by at least 10 representatives of each community and approximately 30 ‘thought leaders’”

    Probably not. This initiative in Texas sounds more like a focus group, actually made up from a collection of smaller local focus groups. Not a bad thing, and something that might, if the supporting foundations go through with it, start or contribute to an education movement that will do good things. I might well take part in such an event if there was one around here. But there was no indication it has real power, and its recommendations could easily sit on the shelf, while legislatures, school boards or whoever has the power to do something, do nothing or do something different. In fact its probably dependent on the foundations funding it and if they didn’t like it they could just do nothing and kill it. In practice it probably needs either a group of politicians using it to run on (as Ron Paul did with the “Fair” sales tax) or perhaps a movement well funded and smart enough to succeed in passing an initiative petititon. The idea of an initiative petition is more like what I had in mind because it gives the people some power.

    Actually something like that might be good for dealing with the problem of how to do reapportionment of the legislatures. It seems that for a good way of reapportionment so that voters pick officeholders instead of the ther way around, the idea has to be sold from the bottom up. Obviously the politicians won’t do it, and having some professors write a plan that doesn’t have a broad base of people invested in it will not hold up well enough to succeed, as we learned a few years ago.

    What I had in mind was things built in to the structure of running things, not just some people talking about problems and coming up with ideas. Take environmental regulation, which is mostly written by experts and responsive to businesses and their contributions, to the exclusion of others. (Environmental groups like the Sierra Club can be ignored because people don’t vote for presidents and Congressmen based on those issues. This doesn’t mean people don’t care. There are two candidates and maybe a hundred issues, so only a handful will matter. Plus, particularly when people feel powerless and untrusting, they mostly try to evalaute the candidate personally. That might work some in a small community where there are webs of relationships of long standing, and you might run into an official in a supermarket. But how can you evaluate McCain, Hillary and Obama? ) There is an official comment process for federal regulations and anyone can comment, but the government reads the comments and goes where the power (money) is. Supposing they had to get some sort of approval from some stakeholders who are affected (people who drink the water and breathe the air) on a one person one vote basis. There are all sorts of variations of details, where the angels or devils are. Of course few are expert in science, and fewer than a majority seem emotionally committed to it rather than to things ranging from UFOs to scriptural literalism. But while ordinary people may not be competent to evaluate organic chemistry, they should have more influence on the tradeoffs attended to environmental issues than they are.

    Adding these democratic institutions and have them work would require having some social mores that even the powerful can’t ignore. We do actually have some of those. One such more is that we do not impeach American presidents for political reasons or personal unpopularity, although “no confidence” votes are common in European democracies. So neither Clinton nor Bush get impeached for their failings. Similarly blatant packing of the Supreme Court with political or ideological supporters is contrary to American mores. Mores change with time and each generation of course, and one question is how committed Americans are to the reality of democracy, as opposed to just the word or the appearance. Another word like that is “freedom” where the administration talks about it but acts contrary to it.

    You may well need a culture of unofficial public institutions like that Texas initiative to support official democratic institutions, much like you need a country full of softball leagues to support major league baseball. You may also need a lot of blogs like this one where people talk about issues. But you also need to have access to the mechanisms of power. Otherwise someone like Dick Cheney, who has control of them, can say “so what” about what you say, need or care about.

  • Original Eric

    This initiative in Texas … might … do good things. … no indication it has real power … an initiative petition … gives the people some power. … What I had in mind was things built in to the structure of running things, not just some people talking about problems and coming up with ideas.

    A theme from Reclaiming Public Education by Reclaiming Our Democracy is building the civic capacity to run a school district. Once the schools serve a civically-aware public, the civic capacity of the community ought to build on itself. For example, the community ought to support high school students learning to vet candidates for the school board. Everything is already in place to make this part of school district governance–except awareness that everything is already in place!

    … might be good for … reapportionment of the legislatures. … Take environmental regulation …

    Framing Issues for Public Deliberation: A Curriculum Guide for Workshops discusses how to identify a good issue for deliberation. Or starting with an existing NIF issues guide and adapting them to local circumstances might be another approach. But if a community can’t decide expectations for high school civics, tackling global warming might be a stretch. High school civics might actually provide groundrules for citizen participation.

    approval from some stakeholders who are affected … on a one person one vote basis. … ordinary people … should have more influence on the tradeoffs … social mores that even the powerful can’t ignore. … unofficial public institutions … blogs …

    The obvious institution that ought to be responsive to stakeholders is the local school district. Administrators would be wise to win public confidence in deliberative forums rather than risk public sanction through the ballot.

    We’re missing some of the associations (institutions) we need, or perhaps some just need re-invigoration. The Kettering approach provides a mechanism to address wicked problems; can schools, churches, and community organizations provide the necessary institutional support? High school civics classrooms certainly ought to provide a laboratory if we replace the same tired debates with authentic deliberation.

    Would politicians be receptive to problem-solving through deliberation? If deliberation builds common ground, will that draw politicians? Can apportionment, term limits, or campaign funding be productively deliberated and addressed?

  • Original Eric

    Here’s why I believe public deliberation on the need for deliberation in high school civics is a priority for the nation:

    Taxing the Poor: NOW on PBS

    21:12 Susan Pace Hamill: We lost because the tools of democracy don’t work in Alabama. Because much of our population has been undereducated and oppressed to a point that they have lost the ability to use their right to vote in the most constructive way to benefit their lives.

    21:30 Maria Hinojosa: Susan Pace Hamill says the uneven tax system and inadequate spending on education have created an underclass that is unable to participate effectively in a democracy. It’s a downward spiral she fears will spread elsewhere.

    21:47 Susan Pace Hamill: When I go speak in other states–that have not gotten to this point–I tell them, “Do not let this happen to you. Do not let your tax situation and your public education funding and support render huge parts of your people unable to use democracy to better themselves.” That’s where we are here, and I’m afraid that’s where we are going as a country.

    My concern could be addressed by schools adopting National Issues Forums in the Classroom.

  • Stan Hirtle

    “The obvious institution that ought to be responsive to stakeholders is the local school district. ” Interesting idea. Why doesn’t that happen?
    There are a couple of democracy threads going on at once on this website. Underlying issues include
    1. Why do we care? And perhaps as importantly, why don’t the people elected by a supposedly democratic system care? Is democracy an annoyance that gets in the way of what you perceive your real agenda is? What is valuable about it that people would want to take steps to increase its effectiveness?
    2. Democracy presupposes that everyone matters equally, or is at least logically impelled toward that conclusion. Of course that has never been true in practice. American democracy started out saying that only white male property owners counted. We sort of got to where adult citizens in the US except maybe some ex-felons and people who live in D.C. are covered. In the 1960s the Supreme Court had some “one person one vote” decisions that dealt with imbalances in voting power, so that only the US Senate is allowed such imbalances. But soon thereafter, it made decisions on a constitutional right to contribute money to election campaigns (rich and poor have equal rights to do this and also to sleep under bridges) which made the rich count more than the poor. And the Bush v. Gore decision, to the extent that it was not simply a tie-breaker, raised that there are enormous gaps in what we perceive is the right to vote. There are arguments about whether this equal right makes sense when some people have more money, power, influence, character or knowledge than others.
    3. Perhaps the ordeal of election is such that those who eventually succeed feel they have earned the right to do what they please unless their incumbency is threatened, something that rarely happens in say the US Congress. Look at our permanent presidential campaign and how demanding it is and all the flack these people get as the media, bloggers and their opponents scrutinize every word, for its accuracy, sense and sensitivity. Do we wonder that people like Bush and Cheney do what they want and say “so what” when challenged.

    Since I have not read all these books mentioned in these posts, I will instead look back at Dayton school boards. Mostly candidates are nice people who like kids and want to do something good for Dayton education. It is always hard to tell how they will function together as a board and how they will attack the enormous problems facing Dayton. Some have better known names or support from a political party. A few years ago there was a group that ran together on an agenda of good neighborhood school, sold themselves to the public and took advantage of the larger picture, a state effort to rebuild schools, and did well. The larger picture, in this case the proliferation of charter schools that played havoc with enrollment, helped undermine this agenda. Disappointment about this combined with persistent problems with achievement in the poverty-drenched district and the inherent difficulty in getting propery tax increases with so many retired homeowners on fixed incomes, resulted in a defeated school levy and made the school situation even worse.

    Presently there is not a whole lot of stakeholder interest in the schools. There are the people behind the remnants of the desegregation lawsuit, there are people concerned about preserving some of the older school buildings, and there is the business community, which juggles its need for a reasonably educated workforce with its dislike of unions and love of market competition. Community groups like LEAD have asked for particular programs. A school board facing the problems that seem universal in American cities and if anything worse in Dayton because there is so little educated middle class in the City compared to other cities, may very well see its task as passing school levies, managing its unions, administrators and parents, and figure out if any educational strategy (or fad some will say) will improve test scores and allow Dayton kids to compete for positions in college and the workforce with people from elsewhere.
    Do they see democracy fitting in there anywhere? What’s in it for them? And how do they balance the influence of the stakeholders? Should the business community, whose support is required for any school levy, get its agenda on union or charter school issues? Or civil rights organizations that could possibly make legal trouble? Or does it need primarily experts at how to deal with demands of federal and state funders, or have studied the technicalities of education, particularly in poor minority communities? What to do about the suburban areas to which many parents flee, but who may believe they should contribute or perhaps go down with the central city ship?

    The Dayton school board might want some significant public participation in a plan for closing the Achievement Gap in Dayton, and create a basis for region-wide consensus on over-arching educational system goals. It would probably need to believe that this community support would contribute more to its agenda than the time it would take managing this group. That may well be the case, given the present situation.

    However underlying much of the original writing is the idea that democracy has benefits beyond its particular context, in terms of avoiding the kind of alienation, apathy and community breakdown that we see now. Lack of Democracy is “the problem behind the problem.” And we know that many key institutions we have, such as businesses, workplaces, sports teams, the military are not democratic, and even many governments are not meaningfully so.

    Is anyone planning to start a stakeholders institution to interact with the local school board?

  • Mike Bock

    Lots of interesting thoughts here. It’s a great question: ‘What does it take to make our democracy work as it should?

    Stan describes Dayton School Board members as, “nice people who like kids and who want to do something good for Dayton education.” It is good that school board members are “nice.” But, the problem is, our system of public education is failing us — not just in Dayton, but throughout the entire region. Suburban citizens need to wake up to the fact that their schools also are performing very much below what citizens should find acceptable. I wrote this post: A Great Question: How Can We Tell If a School Is Excellent?

    It is nice that our democracy is working to elect people who are nice. But, what we need to figure out is what would it take for our democracy to work so that individuals elected to school boards — to run multimillion dollar, multidimensional, complicated enterprises — are profoundly competent? What would it take for our democracy to elect board members who are sufficiently wise, visionary, focused, dedicated to the public good so that the great potential of public education can be brought to reality?

    Of course this is not just a question appropriate to ask just about school boards, it is important to ask the question about all elected offices. What would it take for our democracy to elect the wise and good leadership that we need to help guide us into a better future?

    My thought is that democracy requires community. And, we are lacking community. In terms of public schools, there are pockets of self-interest — the teachers’ union, the network of school administrators, school employees, charter school operators, school contractors, political parties, etc. — but, I don’t see a community in Dayton, or in other school districts, that is focused on understanding and promoting public education as a vehicle for promoting the common good.

    Stan writes, “For democracy to thrive in complex societies like ours, we have to have institutions through which democratic power can be exercised by ordinary people rather than elites.” I agree, but I would replace the word “institutions,” with the word, “communities.” It seems to me, we already have institutions — school boards, city councils, county commissions, etc. — the problem is, these institutions are not connected to or representative of broad based communities. These institutions are already defined and established by law to be organized democratically, but, too often they are effete organizations, ineffective except to advance personal ambitions or the concerns of special interests. Individuals are elected to serve in elected office via marketing campaigns and via the expenditure of their own personal energy and money — often assisted by pockets or cliques of self interest. But individuals seeking elected office generally are not connected to, and not responsible to, a community of informed citizens whose interest is the common good.

    Deserving particular notice in any analysis of our democracy is the role of political parties. According to law, these organizations are suppose to be democratic, controlled by freely elected Central Committees. Each precinct in Montgomery County can elect one member to each party’s Central Committee, so, a fully functioning Central Committee, for either the Montgomery County Democratic Party or the Montgomery County Republican Party, therefore, could have 548 members. The Republicans just elected a new Central Committee consisting of only 133 members. See post here. And the Democrats, historically, in terms of their organization and procedures differ little from the Republicans. The local Democratic Party and the local Republican Party are included in the institutions that Stan refers to. Imagine the impact on our democracy if our local political parties themselves operated as democratic institutions.

    Imagine the impact if members of these political parties were meaningfully connected to a larger community — to the members of their own party — rather than simply connected to the interests of their own ambitions or the interests of special groups. Imagine the impact if members of a school board were meaningfully connected to the larger community that truly understood the issues facing the board.

    I have posted an article about Grassroots Dayton, a not-for-profit 501C(3). It is an organization that I believe has great potential. Its motto is “Sowing The Seeds Of Democracy,” and my article attempts to think through some approaches as to what “sowing seeds of democracy” might mean. I list five areas for development, and the fifth one says, Grassroots Dayton should define itself as a democratic community and should act as a democratic community.

    I am wondering if and how Grassroots Dayton could develop itself to become an effective democratic internet community. Even a fairly small number of individuals — if dedicated to working together and learning together, dedicated to working as an authentic community devoted to civic action — could create a learning community that potentially could have a big impact on helping democracy in our region work as it should.

    One way of looking at the potential of a citizen community that Grassroots Dayton might start is that it would be a special interest group, a citizens’ group whose special interest would be understanding and promoting the common good. It could be a community that would focus on organizing forums and seminars open to the public via the internet. It would seek to be that larger community of informed citizens that would make the crucial connection to our established institutions –school boards, city councils, county commissions, political parties, etc. — that is so much needed.

  • Original Eric

    How about partnering with high school government classes, developing Issues Forum Guides, and taking them to the larger community?

    “DPS: How do we reconcile stakeholder priorities?” could be the title of such an issues guide.

    “DPS: How do we ensure excellence in district governance?” could be another.

    Or even “Local Governance: How do we empower citizens for effective democratic participation?”

  • Original Eric — Yes, I like your thought about partnering with high school government classes. These next couple of weeks, my goal is to visit as many Montgomery County high schools as possible and to talk with government teachers in each school. I want to understand what the high school government curriculum consists of, how classes are organized, etc.. I want to brainstorm with government teachers possible ways that Grassroots Dayton might be able to positively impact their school’s overall government education program.

    You mention that government classes could produce “Issue Forum Guides” for use in the larger community. I’d like to see examples of what you have in mind. I like the thought that high school student leaders could develop and lead programs in which members of the larger community would be invited to participate.

  • Original Eric

    What happens in high school socials studies has already been negotiated between teachers, administrators, and the local board, typically with a 5-year text adoption cycle. Teachers may be reluctant or suspicious of an offer (I know I would be, given the “Dayton Daily News Owes Democrats An Apology” editorial at grassrootsdayton.org. I’d be surprised if that Democratic Party endorsement reflected high school civics skills or familiarity with Ohio’s K-12 quality policy, so Ellen Belcher makes a good point, IMHO.) Districts need to meet state standards, prepare kids for OGT, etc. all without making waves.

    Consider tapping the NIF network, take a look at Kettering’s Framing issues for public deliberation: a curriculum guide for workshops and NIF’s Discussion Guides on education. The Framing document would need an “executive summary” with mapping to Ohio English Language Arts indicators.

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