The Pursuit of Excellence and Democratic Schools

One of the key problems every democratic system must work out for itself is the relationship between the individual and the community. Democracy, taken in its unembellished form as a system of self-government, focuses exclusively on the mechanism for making decisions that affect the overall membership of the group. It deals with such issues as freedom of expression, procedures for debate, and specific methods for reaching conclusions. Its chief doctrine is that the preponderance of numbers – whether simple majority, or 2/3 vote, or whatever – ultimately decides every issue for the entire group, and that all must peaceably accept the validity of decisions reached this way, and conform to them in everyday life.

Majority rule, however, does not have sufficient breadth to give character to a socio-political system. The character comes from the relationship between individual persons, with their unique needs, and the community as a whole, with its democratically defined aspirations. It is the specific way this relationship is defined that defines the character of a society.

Of course, other forms of social organization – anarchy, tyranny, monarchy, etc. – have to deal with the same problem. My concern here is with democracy, because that is the chosen system of this country, and specifically because one of the crucial questions we are facing today is how to re-organize our schools to prepare children to be effective adult members of our democratic society.

The major concern expressed by critics of democracy from ancient Greek times to the present is its tendency to be a leveler. The argument goes directly to the key doctrine of majority rule. Since a democracy follows the inclinations of its masses, the critics have been almost unanimous in predicting that the least common denominator will always prevail. Innovation, creativity, boldness, difference of any sort, will–so the critics say – always be drowned out, even eradicated, by the mediocrity of the great mass of humanity, which democracy elevates to be rulers over all. Excellence in any form will be frowned on and ultimately suppressed.

This concern originated from observation of the fate of early democracies, such as those in ancient Athens and Rome, and the similar fates that befell later societies that adopted the ancient models. A deeper understanding of the real nature of the problem did not come about until modern times, and emerged gradually from a completely different quarter – namely, from social philosophers who studied the problems of the aristocratic/monarchic form of government. These thinkers devoted their energy to analyzing the problems inherent in an autocratic society, especially those problems that tended to build up in force over time, and eventually lead to explosive upheavals in society.

What slowly came to light was the role of the individual as a societal force. Shrewd observers began to realize that each person is born with the ability to formulate for themselves a complete world view, containing among other things a full set of personal aspirations, goals, needs, strengths, and indeed even potentials for creative genius. Every individual starts out having strong inclinations to live in accordance with their world view, as well as having internal personal mechanisms to modify their world view and bring it into harmony with external reality. To the extent that society is flexible enough to accept a large variation of individual world views, there can be long-term social stability. However, when a community’s government becomes too restrictive in the range of individual variation that it allows, a tremendous internal tension within the society builds up and threatens to blow it apart. Each person, stymied in reaching their individual realization, becomes a time bomb, threatening to set off a chain reaction of individual explosions that will ultimately bring about the disintegration of the repressive society.

This was the situation that prevailed before the French Revolution, and every subsequent violent upheaval that shook various corners of the globe. All of these took place within extremely autocratic societies, but the tension between the individual and society is equally applicable to democracies.

This state of tension informs the unique traditions of British constitutional law, and most particularly has shaped the extraordinary system developed over three and a half centuries in what is now the United States of America.

The special kind of balance that has evolved in our country between rule of numbers and rights of individuals is at once easy to describe and extremely difficult to understand and to keep operating smoothly. Let’s look at the easy part first – the formulation of the basic American social doctrine. That doctrine avers that (1) communal decisions must be made democratically at every level of government; (2) each individual in society has inherent, inalienable rights that cannot under any circumstances be impinged upon by the communal government. (Note that this partially limits doctrine #1, and hence has built into it conflict between #2 and #1); and (3) mechanisms must exist to review peaceably all aspects of (1) and (2), including their very validity (a doctrine that can conflict with both #1 and #2 and hence has built into it ongoing emotional and intellectual tensions that permeate society).

Thoughtful analysis of this American system shows how delicate and complex it really is. Take, for example, something that appears simple and basic: the ringing statement in our Declaration of Independence, so often quoted, that it is a “self evident” truth that every person is born with “inalienable” rights, including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” How inalienable is the right to life? Does it extend to murderers? Does it extend to unborn children? Does it extend to persons who are drafted to serve in the army? These questions have deeply divided our society for centuries, and will doubtless continue to divide us as long as human beings can think. The point is not that our Constitution, or our system of government, has figured out all the answers; nor even that we have figured out all the best methods and procedures for obtaining answers. The point is that, over hundreds of years of groping and seeking and, at times, violently confronting each other, we have agreed to go on dealing with these questions, and hundreds of other similar ones, within an overall framework of deep respect for individual variation, and deep suspicion of societal infringement on personal liberty.

Therein lies the crux of the uniquely American approach. We Americans zealously protect our ‘personal space,’ and willingly accept a large amount of individual variation within our society. It goes even further than that: we respect and admire personal variation. We have created a way of life that encourages genius, heroism, eccentricity, and every form of excellence, and asks only in return that each and every person grant the same respect for difference to everyone else, and work together to protect that way of life. We demand the full cooperation of every person in the everlasting struggle to preserve the right of maximal individual variation. Only an American can appreciate this paradox.

We have institutionalized this special brand of group cooperation plus individual self-expression in countless rituals, ceremonies, and activities. Our national sport, baseball, exemplifies it as a perfect archetype, a fact often noted. We have developed mechanisms of information exchange that make it possible for the most outlandish ideas to be heard widely; and we have developed mechanisms of economic production – large corporations, for example – to maintain a certain lumbering stability and inherent mediocrity as a bulwark against uncontrolled wild fluctuations. Of course, our best efforts have often not been good enough. Despite everything, we ended up fighting a civil war. Despite everything, we went through a Great Depression. Despite everything, we managed to exclude from our definition of humanity black Africans and native Americans. But we have been, over the centuries, relentless in our pursuit of redress for the imbalances that we have found in our midst.

Our country’s full-throated support for individual excellence has had deep repercussions for the way we have educated our youth. We start from the assumption that every person, however humbly born, has the ability and innate desire to reach the greatest heights of personal achievement. In addition, we have always understood that part of the individual drive to function well is the desire to measure oneself against existing models of excellence.

All you have to do is watch any child, the younger the better, as they struggle with the task of maturing. Invariably, they choose to challenge themselves with tasks that tax all their skills, repeating them over and over until they become adept. Almost always, they prefer the harder challenge to the easy one, the higher mountain, the more difficult tree to climb. Indeed, the more access children have to models of excellence around them, the more they thrive, the harder they work, without the necessity for any outside encouragement or discipline or inspiration, other than the very existence of the models they see. The American way of life, our special kind of democracy, is fully committed to this special kind of education by exposure to excellence.

These considerations have special significance for the operation of democratic schools in our country. They underlie the concept of an open campus, where children are free to explore any aspect of the community-at-large that they wish to study. They underlie the major part played by internship and apprenticeship programs, whereby students are exposed in an organized manner to the work of outside masters. They underlie the importance of procedural mechanisms, through the democratic School Meeting or some other agency established by it, for students to obtain the resources they need in the course of their progress to higher levels of mastery.

Most of all, these considerations underlie a proper understanding of the role played by adult resident staff in the school. More than anything else, staff has to serve as role models for excellence for the students as they grow up. Over the years, the staff at school spends more time around the students than any adults other than the students’ immediate families. It is to the staff that students often look as they hone their skills against those of the adult world. It is against staff performance that they often measure their own. Students observe in minute detail the intellectual abilities, the ethical standards, the aesthetic preferences, the interpersonal skills, the caring, the tolerance, the hard work, the commitment of each and every staff member. Students see better than anyone the strengths and weaknesses of each staff member, and constantly relate these to their own strengths and weaknesses.

It is as role models that the staff plays its most important part in the life of the school. Towards this end, it is crucial that each and every staff member exhibit before the community, to the very best of their abilities, the full range of their skills. The more the staff has to show by way of excellence, the better the models against which the children hone their own skills. For this reason it is not only important, year in and year out, for the school to be staffed by adults who are capable of excellence, but it is just as important for the staff to exhibit in their daily activities the highest level of competence which they can attain. Examples of this abound, but perhaps nowhere is the point clearer than in the context of the school’s official bodies. Staff members, along with students, participate in the School Meeting, the Judicial Committee, and in various School Corporations (special-interest groups) and Committees. The students observe with intense concentration the way the staff expresses itself and comports itself in these situations. Through such observation, students gradually learn how to collect and organize their thoughts, how to express themselves orally and in writing, how to debate an issue, how to compromise, how to listen to opposing points of view, how to accept defeat and victory, how to think through a knotty problem, how to be compassionate, how to be just, how and when to lighten up and laugh, how to show respect, and a hundred other similar subtleties that make up gracious, effective, competent adult behavior without in any way compromising individuality and creativity. The only way staff can be really helpful to students as they grow in all these many areas is by displaying the best the staff members themselves have to offer.

The pursuit of excellence in a democratic school is something particularly suited to this country’s socio-political system. To the extent that the school is a relevant factor in the development of effective citizens, it must encourage individual excellence through the modeling of its adult staff, and through every avenue that makes excellence available to the students in their environment. Anything less than this would be unsuitable as a school environment for children growing up in the U.S.A.

Copyright © The Sudbury Valley School Press, Inc. ®

The views expressed on this page are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Sudbury Valley School.