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DEMOCRACY in EDUCATION

It’s never Cyclops. It’s never I alone. I’m telling your story whenever I perform” – Lupe Fiasco

Last night during the ‘State of the Union Address’, President Obama pledged many innovations for public education. Of particular note were the following: A) 99% of students with access to the internet thanks to a cohort of private tech companies; B) redesigning high schools to equip students with skills for the new economy; and C) expanded support for teachers. 

The adhesive in these proposed public education band-aids is his ‘Race to the Top’ incentive program that rewards schools for their incremental performance increases. In fact, my city’s school system, Washington, D.C. public schools, received a big shout-out for student-performance enhancement over the prior school year. Focusing on performance by providing incentives is the way of our economic culture. Allowing more voices into the conversation for how to accomplish this is the way of a democratic culture! 

A few short weeks ago, thousands of curious parents and students window-shopped through the Walter E. Washington Convention Center on Saturday, January 11th at the D.C. Education Festival. On display were the district’s public schools, charter schools, and niche programs. The DC Public Charter School Board organized the event that allowed schools to speak directly to parents in an effort to educate them on their options. DC public charter schools are free and available to all DC resident children. These schools conduct lotteries when the number of student applications exceeds the school’s student capacity.   

The true beauty of the DC Education Festival was the exhibition of choices. As rudimentary economic theory espouses; when sellers compete, the buyers will win. Thus, the freedom to market with democratic participation proves its merits again. 

In 1834, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America,

“Every aristocracy which keeps itself entirely aloof from the people becomes impotent – a fact which is as true in literature as it is in politics.” 

My program, Words Liive, had the pleasure of participating in the DC Education Festival. We’re an English language arts curriculum augmentation company. The twist, we augment literature through urban music… indeed through hip-hop. I’ve developed a literary algorithm that guides students in critical annotation of novels, speeches, short stories, poetry, and other literary text. To be sure, Words Liive is an alternative program for English language arts. During the DC Education Festival I had the pleasure of informing several parents, students, and schools about my program. With enthusiastic interest, several people requested follow-ups, one-on-ones, and meetings to plan the use of my program. Laid bare in the open market of exhibitors, I was engaged in a greater democratic process to education.

Public education models that use top-down agendas instead of grassroots collaboration are hopefully a thing of the past. Pulling from Mr. de Tocqueville again, we can observe how he further expanded on the shortcomings of aristocracies by writing,

 “Style will be thought of almost as much importance as thought; and the form will be no less considered than the matter; the diction will be polished, measured, and uniform. The tone of the mind will be always dignified, seldom very animated; and writers will care more to perfect what they produce than to multiply their productions. It will sometimes happen that the members of the literary class, always living amongst themselves and writing for themselves alone, will lose sight of the rest of the world, which will infect them with a false and labored style; they will lay down minute literary rules for their exclusive use, which will insensibly lead them to deviate from common-sense.”

 I agree with this passage and I’m glad the landscape in DC education is looking less like an aristocratic DCPS model and more like a collaboration of DCPS, DCPCSB, and others.

 In his book, de Tocqueville also contrasted the literary functions inside a democracy and an aristocracy by saying, 

“[In a democracy] Ranks are there intermingled and confounded; knowledge and power are both infinitely subdivided, and scattered on every side. Here then is a motley multitude, whose intellectual wants are to be supplied. These new votaries of the pleasures of the mind have not all received the same education; they do not possess the same degree of culture as their fathers, nor any resemblance to them [..] It is however, from the bosom of this heterogeneous and agitated mass that authors spring.”

Reflecting upon his observations of American cultures in education, politics, and literature, Alexis de Tocqueville gave us timeless insights into our democracy. Interestingly enough, in the year 2009, 174 years after Democracy in America was published, one could observe a new event in Washington DC, the epicenter of politics, which featured the very rules of education inclusion and participation being reformulated. Choice and alternatives, the vestiges of that ‘motley multitude’, became the mantras of the day.

In 2009, The DC Education Festival commenced as an annual showcase of the education options for pre-school through adult education. Families are now able to ‘meet and greet’ schools, vendors, and organizations committed to providing a varied supply of educational offerings in pursuit of a more informed decision about ‘who’ they allow to educate their kids. This event is a formal demonstration expressing the district’s decision that public education is no longer simply a top-down mandated set of curricula but rather a more inclusive collaboration of pedagogues, organizations, schools, and families. Jettisoning the traditional appearance of the DCPS ‘aristocracy’, the district’s public education system looks less like a ‘deviation from common sense’.

 I’m excited to be included in this public education revolution. With the progress made in democratizing education in DC, it should no longer be counter-intuitive that the most relevant thinkers and authors of this generation will spring from this ‘heterogeneous and agitated mass’ also known as the Hip-hop generation. Words Liive will certainly be working toward revealing the unexamined genius of the district’s students. You now have this choice. 

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