From Adult Rule to Participatory Democracy
Kelly Patrick Gerling, Ph.D.© 2000
In 1986, who would have believed it? Who would have believed that ten years later, in 1996, Mandela would be president, and that white rule in South Africa would be over. Or that Germany would be reunited, and that communist rule in East Germany would be over. And yet it happened. The result? For many it means more hope, more freedom, more productivity, more opportunity and more fulfillment. Yes, for South African blacks, who have been subject to white rule and East Germans who had been subject to communist rule, people notice that the rising sun sparkles gold, democracy rings and the human spirit emerges from the shadows. Meanwhile, back in our schools, the learners still await their revolution.

Democracy is a Subject, Not a Reality
While Germany and South Africa abolished communist rule and white rule, in our schools, adult rule reigns supreme. This form of educational dictatorship denies students meaningful participation in decision making. Can learners participate with real authority in curriculum design? Nope. In classroom learning process design? Nope. In hiring teachers or dealing with incompetent or ineffective teachers or administrators? Nope. Can students have a free press? Nope. How about equal access to school eating, drinking, and bathroom facilities? Nope. Can students even evaluate teachers? Nope. Of course, this is nothing new. I'll bet that you were subject to this same dictatorial system of adult rule and adult/youth apartheid. I certainly was. They taught us about democracy in a dictatorial school that denied us democratic participation. The practice is still nearly universal. And it is deeply rooted in our culture.

A Riddle
I've got a riddle for you: What is the word that means "unimportant" that legally refers to all K-12 individuals? Think about it . . . if you haven't figured it out yet, I'll give you a hint. It is the root word of the word "minority."

In the traditional system, K-12 learners are unimportant "minors" ruled by important "majors" (adults) who deny them democratic participation in the mini-society of the school. If you are still not sure about this, go into any traditional school, public or private, and do the following. Pretend the students are black and the adults, the faculty, are white. What will you see? Here's my list:

• White-only bathrooms (they are marked "faculty only").
• A white-only restaurant (it's marked "faculty only").
• A white-only gathering place (teacher's lounge).
• A white-only parking area (teacher and staff parking).
• Blacks require special ID cards (hall passes).
• Blacks are addressed by their first names and whites are addressed by their titles. ("Yes sir, Mr. Jones" . . . "Thank you, Johnny.")
And this is only the surface. Apathy, a profound lack of interest in learning, and a lack of mutual respect between faculty and students too often, run deeply. The infinite enthusiasm of kindergartners becomes "I hate my homework!" after just a few years of the enormous barrage of "have-to's" and demeaning rules forced on the students by adult-rule.

Rebellion and Work Slowdown
In the inner city schools, we see outright rebellion with crimes in schools increasing rapidly.1 Overall teenage violent crime is rising dramatically. 2 And the crimes processed by the juvenile courts are increasing geometrically across the United States.3

Today, in many inner city schools, weapons detectors screen students as they come through the school doors. Drop-out rates for high schools in these areas exceed 50% across the United States. A system of freedom with responsibility, of participatory democracy instead of adult rule could help eliminate these problems in the inner city.

And what about schools in the suburbs? In suburban "good" schools, the tactics against adult rule are different. There, while violence is on the rise, widespread apathy and indifference to subject-based learning constitutes a "work slow down" — an old union bargaining tactic. In the 1970s, airline pilots would engage in work slow downs to bog down the system and win concessions from negotiations with management. Jets would literally fly at minimum speed, cruising from city to city making sure that every flight was late, thereby causing such problems in the entire transportation system of America that management had to capitulate. This work slow down is by no means a conscious strategy employed by organized unions of students. (Now there's an idea!) Rather, it is an unconscious response (along with many so-called ADHD-diagnosed students) that arises from nearly any person, young or old, held captive by a dictatorship, however totalitarian or benign it may be.

The fact that community colleges and every major university must offer virtually the same basic courses high schools offer, amounts to one thing—most high school students learn very little about the subjects they are forced to take in the K-12 traditional system.

What do students say?
Most of my data on suburban schools comes directly from periodic focus groups (leadership presentations) I conduct with student leaders in Kansas City area high schools, both public and private. The dialogue (greatly abbreviated) goes something like this:

"What is the purpose of your high school?"
Answer: "To teach us the subjects and the curriculum."

"How long is your lunch period?"
Answer: "It is 40 minutes long." (25-60 minutes)

"What percentage of your conversations during lunch involve discussing with interest or enthusiasm the subjects you are learning?"
Answer: (laughter) "Zero. Maybe two minutes. Maybe 5%."

"What does this mean to you?"
Answer: "Subjects are what we have to do, not what we want to do. We talk about what WE are interested in -- sports, relationships, teachers we don't like, teachers we do like, and stuff outside of school. If we discuss class, it's usually about grades."

My conversations with students suggest a wide-spread apathy and disinterest in the adult-imposed subject curriculum. I interpret this as a response to the dictatorship of the teachers and administrators in the traditional school—adult rule. Young people may or may not do what adults tell them to do. However, they almost always do what we do. Language learning is a compelling example. Of course there are many more examples.

If we listen to learners, they will listen to themselves and us. If we don't listen to them, they won't listen to us. If we insult and humiliate them, they will do the same to us. If we respect their ability to make decisions, they will respect our ability to make decisions. If we don't, they don't.

If we want to help young people learn democratic values, then let's involve them in democratic processes — where it matters — in their two communities: the school and the family. Such a policy of learning facilitators demonstrating in their behavior the curriculum they are drawing out of the learners is inherent in the design of many alternative, student-centered programs.

Is this Kid-Rule?
What? The kids are in charge! No, this does not mean "kid-rule." Schools that eliminate adult rule need not resemble Lord of the Flies. With the right leadership, they will demonstrate participatory democracy involving four distinct groups—learners, parents, educators, and administrators.

Any person from any group can make proposals to the other three groups. When there is disagreement, that's when we'll negotiate.

Schools with participatory democracy will not have separate eating, dining, or bathroom facilities for older and younger people. Learners will be encouraged to pursue their interests. Learners and learning facilitators will be on a first name basis. Parents will be encouraged to join learners in supporting their projects. Learning facilitators will help learners and their parents work and play together. And while learners develop their projects, learning facilitators will demonstrate, facilitate, and encourage the Curriculum Triad I advocate: healthy human development, effective communication strategies, and project-based learning.

Democratic processes in a new educational system will demonstrate the power of human freedom, the necessity of human responsibility, and the creativity, genius and enthusiasm of young people who are released from the chains of institutionalized adult rule. We need to listen to what they want. To quote one of the teenage students in one of my leadership workshops:

"I think that putting students in the kind of position where faculty gives them trust and responsibility, will make us more aware of some of the practical needs of the school. Then we will be more likely to understand why the administration does what they do. I don't think many students will just sit there and think only about what's going to be fun. Most of the time, students will take responsibility when we are given that kind of responsibility."

Democracy in Action
And there are successful prototypes from which we can learn from. And there are successful prototypes from which we can learn from. The Sudbury Valley School is a good one. Here’s some info on their democratic system:

For over 25 years the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts has used a model of traditional American democracy to govern the day-to-day life of its community members. Children from age 4 have the same ability and right to present issues, make their voices heard, and vote on all aspects of school governance. They have developed a judicial system to fairly handle grievances. The judicial process applies equally to both adults and children. The system evolved over 25 years, not by adults saying: here are the options, now you kids vote. Rather the children were equal participants in developing rules and agreements to live by.

Sudbury’s view of the role of adults is interesting: “The adults at SVS are the guardians of the children’s freedom to pursue their own interests and to learn what they wished. They are also there to answer questions and to impart specific skills or knowledge when asked to by the students.” (Sudbury Valley School Experience, Sudbury Valley School Press, 1987) page 179.

“The day-to-day life of the school is governed by the School Meeting, both directly and through its various agents. The School meeting consists of all the people at school on a day-to-day basis —namely, all students and staff, each of whom has a vote. (As a practical matter, students greatly outnumber the staff. This really keeps the staff on its toes....) The School meeting has full operational authority to run the school . . . spends the money, hires (and fires) the staff, passes all the sets up all sorts of administrative social context, there is no freedom without responsibility, no liberty without accountability, no democracy without wisdom. And some students appear to be pursuing this responsibly, through the courts.

15 year old Sarah Yearout got her campaign speech censored on January 6, 1995. And it was not because of vulgar, profane language. Nor was she calling for violent revolt. No, her speech was censored because she was critical of administrative communication and administrative review of student speeches. Now she is suing Clackamas High Schools in Milwaukie, Oregon. 4

I personally admire young people who use the courts (how civilized!) to pursue their rights. (That's what Rosa Parks did, and civil rights happened!)

I think students should have all the rights accorded to citizens by the Bill of Rights. Let's give young people in schools the right to privacy, protection against illegal search and seizure, free speech through uncensored speeches and student newspapers, and all the rest.

Is it really surprising that the young people in the world's oldest continuous democracy would want a piece of the democratic action? It was the college student movement in the 1960's that got 18 year olds the right to vote in 1971. Perhaps a new younger student movement in the 1990's will help democracy reach further into schools, helping them get ready for the democratic empowerment movement taking shape in today's corporations.

And more could result as well from this movement away from adult rule to participatory democracy. Helping young people learn democracy through living it portends a really cool scenario: it'll hasten the shift in the nation states from representative democracy to the obvious next form of democracy — direct electronic democracy.

Today, we look with amazement at the rapid abolishment of white rule in South Africa and communist rule in East Germany over the past few years. I deeply hope that in the year 2010 we can look back at the ten years after 2000 with equal amazement, having witnessed a revolution in education that abolished adult rule over millions of young people — a revolution that replaced the old traditional system with a new one that unleashes enthusiasm for learning.

Learners will live up to the responsibilities we entrust them with, however noble or trivial they may be.

The next century is in the hands of young people, and humanity could use a good century. Prototypes, well conceived, implemented, researched and marketed, can be an enormous catalyst for positive change. They represent the powerful threat of a good example. I hope you'll help prove that adult rule is inappropriate for accelerated learning and that young learners can be entrusted with real democratic participation in their learning communities -- their schools.


1. Reports of school crimes jumped 16% in the 1994-95 school year. Reports of sex offenses skyrocketed in the 1994-95 school year, and almost 7,200 weapons of all kinds were found. (Source: NYC Board of Education)

2. Arrest rates for violent crimes among juveniles ages 10 to 17 jumped 100 percent between 1983 and 1992. The homicide rate among kids 14 to 17 rose 165% from 1984 to 1994. Peak time during which kids age 6 to 17 commit violent crimes is 3 to 6pm. (Source: Nat.Center for Juvenile Justice, 1995)

3. In 1991 juvenile courts in the United States processed 1,338,100 delinquency cases (adults). Juvenile courts handled 5% more delinquency cases in 1991 than in 1990 and 16% more than in 1987. The largest increase over the five-year period was in violent crime cases,an increase of 54%. The high volume violent offense cases of robbery and aggravated assault increased by 35% and 69% respectively.(Source: National Center for Juvenile Justice, 1995)

4. " Senior sues for the right to critique school”. The Oregonian. January 22, 1996.

Kelly Patrick Gerling, Ph.D. contributed to a book titled, Creating Learning Communities, published by Solomon Press, 2000. This book, edited by Ron Miller, contains many chapters that convey the ground-breaking, innovative work of alternative, student-centered, democratic education. Many variations of effective approaches and methods of education are highlighted. Getting this book will give you both examples of superb educational practices as well as ways to contact innovative educations with experience in creating learning that respects the values of young people. Here is where to get the book:
Foundation for Educational Renewal
PO Box 328
Brandon, VT 05733-0328 USA
Phone: 802-247-8312

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