When education reformers tell us, "we will do what's best for kids," then turn around and use radical behaviorist, "efficiency-based" curriculum experiences on the child, one has a recipe for authoritarian educational experience.
As I examine the kinds of school experiences American children have endured over the past several decades, one can see how standardized testing, competition, data-driven education and a general narrowing of the curricula has dominated the US K-12 educational landscape.
Democratic education is not as it has been characterized by corporate education reformers as a parental choice of placing a child inside a charter school, public school or private school where the bulk of classroom experience remains dependent on rote memorization and cognitive skill exercises for selected response assessments on standardized tests. That kind of choice is Orwellian. The adults have predetermined the educational outcomes in all three of these learning situations and the curriculum is designed to pressurize the experience of children through external motivations. Grades are generated by data. Data becomes a form of classroom currency. Children are situated in the role of "worker bee" laboring for grades, compliant to instructional and task directives. School becomes a place for workplace preparation.
Democratic education is powered by classroom experiences where curriculum is generative, student-driven and authentically creative, a laboratory of democracy where communities, relationships, collaboration and student's ideas are nurtured and generated within a culture of care.
The importance of compassion, intellectual freedom and shared experience in the development of our understanding of the human condition cannot be understated when considering foundational experiences of children in preparation to live in democratic society as adults. This experience comes from observing, communicating, sharing, working, creating and connecting with fellow human beings during one's formative years. This shared experience must come authentically for empathic intelligence to take hold.
Where curricula is standardized, mechanized, bureaucratized and children are pitted against each other and their teachers in a scheme to see who can race to the top, understanding of one another's unique humanity is not attainable. Inside this pressurized authoritarian structure, participants inevitably view fellow human beings as "the other." It's the worst way to develop citizens for participation in democratic society because participants leave the experience susceptible to authoritarianism.
Ronald Reagan's report on public education, "A Nation At Risk," was a political attack on American public education and the intellectual and academic freedom of teachers in it's schools. This report spearheaded the legislative and policy assault from conservatives and neo-liberals to squelch the excess of democracy and educational practices that place child development and unique inborn endowments at the forefront of educational experience.
We are reminded by Jane Healy, Ph.D. about the damage curricula can cause when it ignores childhood and the constant evolving present in the life of the child: "Driving the cold hard spike of inappropriate pressure into the malleable heart of a child's learning may seriously distort the unfolding of the child's intellect and motivation. This self-serving intellectual assault, increasingly condemned by teachers who see it's warped product.... in a society that reveres the speed with which a product can be extruded from the system that has become impatient with the essential process of childhood, that measures children's mental growth like meat on a butcher's scale, and that deifies test scores instead of taking the time to respect developmental needs. Every child is potentially in jeopardy."
Eisner reminds us also that authentic creative learning experience in the school setting is not just the domain of art teachers, but of all teachers.
I am not confident democratic society in the USA can survive with an electorate educated on test and punish accountability schemes. Individuals who endure and survive 16000 hours of test and punish curricula experience during their formative years of childhood are highly susceptible to authoritarian directives, because that is what they have been behaviorally conditioned to do. Defenders of democracy viewing the events of January 6th must ask the question, "How did this happen?" We should remember the educational seeds for the events leading up to the invasion of the U.S. Capitol building were sown long ago.