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Classical Schools Are Not Democracies

Classical schools do not market themselves as democracies. They do not structure their authority or decision-making practices on explicitly democratic ideals. In the interview process, no one brings up voting or citizenship. Why, then, bring up democracy and its relationship to classical schools? 

 Americans are a deeply democratic people. The democracy that is infused into their mental and spiritual bones comes with them when they join a classical school, and the system of individual rights, voice, and vote is present in every discussion about authority, individuality, and power.  Teachers, administration, staff, and families all bring these democratic expectations and thought processes which reside under cover, hidden in their assumptions, expectations, and practices. This should be recognized and avoided because not only can democracy be corrupted by individuals, but it is sometimes inappropriate as a form of governance and unfitting as a way to relate to the authority figures within an institution. It remains at present a lurking specter ready to kill any classical institution that challenges it too directly with any potent force.  

 Throughout America’s history, democracy has been touted, looking back to the Greeks and Romans, as the supreme form of government. Democracy has excellent things about it. Indeed, most American churches in the 21st century are congregationalist. Many modern businesses adopt democratic practices. Why shouldn’t a classical school do the same? After all, the real danger stands with authoritarian hierarchy. Anything resembling a monarchy is going to be tyrannical. Instead, democracy always receives the grace and favor of the people. Because it functions on the importance (and supposed uniqueness) of the individual, it is elevated to a place of great honor, “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” as Lincoln said. However, Americans default to democratic practice and act with the understanding that democracy is always the starting point for any institution, including a school, and this is not true.  

 Even Constitution of the United States resides above the quick, impatient sway of any present generation, requiring a substantial movement to be overhauled or amended. In the same way, classical schools do, and should, stand above the heavy sway of any particular generation, looking instead to the past and the tradition. This will inevitably make them seem anti-democratic to the present generation, but it will help them avoid the dangers that bowing to the collective, democratic voice might bring.  A classical school is an old thing. A classical school loves old things; it loves wisdom; it loves virtue; it loves ideas that have endured across time that are lovely, beautiful, and true. And while the institution itself is usually young, the ideas it upholds are ancient and do not belong to any single generation. 

 In practice, how can families and faculty manage their democratic expectations within a classical school? A classical school cannot be too careful to avoid the loudest and most popular voices. Too often, the people that clamor for change in particular areas are asking for their classical school to “catch up” with the present. They want a school oriented toward career, college, or grades. Democratic expectations concerned with the present can dangerously move a classical school away from its roots. If it has founded itself on the love of old things and stayed the course, a classical school has no need of a loud or substantial voice to sway it in any direction. It does not need democracy.   

 Parents must remember that just because they (most likely) pay to have their student at a classical school, they are not paying for a vote to sway a teacher’s or an administrator’s decision-making processes.  A classical school is not a democracy because classical pedagogy, the tradition of great books, classical curriculum, and the telos of an honest, traditional classical education, is not something elected. A classical school is only a democracy in so far as it is, as G.K. Chesterton put it, “a democracy of the dead.”  

 Furthermore, classical schools are not democracies for faculty. The danger to the school caused by faculty and staff is different than that caused by parents. Inside knowledge of the procedure, structure, vision, and direction gives teachers a different approach to “casting their vote.” Teachers are equally susceptible, thinking that classical schools should function democratically. In fact, teachers can threaten the philosophical integrity of the school by insisting on a democratic culture within a classical school. A faculty is not a congress. Teachers, like parents, carry the cultural baggage of democracy from political and possibly religious contexts. Certainly, the voice of the teacher is valued by the school, or they would not have hired that teacher. However, democracies are dependent upon more than voice. Teachers must remember two things. First, they do not bear the privileges of decision making, because they do not bear the responsibility of decision making. Second, every American teacher brings with them a democratic expectation that needs to be guarded against when vocalizing their opinions. Believing that change is expected results directly from democratic tendencies. Believing that decisions decided upon, or the school’s direction in general, should be governed by collective, vocal, or most popular vote within a faculty is unfitting because it threatens a school’s integrity. 

 The political and religious democratic tendencies that we Americans adopt come to bear on the way we relate to all institutions. It shapes those institutions. Often, parents and teachers wish that most classical schools were more democratic in nature, or at least they wish that it would be more democratic toward them. Because democracy is so embedded in our wider culture, it finds itself as part of school culture. However, a classical school that wants to “build positive school culture” can never be too careful to avoid democratic tendencies, and it will only bow to the democracy of the dead. Submitting to tradition, it will listen chiefly to the past.
 

 

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