OK, Obama Won. Now What?

It’s official. Barack Hussein Obama has been re-elected.

Now what?

When it comes to public education, let’s start by recognizing that Race to the Top was well-intentioned — and ultimately out of step with a truly transformational vision of where American schooling needs to go. Yes, we need better ways to improve teacher quality and capacity; no, we can’t do it by doubling down on what we currently measure. Yes, we need to find a way to ensure equity across all schools; no, we can’t do it by ignoring the ways in which schools are inequitably funded and resourced. And yes, we need to ensure that every young person is prepared to be successful in life by the time they graduate; and no, we can’t do it by continuing to assume that the endgoal of schooling is a discrete set of content knowledge at the same time the new Industrial Revolution is removing all the barriers from knowledge acquisition — and accelerating the need for an essential set of lifeskills and habits.

The definition of leadership I offered in American Schools is the ability to balance a distant vision (“One day . . .”) and an up-close focus (“Every day . . .”). Great organizations, whether they’re schools or Fortune 100 companies, see, nurture, and respond to both mission and vision in everything they do. That’s the tension. That’s the art. And that’s the way to ensure that we’re not just solving the practical problems on our plate; we’re also working towards the aspirational goals that animate our efforts.

In Obama’s first term, we received a series of education policies that addressed the problems on our plate; and we were driven by a mission to perfect our ability to succeed in an Industrial-era system that no longer serves our interests.

What would a healthy tension between vision and mission look like in an ideal second term when it comes to public education? I’d suggest three things:

1. Vision (“One day, every teacher in America will be a special education teacher.”); Mission (“Every day, every school and teacher preparation program will work to deepen its capacity to prepare teachers for the 21st century classroom and its emphasis on greater personalization and customization.”)

Let’s begin by stating the obvious: every child has special needs, and every child deserves an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Here’s something else that’s equally obvious: we are responsible for creating the “short-bus” stigma around special education, and we can change it.

Finland is instructive here. By investing deeply in the capacity of its teachers to diagnose and address the individual needs of children, Finland helped ensure that, in effect, every kid ended up in Special Ed. This removed the stigma, so much so that by the time they reach 16, almost every child in Finland will have received some sort of additional learning support. We could do the same. President Obama can’t require traditional and alternative teacher preparation programs from overhauling what they do, but he can certainly put public pressure on them to do so. And individual schools and districts can certainly shape their own professional development calendars with an eye toward that long-term vision, and a step toward the short-term goal of equipping teachers to become more fluent in the full range of student needs.

2. Vision (“One day, every child will be equipped to use his or her mind well and in the service of a more just and harmonious society.”); Mission (“Every day, every school and classroom will identify, and assess, the skills and habits it believes its graduates will need in order to use their minds well and in the service of a more just and harmonious society.”)

As I’ve said before, it’s time for teachers to stop defining themselves as passive victims of the policies of No Child Left Behind. It’s been a decade, and no one has stopped us from identifying — and then piloting — a better, more balanced way to assess student learning and growth.

Actually, that’s not true. The New York Performance Standards Consortium has been doing this for awhile now, and with great results. Individual schools like The Blue School in New York City or Mission Hill School in Boston have been doing it. And forward-thinking districts like Montgomery County in Maryland are exploring ways to do it more.

What are the rest of us waiting for?

The future of learning is one in which content knowledge stops being seen as the end, and starts being understood as the means by which we develop and master essential skills and habits — the real endgoal — that will help us navigate the challenges and opportunities of work, life and global citizenship. This future will require us to do more than merely give lip service to the skills we value; it will demand that we find ways to concretely track and support each child’s path to mastery, while maintaining our awareness and appreciation for the nonlinearity of learning and of human development. And the good news is the art and science of teaching and learning are not mutually exclusive. We can do this. In fact, many of us have already begun.

3. Vision (“One day, it will be universally agreed-upon that education in America is a public good, not a private commodity.”); Mission (“Every day, every policymaker and decision-maker will repeat this vow: whatever the most privileged parents want for their children must serve as a minimum standard for what we as a community want for all of our children.”)

In America, we hold two definitions of freedom in creative tension: the first is the capitalistic definition, in which freedom means choice and consumption; the second is the democratic definition, in which freedom means conscience and compassion.

This will never change; our challenge will always be to manage the tension between the two in ways that serve both. But it’s foolish to unleash choice and consumption in American public education and expect that it will deepen our capacity to exercise conscience and compassion. We can either see education as a private commodity or as a public good. And we must choose.

That doesn’t mean we need to get rid of charter schools or choice; in fact, I’d say it’s undeniable that almost every great school I’ve visited has become great in part because it had greater freedom to chart its own path. But it does mean any investments in school choice need to be proactively made in light of the original vision of charter schools, and that we stop pretending that schools with smaller class sizes, better-trained teachers, and richer learning options are only appealing or viable for the families of the wealthy or the well-located. Simply put, a great learning environmentis challenging, relevant, engaging, supportive, and experiential — no matter who the kids are, and no matter where the community is located.

If I were in charge, those would be my marching orders.

What do you think?

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

Should Schools be More or Less Democratic?

Like most parents of a young child, I’m trying to decide which environment will be the best for my son when he enters a public school for the first time next fall. At nearly every open house my wife and I attend, cheerful administrators and educators tout the advantage of being a “participatory” school, and of “giving children the opportunity to learn and work in groups.” Send your child here, they tell us, and he’ll acquire a core set of democratic skills – from working collaboratively to acting empathetically – that will help him successfully negotiate our increasingly interconnected global community.

Sounds great, I say – until I open my Sunday New York Times and read a cover story warning against the rise of a new type of groupthink. “Most of us now work in teams,” writes author Susan Cain, “in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in. But there’s a problem with this view. Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.”

Whom should we trust? Have we overvalued democratic skills like collaboration and shared decision-making to our own detriment? And, in the end, should our schools be more or less democratic?

The answer, of course, depends on which values and behaviors we associate with that word – democratic. And the reality is that too often, too many of us – from local educators to federal policymakers – define it in a way that limits our collective capacity to understand what a healthy, high-functioning learning community really looks like, and requires.

In many schools, “democracy” is a subject students study in social studies, or via a special add-on program, or, if your school still has such a thing, in civics class. It’s something schools and districts seek separate grant money to support. And it’s something that, in the end, you learn about – whether it’s the three branches of government or the legislative process or the twenty-seven Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Call it “Democracy via Content.”

In other schools, the word stands for something very different – a philosophy of human interaction that guides how adult decisions are made and how students interact with each other. In these places, what matters most is how the classroom itself is structured (or unstructured), and the messiness of the approach becomes the central message about what it all means. Call it “Democracy via Process.”

Problems arise whenever we overvalue either approach. In an environment where democracy is seen solely as a subject, children memorize their rights but never practice them. And in a classroom where democracy is seen primarily as a process, children sit in circles or work in teams – regardless of whether or not those methods are helping them learn more effectively.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan underscored this point at a recent White House forum. “The goals of traditional civic education – to increase civic knowledge, voter participation, and volunteerism– are all still fundamental,” he asserted. “But the new generation of civic learning puts students at the center. It includes both learning and practice — not just rote memorization of names, dates, and processes.” Harvard’s Tony Wagner agrees, noting that there is a “happy convergence between the skills most needed in the global knowledge economy and those most needed to keep our democracy safe and vibrant.”

In a healthy school, educators know which skills – from collaboration to self-direction – their students must develop to be successful as adults, and which combination of content and processes will get them there. Some days, that might mean working in groups; other days, it might mean listening to an old-fashioned lecture. And every day, it means school leaders are aware of the paradoxical human impulse at the center of any democratic society – a point Ms. Cain makes in her Times article. “Most humans have two contradictory impulses,” she writes. “We love and need one another, yet we crave privacy and autonomy.”

A democratic learning environment honors both needs. That’s why from now on, the first thing I’ll ask at the open house is if the school understands which specific skills it wants to cultivate in its students, and why. I’ll ask which processes the teachers will use to engage kids in their own learning, and why. And when I find a school with clear answers and a clear plan for developing both “choice and voice,” I’ll know where to send my son.

The (Keynesian) Economics of School Choice

In the halls of Congress and on the presidential campaign trail, a debate is raging over which set of economic proposals to pursue in order to rebuild the national economy. At the same time, K-12 education reformers are engaged in their own frantic search for the right recipe(s) that can unlock the full power of teaching and learning. But rarely do we acknowledge that one individual stands, improbably, at the center of both debates – John Maynard Keynes.

Keynes’ influence on economic thinking is well established: ever since 1936, when he first argued the economy was driven not by prices but by “effective demand,” we’ve been in a continual debate over whether outside agencies (like, say, the government) are required to intervene during times of crisis. By contrast, Keynes’ influence on education thinking remains largely invisible – yet most urban school districts across America are being recast in the image of his core theories, particularly the notion that providing more choice in schooling will empower urban parents to drive demand in a new way and, in so doing, unleash a series of tailwinds that can transform public education.

Regardless of how one feels about the move toward greater school choice, it is almost surely here to stay. Consequently, as more and more parents encounter the inchoate marketplace of public school options for their children, we should stop asking ourselves whether school choice is “good” or “bad”, and start asking a different question instead: In what ways can urban parents’ newfound power as education consumers engender more schools capable of giving more young people the skills and self-confidence they need to become active, visible contributors to the public good – a public good that, amidst the din of the ongoing battle between our intermixed democratic and capitalistic ideals, still seeks to fulfill our founding spirit of E Pluribus Unum – out of many, one?

That’s a big question, and I think it’s possible for us to answer it – but only if we understand the extent to which urban parents can actually drive “effective demand” in ways that will ultimately serve their and the larger community’s interests.

I know of what I speak, because I’m the parent of a two-year-old in Washington, DC. Most of my closest friends are also DC residents, and also the parents of children about to enter formal schooling. All of us are spending a lot of time thinking about where to send our kids, and all of us are well-educated and motivated to make the right choices: in short, we are the low-hanging fruit in an idealized marketplace in which knowledgeable parents can drive demand.

But there’s a problem: most of the resources that exist today to edify my friends and neighbors are still reflective of the myopic notion that schools can be meaningfully ranked according to a single measure – test scores. To make matters worse, whereas in theory all families in DC have the same chance to get into the same set of schools, the reality is that most middle-class families will have more of a particularly precious resource than their lower-class compatriots: the time it will take to evaluate and assess which schools are the best fit for their child.

As an example, look at Great Schools, the wildly successful organization that accurately bills itself as “the country’s leading source of information on school performance.” Great Schools receives more than 37 million unique web visitors a year, and it supports parent outreach and education programs in three cities – including here in DC. In a world where parents are feeling overwhelmed and under-informed, Great Schools is the closest thing to a one-stop-shop out there.

The good news is that Great Schools is filled with great information that will be helpful to parents – from individual school data to concrete recommendations about ways to stay connected to their school; build new play structures; start a school library; or identify the attributes of a great principal. Ultimately, however, the main factor fueling Great Schools’ growth is its school ratings system, and the bad news is that each school’s 10-point score is still determined by a single measure – “its performance on state standardized tests.”

The appeal of such a simple recipe is clear; it’s equally clear that such a formula will never drive effective demand. Instead, this sort of rating system is feeding a different beast. Keynes had a name for that, too – he called it our “animal spirits,” and warned that, absent a holistic picture of any given situation, these spirits can lead us “to depend on nothing but a mathematical expectation.” When that happens, Keynes cautioned, “enterprise will fade and die,” and where “effective demand is deficient not only is the public scandal of wasted resources intolerable, but the individual enterpriser who seeks to bring these resources into action is operating with the odds loaded against him.”

In other words, parents and policymakers need to be guided by more than their animal urges for simple answers to complex problems, and schools need to be evaluated by more than one criterion. As Keynes first suggested, 75 years ago, “it may be possible by a right analysis of the problem to cure the disease whilst preserving efficiency and freedom.”

The same sort of recipe can apply to school choice – but only if we prevent ourselves from seeing choice itself as the panacea; it is freedom and efficiency that we need. And until our freedom to choose is matched by our efficiency to help parents better understand what powerful learning looks like – and requires – our future efforts to help parents drive demand are likely to remain as elusive as our current efforts to get many of those same parents back to work.

The Three Most Important Questions in Education

(This column also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

It’s graduation season again – yet nobody seems to be celebrating.

On college campuses, graduates are entering an economy in which the stable career paths of yesteryear are disappearing – and the specialized job opportunities of tomorrow have yet to appear. And in communities across the country, parents and young people are left wondering what exactly those past four years of high school were in service of – and how much, if any, truly transformational learning occurred.

Something’s gotta give. The Industrial-Age model of schooling, which benefited 20th-century generations by serving as a legitimate ticket to the middle class, has clearly run its course. In its place, we need a model for a new age – the Democratic Age. And we need strategies for ensuring that young people learn how to be successful in the 21st-century world of work, life, and our democratic society.

We can get there, but to do so we need to start asking – and answering – the three most essential questions in education reform:

1. How do people learn best?

Over the past several years, a slew of research from a range of fields has helped illuminate a much deeper understanding of what powerful learning actually looks like – and requires. We know the ideal learning environment is challenging, engaging, relevant, supportive, and experiential. And we know that learners of all ages are more motivated when they can apply what they are learning to do something that has an impact on others – especially their local community.

The bad news is that too many schools are still crafting environments in which learning – if you can even call it that – depends less on these attributes than on obedience, memorization, conformity, and a set of requirements first deemed important a century ago.

The good news is that we already have schools across the country lighting a different path. At High Tech High in San Diego, for example, all learning opportunities are hands-on, supportive, and personalized. As school founder Larry Rosenstock explains, “Students pursue personal interests through projects. Students with special needs receive all the individual attention they need. And facilities are tailored to individual and small-group learning, including project rooms for hands-on activities and exhibition spaces for individual work.”

Best of all, the High Tech High model isn’t so precious or rare that our only hope is to remake every other school in its image. Instead, the rest of us can create our own success stories by doing what Larry Rosenstock did – heeding what we now know about how people learn, and operationalizing those insights into an actual school.

It’s environmental standards for learning we need – not a standardization of content or teaching practices.

2. What are the essential skills of a free people?

Whether we intend them to or not, every school is structured to value a different type of citizen. In China, for example – the site of my first teaching experience – the needs of the community are valued more than the needs of any individual. As a result, in the school in which I taught, free expression was discouraged, conformity was encouraged – and China got the citizens it sought.

In the America of the Industrial Age, one could argue we experienced similar alignment. After all, the early 20th century was characterized by exponential growth in its general and school populations, and a stable set of jobs for young people to fill. Today, however, the forces of globalization and democratization have elevated a different set of challenges and opportunities – and, by design, a different set of skills. Yet schools have not caught up to the shift, which is why so many of our graduates are emerging unprepared for the challenges and opportunities of the modern world.

What would happen if every school in America scrapped its current set of graduation requirements, and started over by identifying what it believes to be the essential skills of a free people – in work and in life?

One school in New Hampshire, the Monadnock Community Connections School (or MC2 for short), is already doing this. At MC2, students must demonstrate mastery in seventeen habits of mind and work in order to fulfill the school’s mission statement – “empowering each individual with the knowledge and skills to use his or her unique voice, effectively and with integrity, in co-creating our common public world.” These habits – which apply to every imaginable learning experience, from internships to classes to personal learning that occurs outside school – all have concrete indicators that are delineated in levels ranging from Novice to Expert. And not surprisingly, the habits reflect the skills most essential for the challenges of the Democratic Age – from self-direction and creativity to critical thinking and collaboration. As school founder Kim Carter explains it, “In preparing a student for their chosen post-secondary path, be it college or work, it’s critical to know what skills and knowledge will help to shape the decisions that impact their life.”

Makes sense, right? So what are the rest of us waiting for?

3.     What does it mean to be free?

In the end, our ability to answer the first two questions is in the ultimate service of the third. And yet the reality is that too many of us still understand what it means to be free in terms of the style of jeans we choose to wear, not the quality of ideas we choose to express.

The Founders certainly understood it differently, and so must we if wish to recalibrate our schools for the modern era.  In such a world, what it means to be free would mean having the space to discover one’s full worth – and developing the capacity to unleash one’s full potential.  Our schools and colleges would be places where we proactively created healthy, high-functioning learning environments. And our graduates would know, embody, and be able to apply the essential skills of a free people.

The answers we seek for creating such a system of schools are all around us. We just need to start asking the right questions.

WorldBlu Live – What Would You Do If You Were Not Afraid?

In the early afternoon of the first day of WorldBlu live — a remarkable global gathering of people who share a commitment to organizational democracy — Menlo Innovations CEO Rich Sheridan shared the moment when he knew he was in trouble. “It was Take Your Daughter to Work Day,” he began, “and over dinner, I asked my daughter Sarah what she thought of the experience.

“You must be really important, Dad.”

“Why do you say that, Sarah?”

“Because no one can make a decision without you first giving the OK.”

For Sheridan, his daughter’s candor helped him realize two essential, uncomfortable truths: First, he had created a team that could only move as fast as he could. And second, although he was doing important work, he was also robbing his colleagues of something essential.

Sheridan’s (and Menlo’s) story since then is characteristic of the people and companies that make the annual trek to participate in WorldBlu Live. And at this year’s conference, which is being held at the posh St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco, a sold-out crowd of the most eclectic community you could imagine — from cable company executives to college administrators to online retailers to students and software developers — is actively plotting the biggest and most audacious of goals: seeding a global movement that results in one billion people working in freedom.

WorldBlu founder and CEO Traci Fenton explains: “The shift we are witnessing worldwide is a shift from the Industrial and Information Ages to the Democratic Age. To get there, we must put into practice a fundamental assumption of democracy — that each person has inherent worth and dignity. Currently, most people live and work in environments that are still bound to the command-and-control model, that still govern by fear, and that still deny us the space to be our most creative and fulfilled selves. But we who are here know something powerful: that when we, consciously and deliberately, choose to design our workplaces based on the design principles of freedom — and not fear — we help people and organizations develop the collective capacity to change the world.”

Imagine, then, a two-day program designed to equip people with the skills they need to bring about such shifts in their own communities and organizations. Imagine a mixture of storytelling, breakout sessions, and unstructured time for conversations. And imagine a ballroom filled with people who don’t just believe a vision like Traci’s is possible — but that it’s already underway.

There are many inspiring and illustrative examples worth sharing (and a number of others can be found via the conference Twitter feed — check the #worldblu hashtag). I want to share one with you here: the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, an internationally-renowned group of musicians that has been, for more than 40 years, making beautiful music — and doing it all without a conductor.

“Traditionally,” explains Executive Director Ayden Adler, “classical music has maintained a near militaristic attention to order and hierarchy. Back in 1972 Orpheus decided to accept the challenge of creating its order and beauty out of the multiplicity of voices and ideas that make up the group. We believe that process is directly responsible for the richness and the passion of our performances.”

See below to see for yourself. Stay tuned for further updates, Tweets, and blog posts about this remarkable group of people. And ask yourself, when thinking about your own profession or workspace, what would YOU do tomorrow if you were not afraid?

BOOK TV Coverage of We Must Not Be Afraid to Be Free

This weekend, Book TV aired coverage of the March 19 discussion of my new book We Must Not Be Afraid to Be Free: Stories of Free Expression in America, which occurred as part of this year’s Virginia Festival of the Book.

Aside from a few crowd shots, where it appears people are preparing to have their teeth drilled without novocaine, I think it was an engaging, lively discussion about a topic that is as relevant today as ever. But judge for yourself at http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/298563-1.

In the Middle East & America, Nothing Left to Fear But . . . Freedom Itself

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

As waves of Arab protesters keep taking to the streets in countries across the Middle East, and as panels of Egyptian experts begin revisiting their country’s constitution in the wake of their country’s 18-day revolution, I want to take the infamous FDR line and give it a new ring: “The only thing we have to fear is . . . freedom itself.”

At first blush, this may seem foolish. After all, what aspect of the human condition could be more universal than the need to be free, and the desire to have the space to shape one’s own life and determine one’s own path in the world? And yet, while it’s unquestionable that freedom is the fundamental condition for any real growth, freedom from oppression means little if it is not accompanied by the freedom to fully be ourselves – and not just the freedom to select what type of jeans to wear, or even which politician to vote for. It’s a deeper level of self-actualization that we all seek in that word – and it’s something we in America, two centuries into our own experiment in liberty, are still learning about and struggling to support.

To see this tension played out in the life of a single individual, look no further than the legendary U.S. Supreme Court justice – and FDR appointee – Hugo Lafayette Black. It was Black who became known as the Court’s most absolutist defender of individual freedoms. And it was Black who warned us, back in 1961, that “too many men are being driven to become government fearing and time-serving because the Government is being permitted to strike out at those who are fearless enough to think as they please and say what they think. The choice is clear to me,” Black wrote. “If we are to pass on that great heritage of freedom, we must return to the original language of the Bill of Rights. We must not be afraid to be free.”

Reading these words, it seems incongruous that the Black of 1961 could, in 1969, also write these lines: “Change has been said to be truly the law of life, but sometimes the old and tried and true are worth holding. Uncontrolled and uncontrollable liberty,” he asserted, “is an enemy to domestic peace.”

What had happened in the span of those eight tumultuous years? Had the social unrest of the 1960s caused Black to lose his abiding faith in the constitutional principles of freedom and democracy?  Not exactly.  But he had certainly lost faith in the ability of the nation’s citizens – and particularly its young people – to exercise that freedom productively. In short, the octogenarian Justice whose career had been in the service of expanding freedom, and who had been watching the ways that freedom was being applied in the streets outside his office window – angrily, messily, passionately, violently – had started to doubt whether a truly robust application of free-speech rights was in the best interests of safety, order, and the future of the republic.  “Anything can happen here,” he told a friend, just weeks before his death – on Constitution Day, September 17, 1971.

History has of course shown us that, despite Black’s fears, the republic still stands. And yet Black’s inability to fully maintain his own commitment to freedom in the face of his own personal fears is instructive to all of us – particularly our world’s newest fellow experimenters in democracy. As with all things worthwhile, rough days lie ahead.

For better or worse, America has committed itself to an unprecedented experiment in freedom, an experiment premised on the principle that more speech is better, that more information will produce better judgments, that more knowledge will make more self-realized persons, that more associations and beliefs will make us more open-minded, that more press freedom will benefit society, that more robust expression of all sorts will make us a freer people, and that the more we allow for all of this the better our chances are to discover truth, beauty, freedom, and something about ourselves as well.  That, at any rate, is the operative principle; call it a collective hunch?  On that principle – a core First Amendment principle – we have banked everything.

Freedom also has its costs.  That is precisely why we fear it.  And the freedoms we have long honored – and that Egypt, Tunisia and other countries are now themselves seeking to embrace – is no different.  When liberals or libertarians applaud it, they can all too easily ignore the risks – indeed, the dangers – posed by unchecked expression.  By the same token, when conservatives or conformists rally against it, they can ignore the fact that unchecked demands for security lead all too often to tyranny.

This is not an argument for a “happy medium.” Rather, it is to say that those who love freedom or value security must be mindful of what they wish for. As the great educator John Dewey once warned, “The serious threat to our democracy is not the existence of foreign totalitarian states . . . The battlefield is also accordingly here – within ourselves and our institutions.”

To Honor King, Embody Our Ideals

(This article also appeared in the Huffington Post.)

Today, Americans will pay tribute to the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. with school assemblies, community programs and — to the delight of students and adults alike — a national holiday. Yet few if any Americans, at this crucial time in our nation’s history, will directly connect King’s heroism and accomplishments to his faith in — and use of — our primary tools of democracy, the five freedoms of the First Amendment.

This is a missed opportunity. More so than any other part of our Constitution, our laws or our civic principles as a nation, the freedoms of the First Amendment — religion, speech, press, assembly and petition — embody what it means to be an American. Properly understood and applied, they allow us to expand the promise of freedom more fairly and fully to succeeding generations of Americans, and forge unity in the interest of our diversity, instead of at the expense of it.

Every January, the holiday honoring King provides an opportunity to remember both what the First Amendment demands of us as citizens, and also what is possible when we exercise those rights responsibly in the cause of justice and freedom for all.

Consider, for example, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the iconic 1963 rally that introduced King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to white America — he had delivered those lines in front of black audiences many times before — and produced the most poignant petition for redress of grievances in our nation’s history. Nearly every American is familiar with King’s speech that day. Many of us were asked to memorize it as students. But how many of us were also taught about that day — and the movement — in the specific context of our democratic principles as a nation?

Recall that the march occurred as Congress was wrestling with whether or not to pass President Kennedy’s civil rights program. Recall that young people across the country were being jailed for peacefully assembling to protest the South’s policies of institutional racism. And recall that the quality of our national conversation was still so rudimentary that in the days and weeks before the march, white journalists peppered black commentators with what today seems like a shockingly naïve question — “What is it that Negroes really want?

King and the other leaders of the movement understood that the best way to counter such naïveté and willful ignorance was by utilizing each of the First Amendment’s five freedoms to appeal to the nation’s conscience. So on that historic day, Aug. 28, they presented a program that celebrated the American belief in religious liberty, beginning with an invocation from the Archbishop of Washington and featuring remarks from the president of the American Jewish Congress; they relied on the press to broadcast images of the massive assembly — ABC and NBC even broke away from their regularly scheduled afternoon soap operas to join CBS and broadcast King’s speech in its entirety; and they petitioned for change with emotional appeals to, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “the better angels of our nature.”

Nearly a decade of protest and activism reached its symbolic pinnacle when hundreds of thousands of Americans of all colors gathered in the shadow of Lincoln, in the centennial year of the Emancipation Proclamation, to petition the Congress to establish 1963, in the words of organizer Roy Wilkins, “as the year racial discrimination was ended.”

The rest is history, yet both the glory of that day and its unfulfilled promise provide powerful mandates for parents and teachers. As King said later, the night before he was struck down at the age of 39, the future of democracy is always only as secure as the commitment of its youngest citizens. “In 1960,” he preached, “when students all over the South started sitting-in at lunch counters … I knew that as they were sitting in, they were really standing up for the best in the American dream, and taking the whole nation back to those great wells of democracy which were dug deep by the Founding Fathers in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.”

As much or more than anyone in recent American history, King had a profound understanding of the principles found in this nation’s “great wells of democracy.” And at the heart of his work was an appeal to all Americans to live up to our nation’s guiding principles and ideals.

Let’s remember that this holiday.

The Rally to Restore Sanity . . . Or Anoint a Magic Helper?

With Jon Stewart’s satirical/heretical/fantastical rally now in the books – and with memories of Glenn Beck’s own DC fiesta still a recent memory – I’ve been wondering what, if anything, these two cultural events have in common. As I do, I keep thinking about Erich Fromm’s 1941 classic Escape from Freedom, and how both men seem to be wrestling with the same tension Fromm explored in his psychological exploration of modern man – namely, our dialectical relationship with freedom itself, and what that relationship tells us about ourselves and the societies in which we live.

Fromm’s book appeared just as the Second World War was intensifying (and years before the full weight of human depravity would become universally known). His thesis was that before we can understand the dynamics of any society’s social processes, we must first explore the dynamics of the psychological processes operating within the individual.

Central to all modern societies and individuals, Fromm wrote, was man’s relationship with freedom itself, which he defined as “the fundamental condition for any growth.” Since the structure of modern society and the personality of modern man first began taking shape – beginning with the end of the rigid social structures and limitations found in the Middle Ages, and accelerating after World War One – we have become freer to develop and express our own individual selves and ideas. At the same time, however, we have become freer from a world that gave us, precisely because it was proscribed, more security and reassurance. “The process of individuation is one of growing strength and integration of the individual personality,” Fromm wrote. “But it is at the same time a process in which the original identity with others is lost and in which modern man becomes more separate from them.”

So what does any of this have to do with the Stewart and Beck rallies? I think both events were either intentionally or unintentionally appealing to us based on which modern need we are likely to seek more acutely – “freedom from” or “freedom to.”

In either case, the dilemma of modern society and how it impacts us is the same: it has given us more space to develop as individuals – and it has made us more helpless. “It increased freedom,” says Fromm, “and it created dependencies of a new kind. The understanding of the whole problem of freedom depends on the very ability to see both sides of the process and not to lose track of one side while following the other.”

The danger, Fromm cautioned, is if we forget that “aloneness, fear and bewilderment remain; people cannot stand it forever. They cannot go on bearing the burden of ‘freedom from’; they must try to escape from freedom altogether unless they can progress from negative to positive freedom. The principal social avenues of escape in our time are submission to a leader, as has happened in fascist countries, and the compulsive conforming as is prevalent in our own society.”

Because of this anxiety – and this willingness to submit to someone who will do the thinking for us – our capacity to think critically has dulled over time. Ironically, however, this gradual numbing of our critical capacities doesn’t mean we feel more uninformed. On the contrary, the constant barrage of messaging so indicative of modern society tends to be designed in such a way as to “flatter the individual by making him appear important, and by pretending that they appeal to his critical judgment, to his sense of discrimination. But these pretenses are essentially a method to dull the individual’s suspicions and to help him fool himself as to the individual character of his decision.”

This tendency to submit has been widely written about – accurately, I believe – with regard to Glenn Beck.  The same could be said for the followers of other right-leaning hucksters, like Rush Limbaugh, whose followers proudly and tellingly refer to themselves as “Dittoheads.” In what ways is the situation most markedly different with Stewart? What distinguishes his power and the mindsets of his followers, who descended on the same stretch of land where Beck’s minions gathered just two months prior?

Here’s one area where I think Beck and Stewart clearly diverge: whereas Beck seems to use parts of Fromm’s thesis as his own playbook for exploitation, Stewart seems equally intent on waking us up from our stupor, and realizing that democracy “will triumph over the forces of nihilism only if it can imbue people with a faith that is the strongest the human mind is capable of, the faith in life and in truth, and in freedom as the active and spontaneous realization of the individual self.”

Understood in this light, it makes sense that Comedy Central and Fox News, as opposed to, say, Bravo or CNN, are the TV stations with personalities possessed of the power to organize massive rallies on the mall. Fox, after all, is the standard-bearer in a line of programming that exploits modern man’s dialectical relationship with freedom to the fullest. From Bill O’Reilly to Sean Hannity to Glenn Beck, Fox’s leading voices fit the description of what Fromm calls the “magic helper.” The reason we follow them is the same reason we seek freedom from our own ideas – “an inability to stand alone and to fully express our own individual potentialities.”  By contrast, Comedy Central is the station where the most powerful tool of all – satire – is employed daily to lay bare the “play within the play” that is modern democracy, and shame us into both individual and societal improvement. In a world where all is not as it seems, wit is our most powerful weapon.

The thing is, if we’re not careful, we Daily Show-watching, NPR-listening, organic grocery-shopping denizens can make Jon Stewart a “magic helper” as well. This is partially why I think so many feared the ramifications of a rally that would, at some point, need to become more serious than sardonic.

In 1941, Fromm was writing about a world where freedom had reached a critical point. “Driven by the logic of its own dynamism, it threatens to change us into its opposite.”

The same danger exists today. And the future of democracy depends on our developing the capacity to empower people to make meaningful and responsible choices with their freedom, and to help support the fuller creation of a society in which the growth and happiness of each person is our primary aim – and not to acquire fame and fortune, but to discover meaning and purpose.

So here’s to the spirit of today’s rally, alongside a healthy dose of skepticism, humor, and hope.