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Collaboration and Compromise

As I showed in chapter four, with the growing neoliberal emphasis on individuals, personal freedom, and consumer choice, democracy seems to be increasingly understood as majority rule through the aggregation of voting one’s individual preference. This leaves little need for compromise. Voters merely assert their views through their ballots and related political contributions and, if so motivated, may try to persuade others to do likewise so that their view will earn the largest number of votes. Some propositions may be tempered slightly to earn more votes, but there is little genuine exchange or negotiation between those with competing views. As a result, winning candidates and issues may fail to genuinely reflect the views of a variety of their constituents, especially their nuances and complexities. When democracy is understood as participatory, citizens should be working together as publics to affirm their consent to elected officials and approved policies, but also to construct ideas and solutions to complex problems. This process necessarily entails collaboration and compromise, where citizens work together to develop social knowledge and power.18

But compromise should not be narrowly understood here as only negotiating or making concessions in order to reach an agreement. Rather, Pappas wisely draws on the spirit of Dewey when he says, “Taking a part in a discussion where we imaginatively enter into the experience of the other requires more than that we meet each other halfway. What we want is a deeper interaction ... where members reexamine their values and interest in light of all others"19 This is the sort of compromise and communication that is important to civil society, where citizens mediate and negotiate their experiences and views with those of other citizens and between the power of the state and the privacy of their homes. They identify points of tension, using those moments to reexamine themselves, and then work toward fruitful ways to overcome or live harmoniously with those tensions.

Emphasizing collaboration and compromise is not to say that democratic life is easy and conflict free, but a commitment to living democratically includes a commitment to working together. Dewey notes, “A genuinely democratic faith in peace is faith in the possibility of conducting disputes, controversies and conflicts as cooperative undertakings in which both parties learn by giving the other a chance to express itself"20 He adds,

[D]emocracy as a way of life is controlled by personal faith in personal day- by-day working together with others. Democracy is the belief that even when needs and ends or consequences are different for each individual, the habit of amicable cooperation—which may include, as in sport, rivalry and competition—is itself a priceless addition to life. To take as far as possible every conflict which arises—and they are bound to arise—out of the atmosphere and medium of force, of violence as a means of settlement into that of discussion and of intelligence is to treat those who disagree—even profoundly— with us as those from whom we may learn, and in so far, as friends.21

But even working together through negotiations may result in some people disproportionately experiencing loss, disappointment, or sacrifice, as Danielle Allen rightly describes. And each of these may breed distrust of citizens toward each other and toward public institutions. Following Allen, I contend that we must help citizens learn how to deal with these well and we must cultivate habits of participation that strive to minimize these potential results and bear them more equitably when they cannot be avoided.22

In our current context, however, we see distrust of institutions and of each other. Rather than people working together, the American tradition of rugged individualism and contemporary neoliberalism increasingly combine to emphasize the competitive role of the individual, who seeks private gains, sometimes at the expense of others, and often consumes goods rather than interacting with other people to find pleasure or solve problems. This outlook, as detailed earlier in this book, has influenced school choice movements and for-profit charter schools, where schools are marketed to fulfill the economic interests of individual students rather than to achieve larger social purposes.23 In this regard, we see a greater emphasis on individuals, particularly in economic terms, rather than on the public good in social or political terms. Individuals are being prepared to compete against and consume alongside each other. Some parents contribute to this climate by seeking educational hierarchies that serve to distinguish their child from others, thereby conveying social mobility and other privileges that benefit their child and do little to benefit collective knowledge or well-being.24

Outside school walls, thousands of people across America have recently taken to the streets in political protest. Spurred by nationwide movements like Black Lives Matter, Occupy Wall Street, and the Tea Party, citizens have been sharing their views and leveraging the system for change. While not always done well, these acts of public dissent are a significant positive sign for democracy insofar as they reflect people actively caring about and working to improve their lives and those of others around them. Many of these protests, however, are narrowly aligned with political parties and ideologies that seem to constantly be in conflict with one another, rather than willing to work together in collaboration or compromise. Some people have begun to see a unified notion of the public good as no longer feasible, believing instead that we must settle for figuring out how to mediate adversarial views.25 Relatedly, political divides in Washington and in party ideology among everyday citizens have grown more polarized.26 Yet, results of a national Gallop Poll suggest that most citizens want compromise between political leaders, but don’t believe it will happen.27 Additionally, research on youth tells us that “millennials favor collaboration and disapprove of cut-throat competition.”28 They prefer civil and rational consensus on policy matters, as opposed to the loud and bitter arguments often heard between politicians or political commentators. Citizens want leaders who strike compromises.

Given all of these contextual factors, schools should cultivate habits of collaboration and compromise as proclivities to work together, exchange ideas, and build and negotiate solutions. These habits involve an inclination toward social action and privileging of the public good, which are best nurtured through experiences that allow children to try them out through group projects that tackle real problems in the school or community. These student groups might also be brought into contact with surrounding civil society, thereby extending citizenship education beyond school walls while also exposing students to other citizens confronting similar problems from various approaches, and orienting children to associations they may join in civil society now or as adults. Democratic education scholar Roger Sehr claims that these types of projects “give students invaluable experience in wrestling with the obstacles that come up in working with others to define public problems, locate sources of the problems, and confront the power structures that allow the problems to exist”29

Each of these efforts, ultimately leading to social and political action, often requires collaboration and compromise. Teachers might craft situations— beginning with something as simple as the selection of an elementary class treat and the conditions for each member to earn it—where working together to forge consensus better serves all members of the class than simply rewarding those who are the most powerful or persuasive. This working together may start children down the path of achieving what Barber calls “creative consensus—an agreement that arises out of common talk, common decision, and common work but that is premised on citizens’ active and perennial participation in the transformation of conflict through the creation of common consciousness and political judgment"30 Habitually engaging in practices that require such collaboration, compromise, and consensus in schools may shape long-term democratic proclivities of children toward public work and away from pursuing narrow or uncompromising self-interest, especially given evidence that many youth today desire the former.31

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