Education for Democracy

Progressive education is designed as education for democratic society. 

As the viability of our democracy is challenged, there are increasingly pressing questions about how the school itself operates as part of the body politic. Putney has varied over its history in its approach to the political world, at different times overtly espousing particular political philosophies and at others seeking to bring different voices into the community. In 2020, finding the right path is thorny, not least because so many people are clear that the answers are obvious.

We do not uphold the First Amendment here—not all speech is permitted on campus. Although we encourage students to seek out those with whom they disagree, on campus our boundaries are defined by, “We believe that all people are created equal.” So racism, homophobia, discrimination on the basis of gender identity, or any myriad other opinions based on personal identity are all unacceptable here. At the same time we urge students to try to get out of the southern Vermont “bubble” and learn from their political opponents. But, as I asked the trustees in January, when does reaching across the aisle become tantamount to appeasement? At what point do we move from reaching out to “find a middle ground” to reaching out so as to “know thine enemy?” We have clear opinions here about lying, cheating, and stealing.

I have long asked our teachers to avoid pushing a political viewpoint in class, but how to manage when simply telling the truth is a political act? We use school labor and fuel to take students who want to canvas and get out the vote—I’m not clear if we would do the same if a student wanted to go canvas for a candidate who violates the basic ethics of the school. If the democratic system continues to be dismantled, how shall we navigate between the imperative not to widen the enormous social divides in our country, and the imperative to stand up for democracy?

“Education for democratic society” rolls nicely off the tongue, but is a deeply complex challenge. When our faculty debated the requirements of the Putney Core, we used ‘they will be voters in our country’ as a touchstone. What history and law do they need to know? Is an understanding of statistics more important than calculus? We agreed that “Ethical, Cultural and Social Justice Perspectives” would be our first curricular throughline, followed by Inquiry and Research, Argumentation, Literacy and Communication, and Collaboration. I find myself always pleased to find the word Ethical at the start of the list. Since we think that Putney’s curriculum consists of everything we do here, our education for democracy includes both our formal education and our way of life. 

We have been charged by the board of trustees to graduate students who can work effectively across race, class and cultural divides. This was an enormously idealistic charge when it was written in 2015, and seems even thornier today. But in spite of the questions of how this plays out in today’s political morass, these are skills that will serve students all their lives. The first step must be to teach them to listen carefully, especially to people they don’t already agree with—not something teenagers do naturally. We do not teach formal debate which, as Jonathan Ellis and Francesca Hovagimian opined in the New York Times recently, encourages bending of facts to fit a point of view, and favors a closed-minded style of argument. We do teach the skills of a “spider discussion”, in which students moderate and learn to listen and include. For contentious issues about which reasonable people can disagree, we use “civil disagreement discussions”, a fishbowl model to teach students to inquire of others about their points of view rather than merely reiterate their own. We also hold Putney Panels sometimes after dinner, in which a moderator asks questions on a particular topic of a panel of students, faculty or both. 

These are useful tools, but our most effective way to teach the habits and skills of a democracy is to let the students learn by lived experience. They nominate and elect not only the student heads of school, but the student trustees, student head of dorms, and the members of the standards committee. These students in these positions carry real power, and annually we can observe how well the community has chosen. When the question was called recently about the way in which the work committee members were appointed, the student body divided into discussion groups to explore the pros and cons of different systems of election/selection for this critical team. Ultimately they chose to make modest changes to the system, giving the student body more oversight in the process. This chance to practice the handling of power gives students more real experience in political democracy than the “hobby politics” of following the daily news as one follows the sports pages. (For more on this topic, see the work of Eitan Hersh at Tufts.)

Perhaps the most powerful lesson in democracy that students learn here is that of obligation to community—an obligation that precedes one’s own individual wants. The interdependence of the student body and the refusal to allow any single student to simply be a passenger creates an understanding of each individual’s responsibilities to something outside themselves. In my wide experience of Putney alumni, this seems to be the most enduring outcome of a Putney education. 

None of this is easy, and in a recent assembly English and ethics teacher Nathan Zweig unpacked the phrase in our Fundamental Beliefs in which we are exhorted to “take risks, if need be, for moral growth.” He suggested moral growth in three kinds of risk: risking comfort, with the gain being freedom of action; risking certainty, the gain being freedom of thought, and risking being wrong, with the gain being connection. These are all critical attributes of citizens of a democracy, as Mrs. Hinton knew. We can’t teach these explicitly, but can only plant the seeds in our way of life and nurture the growth when and where we see it. 

It is not an easy time to be a teenager – although it is hard to find a time when it was. We need to raise dandelion children, not orchids, if they are to be strong enough to be useful citizens in the world we are leaving them. I do believe that the body politic is better for having Putney-grown people in it, and we will continue to analyze the ethical and practical questions of how to educate for democracy at a time when the democratic system itself is in danger.





A selection of emails shared in the Putney community during a two-week stretch in February shows the many ways this work is part of our daily lives on the hill. 


Posey ’20
There is another debate tonight. You can stream it on NBC news. Watch! Be informed! 


Alice ’20
I am currently doing a project on rural healthcare. If you feel like you have insight into this and would be willing to talk to me, please let me know!


Nayderson ’20
For my Social Documentary Studies class I am doing an interview project about what informs people’s decisions around voting in presidential elections across generations. In order to do this, I hope to interview people who will be voting for the first time in 2020 elections or primaries.


Naomi Lindenfeld
I’m offering rides to anyone who needs a ride to Putney or Brattleboro to vote tomorrow between 3 and 6 PM. If you are or are not going to vote and would like to accompany me to the polls in Brattleboro to see what the process is like, I would be happy to bring you with me.


Sarah Wiles
States where 17-year-olds can vote in primary if they’ll be 18 by November 4, 2020: Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Vermont, West Virginia


Susannah ’20
This is a reminder that there will be an all-school meeting tonight at 6:45 in the Faculty Room. We will be clarifying any questions about the Work Committee election/selection vote that will be happening on Friday.


Elijah ’21
Vox just recently put together a series of videos about the major democratic candidates for president in 2020. I’d encourage everyone who’s thinking about the election and wants to be informed on the candidates to watch them. 


Bodhi ’22
Zeke and I have just started calling and canvassing for Bernie to talk to people in places like Texas who are going to vote soon to get people mobilized! Even if you aren’t the biggest Bernie diehard, it’s still a great exercise in democracy and a way to participate in the system even if you are too young to vote. We have had some great conversations with some really interesting people.

Inquire Now