The Classroom as Metaphor and Window to Democracy

The Classroom as Metaphor and Window to Democracy

Qualitative analysts apply metaphor to understand and explain.  In the current cultural malaise, one metaphor seems best. The concept of the classroom as a window to the world emerges as resilient and renewed. I propose the classroom as a window to our culture.  Through the classroom things flow in and out, showing and merging views, insights, and opportunities for growth and change. The classroom is a safe place, a haven for honor and respect.  It is the place where different points of view come together.  Only in the classroom can these different perspectives converge in a milieu of respect and honor and safety.  In the classroom we come to know each other as people, as colleagues, even as friends.  We share moments poignant, personal, emotional– of our own reflections, our own soul-baring. The classroom remains the ultimate egalitarian soil for growth of democracy.  Black.  White.  Young.  Middle aged.  Muslim.  Christian.  Conservative. Progressive. In the classroom labels fall away. All are altogether and all together for reflection and renewal. I propose the classroom as a venue through which we and our students gather to teach, to learn, and to understand.

I remember students in several of my recent classes, enrolled in a generic freshman English course in a small, liberal arts college.  The curriculum includes personal compositions, class presentations based on anthologized essays and stories, and related class discussions.  They are a panoply of American society. 

One is a young Muslim woman, a citizen of a Middle Eastern American ally. She tells us about her arranged marriage to an abusive spouse.  She describes the trauma of marriage and the shame of divorce.  She describes her wearing of the hajib as a commitment to her faith. She compares the Prophet Muhammad and Martin Luther King Jr., both of whom, she says, desired to serve their community and people who were marginalized. 

A young man in his early twenties supports the discussion.  He carries several citizenships – the United Kingdom, Germany, and another Middle Eastern country, links to his parentage and place of birth.  The two describe life in their country, where citizens build homes surrounded by high walls where they can relax, free from the eyes of their peers.  They are polite, erudite, thoughtful, and offer views to a world beyond the experience of most here.

Two Caucasian men who served tours in Iraq describe locals who risked their lives to help Americans.  They worked on U.S. bases, entering and leaving in darkness.  They and their families could have been punished, even killed, for working with Americans.  These soldiers see as a clear and present danger the branding Muslims as enemies and banning them from entry into the U.S.

Another is a guard in the county prison.  He is black.  Sometimes black inmates ask him of the white guards, “Can I trust this guy?”  Other times the same prisoners taunt as he walks by: “Hey traitor, Uncle Tom, in bed with the white man.”  Torn between worlds, he wants only to serve.

Another student is a middle-aged African American.  He describes two experiences traveling in the U.S. only a decade ago.  He was refused service as an African American, once in the South and, perhaps surprisingly, once in the Northeast.  In both instances, he was in uniform.  The talk is poignant.  He cries – and so do we.  The pain is palpable.  It is emotional.  It is real. 

Another is a set of veterans – one is white in his early twenties, another is Puerto Rican, middle-age.  Both are stalwart supporters of the new U.S. President.    They are thoughtful, serious, empathetic.   Both scoff at fears of nationalism.  Both reject claims that the conflagration of patriotism and nationalism represent racial prejudice and xenophobic pulses against the phantom “others” in American society. 

The classroom is the window between insight and blindness, light and darkness, democracy and fascism.  It is the great equalizer, the medium for Freirean dialogic leading to better understanding by all within.  To this purpose founders, philosophers, and practitioners can illuminate. 

In Romances with Schools John Goodlad describes education as a moral institution and the foundation of a vibrant democracy.  “The rhetoric linking education and democracy has had a long run since this nation’s founding – from Thomas Jefferson through many advocates to the present.”  He argues for a clear mission for schooling grounded in the principles of democracy itself.  Education poses for us, he says, a moral challenge to create the ethical culture “that lies within the power of all the stakeholders to create.”  

In Democracy and Education, Dewey reminds us that education must embody both the means and the ends of democracy. He observes, “A progressive society counts individual variations as precious since it finds in them the means of its own growth.   Hence a democratic society must, in consistency with its ideal, allow for intellectual freedom and the play of diverse gifts and interests in its educational measures.” For Noah Webster, schooling is a tool for social planning and improvement.  For Jefferson, schooling is the means to educate youth and so empower them to make informed decisions.  For Horace Mann, education is the vehicle to uplift society.  For Diane Ravitch, “Democratic habits and values must be taught through … agencies that allow citizens to interact with each other and to have a sense of efficacy.  The best protection for a democratic society remains well-educated citizens.”

From this I reflect on post-election events at other education institutions I know.  At a local high school firmly planted in middle-class suburbia, a teacher tells a black student he had better behave, or President Trump will send him back to Africa.   At a storied university steeped in learning, history, and tradition, a Muslim student finds written on the notepad next to her door, “Leave now.  You’re not welcome here.”  At a large metropolitan university near the site of a mass killing, a young lesbian reads “You’re next” scrawled outside her dorm.  Would these dystopian perpetrators have hurled the same barbs if they had been immersed in a dialogic classroom culture?

I recall my students.  The young Muslim woman.  The black G.I. The white men dependent on Iraqis who risked their lives.  The two men, a generation apart, who view nationalism and patriotism in the same light. The question we must ask is not, “How did we get here?”   The productive query, rather, is, “Where do we go from here?”  

I return to the metaphor of the classroom as window.  It allows views within and without.  It reflects.  It provides flow and exchange.   How can the classroom affect the view outside?  This concept is more challenging. Many classrooms, many windows, together can affect insight and change.  More than ever before, ours must be the classrooms of Jefferson and Webster, of Dewey and Mann, of Ravitch and Freire.  Only through our classrooms can we shine light within and without.  Only through the dialogues within our many classrooms, exponentially compounded collectives spread across and throughout America, can we reflect, illuminate, and change the view, within and without.  This is the promise, the potential, the power, and the moral imperative of the American classroom. Within it and through it democracy and truth will grow and shine.


Constance Raaz's picture Constance Raaz | June 12, 2017 12:16 am MST

Jim, as I read your essay, I thought about the diverse colleagues, students, and friends who have crossed my path. I was also struck how depending on the emotional context at the time, our reactions to each other can open or close that window, such as the prison scenario.


James Lane's picture James Lane | June 14, 2017 10:34 am MST

I agree, Connie.  Your comment casued me to flash back to my high school days in desgregation in the South.  Those were also emotional times but opened windows to the worlds of others, about which we had been unaware.  Dialogue begets communication and understanding.  

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