Can Consensus Be Taught?

While our appetite and aptitude for autonomy comes naturally, our ability to rule ourselves–or, for that matter, to rule others–does not. Benjamin Barber reminds us “If the young were born literate, there would be no need to teach them literature; if they were born citizens, there would be no need to teach them civic responsibility. ...schooling matters deeply.”70

The proper object of that schooling has been debated for centuries. Rousseau hypothesized that children, like his so-called Natural Man, use freedom to promote their own happiness, even though a child’s world is defined mostly by weakness and inexperience. “Children,” he says, “even in the state of nature, enjoy only an imperfect freedom, similar to that enjoyed by men in the civil state.”71 Here, Rousseau links the ignorance and dependency of childhood to the final condition of citizens under guardianism. Rousseau also observed that people find comfort in collective–even authoritarian–associations when they feel hurt or unhappy, then move back toward independence when their self-esteem improves. To him, guardianism was always associated more closely with pathology than health.

Like Rousseau, John Dewey and other democratically inclined educators concluded that certain kinds of schooling produced certain kinds of citizens; and from these, certain kinds of societies emerged. Education that professes guardianism and communicates in the language of hierarchy and coercion tends to produce not just more (and more competitive) guardians, but passive, resentful, and opportunistic dependents. Under republican guardianism, citizens openly seek to minimize their involuntary contributions to the state, such as taxes, while choosing–just as overtly–those guardians who will use state resources most generously on their behalf: to pick, in effect, the wealthy and powerful “parents” nature may have denied them. Eventually, the self-dealing and corruption inherent in such a system pulls enlightened self-interest down to the level of gross selfishness. Citizens learn not only to tolerate a guardian class, but to perpetuate it and use it as a weapon against their social competitors. The unwritten curriculum of such schools affirms that, as Barber puts it, “...knowledge is always socially constructed, always conditioned by power and interest.”72 Under guardianism, we learn to do unto others before they do unto us.

Beginning with Hobbes, liberal democracy meant pooling private resources and using them as bargaining chips against the state. Under this scheme, democratic education meant learning to define one’s interests in terms of class, position, and power, then finding allies to help impose that agenda on society. Civic republicanism, a less competitive concept, originated not with the Enlightenment but from the ancient Greeks and Romans. It holds that political education means learning not only how to identify and secure one’s own interests, but to reconcile those interests with the interests of the entire demos–to determine, in other words, the common good and achieve the general will. Civic republicanism, although still a guardian system, communicates in the language of inclusion and tends to produce citizens who resist domination. They view conflict not as win-lose contests, but as opportunities to find consensus, at least among most people. Instead of fragmenting a community, civic republicanism tends to pull it together.

This latter approach, sometimes called unitary democracy or sociotropism, while putting shared interests ahead of self-interest, is not the same as socialism, communism, or even altruism–all of which can be as arbitrary, oppressive, and totalitarian as any despot. Instead, unitary or sociotropic democrats (like Mill and Rousseau) seek to form what Barber has called an “aristocracy of everyone”: a hierarchy of guardians as big as the demos itself. Jurgen Habermas suggests that civic republicans place high value on deliberation and dialogue among citizens trained in, and appreciative of, the arts of discourse and empathy.73

From these ideas, we can infer two principles crucial to a democratic education.

First, we must recognize that political guardianism and parenting are functionally the same–even though both children and citizens, when properly educated, outgrow their need for parent-guardians.

Second, we must acknowledge that a person’s need for, and desire to participate in, collective entities such as clubs, businesses, municipalities, and state and national governments, will wax and wane over a lifetime. We are social animals, but we are not sociable all the time. How much we engage in the life of the demos, or in the life of a particular demos, at any given moment depends on our evolving psychological, economic, and social circumstances. Our education should acknowledge this reality and our institutions should facilitate those choices.

As the Enlightenment gave way to the Industrial Revolution, guardians saw public education less as a way of informing moral judgment–of preserving mainstream culture and training a ruling class–than it was a handy means for creating a skilled and compliant work force. Because educated workers are more productive, they could serve both as a source for private wealth (consuming more of the goods they themselves produced, expanding markets and profits) and as a reliable source of taxes–a big improvement over agrarian society.

Consequently, schools throughout the nineteenth century increased their emphasis on practical skills, not just on literacy and character-building for their own sake. Because of America’s puritan past and the religious feelings that influenced many guardians, this education was also aimed at taming the independent spirit and subordinating individuals to higher authority. Of all the accommodations between private and public guardians, this was probably the most pernicious. It gradually turned the education system from one that nurtured competent citizen-rulers (even if those early rulers came mostly from the economic and social elite) to an assembly line that cranked out worker-consumers and passive voters. The idea that a government of, by, and for the people ought somehow to encourage self-government dwindled into platitude.

This pattern of training and indoctrinating, rather than truly educating, citizens extended into the twentieth century. This was partly due to the influence of Sigmund Freud, who believed infantile dependency and “idealization of parental surrogates” continued well into adulthood.74 Of course, Freud’s ideas were based mainly on his study of abnormal psychology, not emotionally healthy, mature individuals–least of all those possessed of a democratic personality. Later researchers, like Carol Gould, lamented our lack of institutional interest in such subjects, namely responsible people who play by the rules and yearn for a measure of shared autonomy.

One reason educators and researchers have spent so little time studying the democratic personality is that other forms of political thought and behavior–like the characteristics of strong guardians, who need to dominate others in order to succeed–seem more relevant and interesting. Also, the democratic personality clearly tends toward anonymity. It does not seek publicity, is wary of power hierarchies, and is reluctant to put itself in the hands of others. It values the capacity for independent thought, practices reflective morality, and has a high tolerance for ambiguity and change. Consensus, after all, takes time and ambiguity bothers many people, especially Americans who like a quick fix. From this perspective, the democratic personality is diametrically opposed to guardianism, which trades on magical thinking–the idea that there is always one right answer and that guardians always possess it.

The definition of citizenship changed again in the twentieth century, due to the “psychologization” of education. Here, teachers and administrators tried to explain individual behavior in terms of reaction to social forces rather than as a reflection of personal agency. The “professionalization” of education further increased the distance between teachers and students, converting teachers from moral guides and mentors to jargon-spouting technicians who gloried in a new-found professional mystique. As the Keynesian accommodation took root, economic guardians and their political allies gained even more authority over school curriculums. Indeed, by changing not only what was taught in schools but also what was considered even learnable by students (self-governance was not among these), the decisions left to citizens after graduation were confined largely to job choice, procreation, consumption, and periodic ratification of party-selected candidates.

Unfortunately, the parallel system of private education did not materially expand these choices. Here, curriculums might be a little broader, teachers a little better, and classes a little smaller, but to be certified by the state, the guardians’ basic message still had to be taught. The net effect was to keep both parents and students largely uninvolved with the overall purpose of education, at least in the democratic sense. Even worse, commodifying education tended to reduce learning to a market transaction, diluting its power for social transformation. It converted what should have been a fully participative dialogue among students, teachers, administrators, and parents–one that strives for consensus about educational goals and methods–into a binary, yes-no decision: if you don’t like what one school is teaching, try and find another. This is a problem that even the seductive device of school vouchers does nothing to correct; it simply adds more buyers to the market. The use of vouchers by poorer families may result in a marginally better education for some students, making them better wage-earners and consumers, but it also threatens to bring down the quality of those private schools which become dependent on public dollars. Even when vouchers work, they do not by themselves affect the democratic content of education.

Fortunately, not all significant learning is confined to the classroom.

Lessons taught in school can differ considerably from the lessons learned in life. Barber observed that “As students learn explicitly from the classroom, the lessons of the larger world in which the classroom exists seep in. When the latter contradict at every turn what is taught in school, an attitudinal fissure can open up which students will experience as hypocrisy.”75

While families introduce a child to the norms of community life as they perceive them, the child’s peers and teachers often create a different impression. This is especially true when it comes to questions of personal agency. Schools profess a flattering model of government, saying that it “derives its powers from the consent of the governed,” and depict corporations as places where “the consumer is king”–even though the real world of harried working relatives and frustrating brushes with corporate bosses and government bureaucrats (not to mention guardian scandals in the media) often paint a different picture. Harvard professor and former private-school headmaster Theodore Sizer marvels how, “The kid assistant manager at McDonald’s in the evening [needs] a hall pass at school.”76

Just when they feel the first, powerful pull toward autonomy, teens and young adults are most conditioned to accept the heavy hand of guardianism–a force that stunts their growth for the rest of their lives. Psychiatrist and social critic William McGrath, describes guardianism’s debilitating effect on the developing psyche this way: “There is no grading without degrading...the lifeblood of mental health is self-esteem. When we are mindful of this, then both professionally and privately each of us will always discourage any kind of subordination. ...It is not just a play on words to insist that the individual does not belong to the organization or work for it. He works for himself and the organization belongs to him.”77

Yet schools persist in teaching very different ideas, preparing us not for consensual participation, but subordination to guardianism in every walk of life. “We now know that conservative activists are quite similar to their liberal counterparts in at least this regard,” sociologist James Q. Wilson reports “For both groups, a politics of principle represents a continuation of, not a break with, parental attitudes.”78 With so many forces trying so hard to keep us children, how can any of us grow up?

Fortunately, families are more than nurseries: they are also economic and political units. Good parents want their children to become good adults, and this can eventually put them at odds with guardians who want to preserve and extend everyone’s childlike dependency.

For most of history, the traditional family unit consisted of married and single adults, plus their offspring, sharing a common abode, usually with a patriarchal connection. Typically, this extended family comprised more than one generation, and its members all pursued similar occupations. This made the traditional family much more robust socially and economically than its modern counterpart, the nuclear family. Those too young or old to work outside the home took care of each other. If one or more productive members were lost due to sickness, war, death, or incarceration, subsistence was still possible without outside intervention, least of all by the state.

Until the modern era, guardian interest in families was largely confined to co-opting its loyalties when the state needed soldiers, laborers, or minions to support a political cause or leader. Thus, in one sense, politics has always been a struggle between the centripetal force of family and the centrifugal force of state. Nationalistic and totalitarian regimes try hardest to make these pseudo-familial connections seem natural, even cozy; but the better educated the family, the harder this idea is to sell.

Still, most families are not democratic. When we feel the urge to self-govern, we must transcend parental authority–at least the kind that holds coercive power over us–and demonstrate our equality as adults. To do this, we continue to use what we’ve learned from our parents and parent substitutes, but with a crucial difference. Since we must now make our way among people with whom we have no kinship or assumed authority, we must cope in other ways. Extended families show us these ways through the examples of loyalty, tolerance, empathy, and reciprocity we observe in networks of peer relatives; but communities can teach us these things too, through our voluntary associations.

Today, venues for continuing and expanding this informal, democratic learning are often hard to come by. The centrifugal force of guardianism is just too strong to let our voluntary, participative associations coalesce into a meaningful whole. Our smaller, modern nuclear households have become psychological and marketing units, not vehicles for social action. When a couple marries for love and procreates–surely the most individualistic of choices–it may do so without regard for guardian preferences. Without parental patronage or supporting reciprocal networks, the resulting households become emotionally and economically fragile. Government guardians see this as a mandate for increased state surveillance and management of family life, which only increases household dependency and further weakens democratic learning.

On the other hand, the rise of the nuclear family reflects a general rise in the status of the individual as a locus of rights separate from an imposed, and often authoritarian, patriarchal or matriarchal group culture. Maturing teens and young adults see it as an avenue for independence. Because today’s social contract is primarily between individual citizens and the guardian state, or between employees and economic guardians, that personal independence is often achievable, even if “shared autonomy” is not.

This has led to what Alasdair MacIntyre calls a condition of bureaucratic individualism: a mixed blessing wherein the liberty to make minor personal decisions is won only by surrendering the right to make major decisions to guardian experts such as managers, politicians, social workers, and clinicians.79

This has not had a salutary affect on children growing up under such schemes, principally those whose socio-economic status makes them dependent on welfare. Studies show that these children receive significantly more negative messages about people and society than those whose parents are better educated, competent, and engaged.80 The guardian-dominated “nanny state” may provide a safety net for many children who might otherwise fall through the cracks, but–psychologically, at least–it makes a very cold mother.

We can conclude from all this that, in either its traditional or nuclear forms, the family’s biggest enemy has always been guardians who seek to expropriate its natural loyalties, exploit its deference to parental authority, and short-circuit the demands for shared autonomy sought by its maturing members. Such guardians put the state in the role of Jesus when he said, “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”81

Ironically, guardians who tout religious principles as the glue that holds families together often use those principles to fragment families they don’t like: from gay households to the extended families of unwanted immigrants. However, all such networks are potential laboratories for consent and participation, and we extinguish them at our peril. When those networks are based on religion, we must remember that all religion is based on faith, not logic. Their main contribution to democratic learning comes less from their specific ethical teachings than from the way they encourage believers to transcend everyday concerns, including the pettier aspects of self-interest, and take the larger view. If God truly resides in all of us, we have little to fear from an “aristocracy of everyone.”

In the community, affinity groups–from service associations like the Elks and Masons to political action groups like Greenpeace and Amnesty International–can provide a sense of belonging and participation without the shackles of determinism and paternalism that sometimes dominates families. Many advocates of strong democracy see such “boundary spanning” groups as the salvation of the representative state. They say these buffer organizations allow citizens to act collectively and gain democratic competence–to build “social capital”–without coercion or bureaucratic red tape.82 Indeed, many have credited the implosion of the former Soviet Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s not to Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika but to neformaly: the thousands of voluntary grass-roots associations that sprang up specifically to plug the gap between the declining and corrupt communist state and the more liberal, market-oriented republic that replaced it83–although that new Russian republic quickly fell prey to all the ills of “free-market” guardianism and is arguably worse off in some ways.84

Like Jefferson, who believed that such “little republics would be the main strength of the great one,”85 Tocqueville saw that a variety of these “intermediate institutions” were the key to American democracy: training camps that turned self-interested individuals into public-spirited citizens. Unfortunately, many of these boundary-spanning institutions eventually become dominated by guardians of their own. While providing a laboratory where citizen-workers can learn how to set a collective agenda and exert cooperative effort without resorting to formal or coercive authority, they also serve as training grounds for demagogues and frustrated, would-be guardians who care little for the direct participation of anyone who does not agree with them. And even when such groups avoid the perils of guardianism, their power is severely limited by law and tradition. Once they find congenial guardians to implement their programs, they become part of the problem of guardianism, not its solution.

Even worse, by providing an outlet for our participative instincts, they weaken what might otherwise become a potent force for true democratic reform. By limiting consensual action to one or a few narrow fields, they blind people to the fact that the demos is all-encompassing, and that determining the common good and general will–not winning more benefits for special groups or more resources for particular causes–is what direct democracy is really about.

Ultimately, grown children who fail to differentiate themselves adequately from their parents will likely see no reason to differentiate themselves from the even more powerful state and economic guardians who surround them as adults. This is especially true for those marginal and drop-out “bureaucratic individualists,” who have learned both contempt for their childhood guardians and dependency upon managers, politicians, social workers and other authority figures. In this respect, the drive toward full maturity–for autonomy within a social setting–is not only arrested for the individual, it is impounded for generations.

This brings us back to the crucial role of education and experience in shaping moral maturity. Researcher Lawrence Kohlberg’s criteria for evaluating moral decisions was not the content of those decisions–the criteria applied by most religious and political thinkers–but the process used to achieve them.86 He was less concerned with a person’s particular moral position (say, that physicians should assist the suicide of a dying patient), than he was with the context in which that decision was made. Was it based on selfish interest or social conventions? Was it the product of the subject’s own reasoning, ideas received from opinion leaders, or belief in a set of universal principles? Since the validity of any form of government ultimately boils down to the morality of its processes, Kohlberg’s approach has great relevance to anyone who aspires to self-governance.

After tracking his subjects for twenty years, Kohlberg found that the highest level of moral reasoning–making principled judgments regardless of personal expediency or social pressure (the kind of elevated processes our guardians say they use)–generally occurred about the age of legal emancipation: the time when adolescence and parental dependence ends and adulthood and the assumption of civic responsibilities, such as voting, begins. He also found a high correlation between mature moral reasoning and education. We may be born with moral aptitude, but we need training and practice to become “moral athletes.”

One trait that distinguishes moral learning from mere indoctrination into a particular creed is that the lessons learned through experience with lower levels of moral reasoning are not forgotten when the higher levels come into play. In other words, morally mature adults feel empathetic with–not adversarial towards–other points of view, even those they deem less enlightened. This simple fact has profound implications when it comes to practical, consensual democracy.

First, it shows that the main ingredient necessary for consensus–a willingness to continue processing a problem until most other, reasonable views are accommodated–can be cultivated throughout the demos. It is not a rare, God-given quality available only to the anointed few, our elected or self-appointed guardians.

Second, it shows that, like other capabilities, our capacity for moral judgment can be increased through education and experience. While this was always thought true for guardians, who traditionally receive lengthy and expensive educations, it can no longer be seen as their sole prerogative. If the primary task of education in a democracy, both in and out of school, is to create collaborative self-governing citizens, this is nothing but good news; and it means that it is not only appropriate, but necessary, to emphasize much earlier in a child’s life those factors which lead most directly to developing this highest moral sense. Teaching students to strive for consensus because it is needed for a more valid and effective political and economic system does not prevent us from teaching those students about competing theories, or the rationales for conflicting policies, or the practical need for guardianship functions; but it does require teachers, and everyone else, to refrain from sabotaging democratic learning by saying one thing and doing another, such as paying lip service to participation while using exclusionary or coercive methods for real decisions.

It’s important to remember, too, that altruism is not the same as moral maturity. People who place a high value on helping others can be as dictatorial and oppressive as the most self-centered tyrant. To these people, the strong–almost religious–belief that “help is trumps” can easily justify undemocratic process in the name of a higher good. Again, consensual democracy is not socialism or communism, which are both guardian systems. Citizens in a consensual democracy may opt for altruistic policies or they may not, but the difference is one of widespread, binding, and personal moral and procedural consent, not guardian coercion.

The real message here is that there is no such thing as a morally neutral political or economic decision; and the first decision any demos must make is the process it will use for making subsequent decisions. In a directly participative, consensual system, we all have the opportunity to apply our own moral reasoning before a binding decision is made. Under guardianism, we do not.

At the end of the day, we must ask ourselves: If the knowledge and skills of collaborative self-governance can be learned by virtually anyone, and if anyone otherwise qualified to be a member of a demos may potentially serve as, or become, a political or economic guardian, is it moral, wise, or natural to prevent the entire demos from being so educated and empowered? Is it any more moral, wise, or in keeping with human nature to pick a few of our number to act as our parents–even though we have long outgrown our need for parents–than it would be to keep otherwise healthy and intelligent adults locked forever in their parents’ house?

If the answer to either of these questions is no, then we have sealed the fate of guardianism. Knowledge, especially complex knowledge, can’t be centralized and monopolized forever, let alone in the age of computers, the Internet, mass communications, and widespread public education. In fact, the usefulness of knowledge depends more and more on the cooperation of individuals and groups networked throughout society–organs within a macro-organism–to generate, replicate, mutate, and employ each bit of information until their various contributions create something new and better. Our guardians know that their biggest asset has always been our ignorance and isolation. The longer we consent, even tacitly, to the idea that democratic knowledge should be rationed to, and practiced by, only a privileged few, the longer we will languish in the prison of our own making.

  1. 70. Barber, Benjamin R. An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America. New York: Oxford University Press. 1992. 210.
  2. 71. Rousseau. Emile. 85.
  3. 72. Barber, 213.
  4. 73. Habermas, Jurgen. Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press. 1966.
  5. 74. Heilbroner. Nature and Logic. 21.
  6. 75. Barber. 215.
  7. 76. Sizer, Theodore. Horace’s School: Redesigning the American High School. New York: Houghten Mifflin. 1991.
  8. 77. McGrath, William B. The Heart Does Not Speak English. Phoenix: O’Sullivan Woodside & Co./Camelback Hospital. 1975. 120-122.
  9. 78. Wilson, James Q. The Moral Sense. New York: The Free Press. 1993. 106.
  10. 79. Bellah, Robert, et. al. Habits of the Heart. 150.
  11. 80. Eliot. What’s Going On in There? 384.
  12. 81. Mount, Ferdinand. The Subversive Family: An Alternative History of Love and Marriage. New York: The Free Press. 1992.
  13. 82. Putnam, Robert D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster. 1999.
  14. 83. Smith, Hedrick. The New Russians. New York: Random House. 1992.
  15. 84. According to Princeton professor Stephen Kotkin, the communist elites of the 1980s largely re-emerged in the 1990s as the business and political leaders of the new Russian Commonwealth of Independent States. “...The larger truth about 1991,” he says, “was that the ‘triumph’ of democracy involved a bid for power by Russian republic officials.” (Kotkin, Stephen. Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000. New York: Oxford University Press. 2000.)
  16. 85. Bowles, Samuel, and Gintis, Herbert. Democracy & Capitalism: Property, Community, and the Contradictions of Modern Social Thought. New York: Basic Books. 1986.
  17. 86. Kohlberg, Lawrence. The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice. New York: Harper & Row. 1981.

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