In a recent internet posting, a public school teacher quoted one of her students commenting that the class was “like a democracy.” Why? Because the teacher gave her students a “choice” about the order of her assignments. They had no choice about the content of the schoolwork – just the order in which they did it. The teacher received much positive feedback about her efforts to bring democracy to the classroom. Aside from the fact that this posting was on a website purporting to further the cause of democracy in education, the idea that “choice” equates to “democracy” is troubling. Many people voice the opinion that they are somehow more democratic if their students have any kind of choice. Yet in the example of the public school teacher, the choice was forced. The children were no closer to making meaningful choices about their own interests than children in a traditional classroom. Worst of all, at least some students believed that what they were experiencing was “like a democracy”.
In education, as in most other social endeavors, individual choice is often presented as an unadulterated “good” by those in power. However, when the rights of the participants are not valued, the illusion of choice simply diverts attention from the real inequalities of the situation. This illusion of choice functions to uphold the status quo in non-democratic social groups. If Rosa Parks had been given her choice of the back three rows in the bus, she would have had a “choice.” Not a meaningful choice, not a free choice, not an assumption that she had the right to choose any seat on that bus, but a choice nonetheless. If, in this scenario, she had been willing to accept the premise that any choice is better than none, the civil rights movement would not have been advanced through her struggle.
Giving students a choice that is not free is not democratic. It teaches children that they really don’t have the right to make their own decisions. They must depend on others to structure their lives and their only role is to pick among the pre-formulated options presented to them. Anyone who has seen the movie, Sophie’s Choice, is aware that choice can become a game in non-democratic societies. In the movie, a mother is forced to choose between her children at the point of a gun. One child will live and one will die. The guard giving Sophie that “choice” was in fact torturing her with his power to control her life - “allowing” her to choose was an illusion for his benefit.
Free choice must be backed by individual rights. If children in a school don’t have the right to choose, it is more honest to tell them so. Giving children the choice of the order of assignments might be a more effective class management tool, but we should not pretend that it is more democratic. A democracy depends upon the creative, independent, free ideas of its members. Without free choice, a democratic society cannot solve real life problems or interact effectively to support the growth of its members. Without children having the right to make free choices, we do not have democratic education.