If we really believe in the inherent value of democracy and the freedoms it brings, we must invest in a well-rounded education of excellent quality for all of the people, which assumes we believe in the intrinsic value of each and every person. But some say we already spend enough money on education, whereas others want to cut its budget and fund wars instead.
In both cases, people have become preoccupied with relatively minor details because they fail to proceed from a basic frame of reference: A society is only as free as the quality of its education. Without such a basic frame of reference, it’s impossible to focus on a fundamental issue without getting hopelessly lost amidst a plethora of confusing and isolating details.
A society held in ignorance is powerless to govern itself. If we do not have a well-educated public, military power can easily replace civil liberty. All you have to do is look around the world—beginning at home—to see the threat is real.
These two alternatives—a free democracy or a dictatorship, be it in the form of a person or a “political cult”—are important distinctions to understand because the gap between the current quality of our educational system and the necessities of a free democracy is enormous. We need to begin a revolution on behalf of our national education so that once again the real power of the people can come to the fore—
power to combat the coercive greed of the corporate elite, the power to restore real democracy in community, and the power to reclaim those inner values that make human life worth living.
Understanding the fundamental processes of a free democracy is critical if people are to see the value of their participation in making the democracy work, because the principles of democracy only function when democratic processes are actually available and practiced as a verb, rather than being enshrined as a noun. The basis of these processes both allows and encourages people to earn those concepts or principles whose ethical values they hold dear and to understand more fully those with which they disagree.
Consider, for example, that all we have to give future generations are choices to be made and some things of value from which to choose. Both the future’s choices and things from which to choose are held within the environment as a biological living trust, of which we, the adults, are the legal caretakers or trustees. Although the concept of a trustee or a trusteeship seems fairly simple, the concept of a trust is more complex because it embodies more than one connotation.
A living trust, for instance, is a present transfer of property, including legal title, into trust, whether real property or personal property, such as livestock or interest in a business. The person who creates the trust can watch it in operation, determine whether it fully satisfies his or her expectations, and, if not, revoke or amend it.
A living trust also allows for delegating administrative authority of the trust to a professional trustee, which is desirable for those who wish to divest themselves of managerial responsibilities. The person or persons who ultimately benefit from the trust are the beneficiaries.
The environment is a “living trust” for all generations. A living trust, whether in the sense of a legal document or a living entity entrusted to the present for the present and the future, represents a dynamic process. Human beings inherited the original living trust—the environment—before legal documents were even invented. The Earth as a living organism is the living trust of which we, the adults, are the trustees, whereas the children or all generations are the beneficiaries. As trustees, we are all responsible for the wellbeing of Planet Earth, a responsibility from which we cannot withdraw.
Throughout history, administration of our responsibility for the Earth as a living trust has been progressively delegated to professional trustees in the form of elected officials. In so doing, we empower them with our trust (another connotation of the word), which means we have firm reliance, belief, or faith in the integrity, ability, and character of the elected official who is being empowered.
Such empowerment carries with it certain ethical mandates, which, in and of them themselves, are the seeds of the trust in all of its senses, legal, living, and personal:
• “We the people” are the beneficiaries and the elected officials are the trustees.
• We have entrusted our elected officials to follow both the letter and the spirit of the law in the highest sense possible.
• We have entrusted the care of the environment to elected officials through professional planners, foresters, and other land caretakers, all of whom have sworn to accept and uphold their responsibilities and to act as professional trustees in our behalf.
• We have entrusted to these officials and professionals the livelihood and health of our environment. Through the care of these officials and professionals, it is to remain living, healthy, and capable of benefiting both present and future generations.
• Because we entrusted the environment as a “present transfer” in the legal sense, we have the right to either revoke or amend the trust (the empowerment) if the trustees do not fulfill their mandates.
• To revoke or amend the empowerment of our delegated trustees, if they do not fulfill their mandates, is both our legal right and our moral obligation as hereditary trustees of the Earth, a trusteeship from which we cannot divorce ourselves.
How might this work if we are both beneficiaries of the past and trustees of the future? The inheritance entrusted to the present generation for all those of the future is to pass forward as many of the existing options as possible, each representing the biological capital of the trust.
These options would be forwarded to the next generation (in which each individual is a beneficiary who becomes a trustee) to protect and pass forward in turn to yet the next generation (the beneficiaries who become the trustees) and so on. In this way, the maximum array of biological and cultural options could be passed forward in perpetuity—the essence of sustainability.
If, however, the elected officials and professionals do not fulfill their obligations as trustees to our satisfaction, their behavior could be critiqued through the electoral process and/or the judicial system, assuming the latter is both functional and responsible. Our decisions as trustees of today—embodied as they are in the invisible present—could then create a brighter, more sustainable vision for the generations to come, who are the beneficiaries of the future when they stand in their today.
In order for this to happen, however, we must actively participate in the democratic governance of our communities so they become as sustainable as possible in partnership with their surrounding environments within a bioregion. We must understand and accept that a sustainable community is, in a sense, the institution in which the living trust is housed and protected.
We must also make our judicial system just and responsible to all generations, something we have not yet chosen to do. Yet it’s only a choice, which, after all, is the very foundation of democracy. Democracy, in turn, sets up and maintains the information/political feedback loops through which human values, intuition, information, and cultural innovations are funneled into the melting pot of civic literacy. literacy
It is in a freely democratic community that the cultural gold is separated from the dross. The gold is a community’s potential to behave like an intelligent, moral, innovative, just, and freely democratic organization while on the road to sustainability and beyond. The first step along the way is for a community to identify itself as a community, or as John Dewey said in 1927—”Unless local communal life can be restored, the public cannot adequately resolve its most urgent problem: to find and identify itself.”
Who are we now, today? This is a difficult but necessary question for people to deal with if they want to create a vision for the future. The vision they create will be determined first by how they identify themselves as a culture and second by how they identify themselves as a civic organization, which in turn is defined by its governance. The concept of citizen government means that citizens must possess the skills and dispositions to act as leaders, know when this obligation is required, and know how to share leadership. In other words, citizens must know when the good of the community, present and future, is at stake and be able to act accordingly.
Therefore, the self-held concept of who a people are culturally and how well their community governance represents them is critical to the sustainability of their future. Their self-image is crucial because it will determine what their community will become socially, which in turn will determine what their children will become socially.
A major problem facing communities today is that people are no longer thought of as people but rather as a group of “publics,” which is an amorphous aggregate of individuals and their preferences. In this sense, “public” means whatever aggregate of individuals is being measured at the moment, such as the public as market player, as skier, logger, cattle rancher, consumer, scientist, and so on. But in none of these perspectives is the public thought of as a group of whole persons whose humanity supercedes whatever else they might be.
Thus, how well a community’s core values are encompassed in a collective vision toward which to build depends first on how well the people understand themselves as a culture, second on how well that understanding is reflected in their self-governance, and third on how clearly it is committed to paper. Only after people have dealt with who they are today, can they determine what legacy they wanted to leave for their children and create a shared vision through which to accomplish it—because only then do they know.
Visions will vary greatly, depending on how a community is defined. A rural community, for example, will include its immediate landscape and perhaps even its relationship to neighboring communities and the bioregion. Within the “inner city,” however, a community may be one square city block and its relationship to the four neighboring blocks facing it. Regardless of how people define their particular community, their success in self-governance depends on their sense of citizenship, which is currently entangled with the term “public.”
The many schizophrenic splits in the concept of “public” are the result of what’s missing, not what’s present. The classical approach to citizenship is conceptualized around and stresses a shared constitution that embodies both rules and a founding myth, which in turn is build on a collective sense of moral history in the form of a common-law tradition, and some notion of a good way of life. The principle of public integration is factored into citizenship through civility, a concept designed to transcend commercial utilitarianism and military domination. Within this concept of “public,” policies are designed to further the common wellbeing, in particular, a community’s moral development. In other words, public policies are initiated and evaluated in light of an ideal toward which to strive.
Citizenship, therefore, is not some abstract quality or an isolated, individual action. Rather, it’s the cumulative effect of a continual, well-choreographed sequence of actions that acquire meaning from their relations to other events in the sequence, where the purpose and meaning arises from the practice of just, civil, interpersonal relationships.
Outside of this choreographed sequence, the meaning of individual elements becomes cloudy. Consider, for example, that the meaning of each day of the week comes from its sequential relationship to all the other days, but only as long as they are in the correct sequence. Mix them up and they lose their meaning. For citizenship to work, therefore, it must be soundly based on mutual civility because it is the quality of human relationships that either allow and foster the sustainability of a community—or kill it. Yet, as important as civility and citizenship are, sustainable community development is possible only to the extent that people keep learning.
One innovative way of learning in a democratic setting is study circles. A study circle is a small-group-discussion format to seek understanding and a common ground when people face difficult issues and hard choices. Study circles reflect a growing conviction that collective wisdom resides in groups, that education and understanding go hand in hand, and that learning can be truly available for all.
The circular shape of the study groups is important and has its roots in antiquity. In medieval literature, brave knights came from across the land to be considered for membership at the Round Table. King Arthur designed its circular shape to democratically arrange the knights and give each an equal position. When a knight was granted membership at the Round Table, he was guaranteed equal stature with everyone else at the table and a right to be heard with equal voice.
In study circles, participants learn to listen to one another’s ideas as different experiences of reality, rather than points of debate. Although they may not agree, they learn to accept that, just like blind people feeling the different parts of an elephant, each person is limited by her of his own perspective, which is derived from his or her own experiences in life.
By managing the process themselves, participants engage in the practice of democracy. In a study circle, there is equality, respect for others, and excitement about exchanging ideas. This environment is ideal for people to practice the most fundamental aspects of democracy by reaching conclusions or making decisions through talking, listening, and understanding—through sharing the common experiences of life that give us a sense of existence, meaning, and value as human beings.
Sharing is the central connection in study circles—and the very essence of citizenship, community, and democracy, wherein participants are encouraged to act as whole people. By this I mean, they are not required to separate feelings, values, and/or intuition from intellectual thoughts concerning any topic. They are not only allowed to think systemically but also encouraged to do so, as opposed to being placed in a straitjacket of intellectual isolation.
Moreover, sharing as whole individuals allows each person to assume the role of teacher, student, leader, and follower at different times, which is critical to the viability of both the democratic process and sustainable community. Because no one person possesses, with equal skill, all of the talents necessary for the practice of either democracy or sustainable community, it’s vital that individuals learn to accept and share the many facets of their personalities to the best of their ability, while valuing the shared talents and skills of others.
People seldom partake of study circles just to learn the so-called objective facts. Rather, a study circle deals with real problems in the daily lives of the participants and so constitutes education in and for life. It is thus imperative that what participants learn in a study circle is grounded in their own experiences and in the real problems and issues they daily face.
Study circles—like the town hall meetings of old—bring people together to talk and to listen, to act and feel as if they are part of a community. As such, study circle are a place to practice equality, acceptance of ideas, points of view, and human diversity—all of which are embraced within the concept of democracy, the embodiment of connectedness through mutual sharing. If an increasing number of people became involved in study circles, it might become clear that the apparent apathy Americans exhibit toward education and participation in politics is really a disguise for a deep hunger to learn within the safety and nurturance of community.
I say this because, as Myles Horton expressed it: “The fact is that people have within themselves the seeds of greatness, if they’re developed. It’s not a matter of trying to fill up people, but to fulfill people.”
I believe this with every fiber of my being! That’s all good and well, you might say, but how can we fulfill people? I think the answer lies in helping communities create a shared vision of social-environmental sustainability toward which to build as an unconditional gift in the present for the children of today and all the tomorrows to come—a community in which children are happy.
I have a closing caveat, however, one dealing with our American society’s split personality, as it pertains to the issue of centralized power. This split personality is born of the assumption underpinning most of our government bureaucracies and private institutions, namely that internal centralization of power leads to efficiency, whereas freedom of choice—favored by a majority of citizens—creates and maintains inefficiency.
While this assumption is true, our democratic system of government, as well as every other democratic government, is found on “effectiveness” not “efficiency.” Yet, because individual rights, and the freedoms they protect, invite inefficiency, power is centralized under the guise of efficiency to omit the “inefficient” human dimension whenever possible—and with it, the democratic process, the hallmark of every dictatorship and military regime.
The question thus becomes: How do we, as a society, build democracy back into our communities? We do so first by accepting that democracy, by its very nature, is an inefficient practice of interpersonal relationships based on our strengths, knowledge, foresight, dreams, and wisdom as human beings, as well as our weaknesses, ignorance, shortsightedness, fears, and ineptitude. For this reason, democracy is a practice of tough love because you have to want it badly to make it work. Sir Winston Churchill once opined: “Democracy is the worst form of government in the world, except for all the other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Having lived under other forms of government, efficient ones wherein freedom of choice was nowhere to be found, I will choose the inefficiency of personal choice every time. That said, for sustainable community development to be anything more than a pipe dream, our entire educational system—from kindergarten through university training—must be grounded, first and foremost, on effectiveness and only secondarily on efficiency, but just to the extent that it does not in any way hinder the ability of teachers to help students become integrated, right- and left-brained, whole-person citizens.
Series on Democracy:
Text and Photos © by Chris Maser 2011. All rights reserved.