Editor's note: Upper school history teacher Tom Dorrance gave this speech to the upper school student and faculty community on October 6, 2020, to kick off the start of upper school election programming. Tom shared, "There were two main goals for this speech. First, to suggest and sketch out some common ground and common values with the recognition that common ground is essential for debate. Second, to talk about the urgency of this moment but striking a different note than the apocalyptic, sky-is-falling language, and why this urgency exists."
My task today is to chat with you all a bit about democracy and democratic values. Of course, I’m not here to speak for all of the school or to tell you what you should think . . . that would be undemocratic. But I do want to share some thoughts that I have on the topic and discuss why I think it’s important to talk about democracy in a school setting.
One of the tensions we identified in discussing this project was the need to recognize and create space for a diversity of voices and ideologies while also recognizing the anomalous character of the moment we find ourselves in. It has become increasingly difficult to talk about the state of politics without engaging in a certain amount of partisanship. The optimist in me, however, sees this as a moment to reaffirm, in the active sense, a faith in democracy. But what does that mean? Democracy, like so many other words in our present political vocabulary often gains its power by meaning everything and anything to the people using the term. This makes it an easy value to celebrate, but nearly impossible to discuss in a critical and practical fashion. If we are to engage in a discussion about how American democracy might be under threat, then we need to begin with a shared understanding of what American democracy is supposed to be.
To begin, Democracy, I believe, is an act of faith, a faith in the humanity of others. Democracy is messy, that’s part of what I think is so beautiful about democracy. It's chaotic, it is not the product of a singular will but, in its more pure form an unruly gestalt. This unruliness is part of what makes democracies so fragile; how do you cultivate space for disagreement and debate without letting those centrifugal forces pull society apart? The counterforce to the centrifugal tendencies of democratic debate comes through the recognition of shared values and principles. So democracy, I think, begins with a clear and forceful defense of the dignity of our fellow humans. We also need a shared set of truths; values that we aspire toward and seek to pursue as a way to measure our society’s progress toward recognized goals, no matter how asymptotic that progression might be in reality (even if we never arrive at our destination, a path we still want to traverse.) One might call these shared set of values and goals, this celebration of common humanity a nationalist creed, though it has always been hard to separate calls for nationalism from the ethno-cultural weight celebrations of Americanness can evoke.
America, of course, did not begin as a democracy. The architects of our political system felt that the experiment in self-government, forming a government of the people, was too fragile, too precious to be left to the passions of full democracy. Their vision of the republic was one that was always teetering on the edge of corruption and collapse. Many, not all, but many of the more powerful members of the founding cohort distrusted wage earners, sailors, the landless poor, to say nothing of women, indigenous peoples, and enslaved peoples of African descent. Early in our history, we can see the expansion of democracy often coming at the denial of the humanity of other members of American society. The historian Edmund Morgan talks about how Thomas Jefferson was able to write about the inherent equality of all only because he lived in a society in which the need to repress class tensions stemming from economic inequality was replaced by a system of race-based slavery in which white men, rich and poor, collectively shared in the control and subjegation of enslaved black laborers. Later, during the Jacksonian period, property qualifications for voting gave way to a notion of citizenship that reaffirmed a cultural nationalism based in race and gender.
But humanity is stubborn and undeniable. Jefferson’s words gained new meaning when translated into new contexts, when used to highlight injustices that Jefferson made himself willfully blind to. In Haiti, the language of Jefferson’s declaration of independence traveled by word of mouth along the same commercial networks that bound together the Atlantic economy and inspired a revolution. Frederick Douglas could speak about the “The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence,” passed down from the founding generation while sharply condemning an American society that refused to extend those blessings of freedom to African Americans. While Abigail Addams reminded her husband to “remember the ladies” in the creation of a national government, a generation later a full movement for women’s rights emerged. The movement gained energy, in part, because women like Sarah and Angelina Grimke refused to let their gender prevent them from speaking out against the injustices of slavery. I see this active engagement with the challenge of democracy in Nikole Hannah-Jones insistence that African-Americans are the architects of American democracy rather than only the victims of American nationalism.
American democracy is both an arena where the stubborn insistence of humanity’s need to triumph and be heard is played out, a struggle which, in sense, is responsible for the longevity of American democracy and it is a fragile social contract that needs constant care and cultivation. Like a garden that thrives because it teeters on the edge of anarchic wilderness and barren desert, democracy succeeds because it is an affirmation of our basic claim to humanity while constantly at risk of succumbing to the centrifugal forces that are inherent to our own natural diversity.
How do we trust that our opponents see us as human, that they value the democratic exchange of ideas more than their own victory? First, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that past generations were somehow more democratically minded than ourselves. Rather than chart a fall from grace in terms of individual virtue, I think it’s more worthwhile to look at the erosion of shared norms and rituals; the balkanization of collective knowledge that serves to counterbalance the competitive impulses of democratic conflict. There’s a destructive synergy of winner-take-all politics combined with a growing gulf in the realities that we all inhabit. How can we have productive debate if we can’t agree on facts? I think that fear and insecurity have always been a part of our national psyche, but the distrust that comes from these feelings of fear has been increasingly weaponized and in some manifestations, cynically and intentionally weaponized. This brings us back to our sense of purpose, there’s both a need and an opportunity to be very concrete and intentional in terms of imagining what engaged citizenship looks like, what the practice of democracy in its active manifestation should mean.
What better place to have this discussion than in an educational setting. I think that a commitment to education is a commitment to democracy because, in its essence, education stems from a belief in our better angels, that we can be better. If democracy is always fluid, always redefining itself, that is because we as individuals are engaged in exactly the same process. It is a process that simultaneously looks backward and forward, we grow as individuals and as a democratic society by constantly translating our sense of the past into our expectations for the future. As the philosopher, proponent of radical democracy, and educational reformer John Dewey wrote, in a critique of the liberalism of the founding generation:
liberalism knows that an individual is nothing fixed, given ready-made. It is something achieved, and achieved not in isolation.
Dewey saw that we can realize our potentials as individuals only through the democratic experience of engagement with our fellow citizens, mediated through the institutions--cultural, educational, political, social, scientific--that provide structure to democratic engagement. In other words, we get better as individuals through collective pursuits and it is that tension, between individual and collective that makes democracy so fragile and makes it so necessary to preserve that fragile tension.
- What phrase or section stood out to you in this piece? Did anything strike you as potentially controversial or partisan? How do you define democracy?
- Why is the classroom a good place for a discussion of our democratic values? Why should we lean into these nuanced and complex conversations?
- How do we reconcile a belief in and appreciation of American values with a recognition of their historical and present denial to parts of our population?
- To what degree do we still have this faith in each other and in the democracy? How can we cultivate a greater faith in each other--as citizens, educators, and colleagues?