Democratic schools are stupid

I don’t know why I’m even writing this post because it would never occur to me that democratic schools are even worth talking about. Like, we don’t talk about sending our kids to schools in war zones. We know it’s a dumb idea. And this is how I feel about democratic schools.

But people talk about them all the time, like it’s a viable alternative to regular school. So here are four reasons why democratic school is too stupid for me to even be talking about and why I won’t be talking about it again because I’ll just link to this post.

1. Democracy means tyranny of the majority.
This is Political Science 101, but I am a huge supporter of the idea that no one should have to suffer through core curriculum,  so instead of bitching to you that you don’t know the Federalist Papers, I’ll just summarize them for you.

The Founding Fathers did not want a democracy because that type of governing body has no ability to protect the interests of the minority. This is why we have the electoral college: because a democracy is too unstable and dangerous to the wellbeing of its constituents.

2. Democracy places insane weight on the importance of self-interest.
John Rawls came up with such a cool way of governing people. He said you should make decisions not knowing who you are. He called it a veil of ignorance  which was a theoretical inability to know what type of person you would be in the new community. So you would have to vote for what is most fair instead of what is most beneficial to you.

This idea ends up serving as proof that humans are unable to run an effective democracy because we always know where we’ll end up after the laws are drafted.

3. Self-directed learning needs no vote.
Why would you let someone else vote about how you learn? This is not how the real world works. Outside of school you get to learn what you want to learn because you are a thinking, curious person with a drive to have a fulfilling life. In the real world, if  someone wants to tell you what to learn, they have to pay you.

So why would you sign up to let someone else direct your child’s learning without your child getting paid for it? Democratic schools are like unpaid internships, except you can’t even put it on your resume.

4. Alternative schools are not better than mainstream schools.
Look, I understand why parents send their kids to democratic schools. Parents recognize that public school is terrible, because you have to be living under a rock not to see that. And most parents don’t have the money to send their kids to really expensive private schools that operate like unschooling households. So parents do a compromise and send their kids to alternative schools. But the most insidious thing about democratic school is that it’s just a different way to waste kids’ time. It’s not self-directed learning, it’s not project-based learning—it’s whatever the majority wants the learning to be. It’s forced learning.

So parents need to stop deluding themselves that alternative schools are better for their kids. The choice of an alternative school isn’t about the kids. It’s about the parents. Parents want to feel like they are doing something to keep their kids out of a failing public school system. But it’s not the public school system that’s failing. It’s the idea of sending kids away all day to have someone else raise them that is failing. Democratic or not.

47 replies
    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      With the veil of ignorance you can only protect people, so you could imagine yourself being the woman carrying the fetus. Which would probably be great for everyone.


        • Penelope Trunk
          Penelope Trunk says:

          Annie, I wrote the response to let everyone know that I think it’s absurd to debate abortion on a post about democratic schools. And, in fact, I think it’s useless to debate abortion issues on my blog, because I’m extremely pro-choice, and it’s my blog, so the discussion will have to be somewhere else. That was the message I was trying to give the initial comment, with my response that is rhetorical ridiculousness.


  1. Skyler Collins
    Skyler Collins says:

    Peter Gray calls the Sudbury Valley school (and others that share its model) “democractic” in his new book, *Free to Learn*. Based on the above, it would seem that you both have totally different definitions of “democratic.” I think the only reason he uses that term is because the staff is kept on through student voting. Curious your thoughts on that.

    (Another thought, perhaps he’s defining it the way this guy is: It would seem so.)

    • Ari
      Ari says:

      I presumed Penelope included Sudbury schools, because the link she posted to democratic schools explicitly includes Sudbury schools in the third sentence.

      Daniel Greenberg, who founded the Sudbury school in 1968, used the term “democratic” right from the start. His main argument was that consensus was too slow a decision making process for larger than six or seven people, and representation was an extra, unnecessary layer for a population of around a hundred. So using democracy as the decision making process had to do with how you can be most inclusive at various scales of population.

      In Sudbury schools, the democratic governance structure impacts budgeting, hiring, and basic regulation regarding practical cooperation.

  2. Ari
    Ari says:

    My family chose Unschooling over the local Sudbury-type democratic school, so I am in that camp. There are reasonable arguments to make against them. But this post seems to merely reflect a gross misunderstanding of the mechanics of democratic schools.

    A few points:
    “Why would you let someone else vote about how you learn?”. When the U.S. Government apportions money between the military and social services, it has weak or vanishing influence on whether an individual becomes a soldier or social worker. Similarly, in democratic schools, the democracy refers to governance, not individual activities. People vote on apportioning budget between, say, art supplies and music supplies. But each individual can do whatever they wish with their time, including leaving the campus, fishing, etc.

    “It’s not self-directed learning”. But it is. See the last point. Kids in Sudbury schools have immersed themselves in everything, even mortuary science. There is no curriculum, and no restriction on subjects any individual can pursue.

    “Democracy places insane weigh on the importance of self-interest.” “Democracy means tyranny of the majority”. In a context with many different factions (such as small groups who each want to budget money for their own activity), democracy forces negotiating for votes to get a majority. This context is most similar to Sudbury schools.

    To me, the two most practical arguments back and forth about unschooling vs. Sudbury are:
    1) For Unschooling: many Sudbury schools do not have enough population to create the community of interest to support a child’s interest, and they are better off seeking a community of interest independently. For Sudbury: Sudbury schools pre-solve the issue of building community and purchasing materials.
    2) For Unschooling: parental culture can be transmitted more easily. For Sudbury: kids can form their own culture, blessedly independent of the parents.


  3. Courtney
    Courtney says:

    The democratic schools I am familiar with, like Sudbury Valley near us, don’t really vote on what kids should learn as far as I know. The kids are pretty much free to use their time there however they please. The democratic model is mostly about creating rules for living together in the community. So they have certain rooms that are quiet rooms, and rules about skateboarding in the hallways, rules about disrupting other peoples work, rules about violence and bullying. They also have a justice committee that is essentially a rotating jury duty, that deals with rule infractions and determines consequences. Generally the consequences are related to the rules, so a kid who left a huge mess in the kitchen might need to clean the kitchen up for a few days or something. Now I could see the argument that all of that is a lot of unnecessary bureaucracy and kids can just live their lives at home with much less restriction, but I personally like the idea of the kids having a space and community that they have ownership of and are responsible for the stable functioning of. I would never send a kid there who didn’t want to be there, but it is probably fabulous for the right sort of kid. It is not the route we are taking, but I am glad it is there, should we need it in the future.

    • JorgeHeely
      JorgeHeely says:

      Bingo! Thanks for another thoughtful correction to the author’s faulty notions of democratic free schools.

  4. Jani
    Jani says:

    Not to be THAT person, but…just a couple of spelling things:
    1: “…because a democracy is to unstable…” (Should be ‘too’)
    2: “Democracy places insane weigh on the importance of self-interest.” (Did you mean weight?)

  5. Courtney
    Courtney says:

    Ahh, I see Ari said it much better than I did. But yes, I think they have value, and I am generally in favor of more options for children and families when it comes to schooling.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I wonder if that party line “more options is better” is not a cop-out. Because it’s actually more babysitting options. No one talks about more options or fewer options for homeschoolers because there are infinite options. So saying it’s better to have more options for school doesn’t make sense to me: school is not what kids need, so why is it better to have more ways to present it?


      • Linda Lou
        Linda Lou says:

        Of course, it’s about the parents. Just as medicine is about the drug companies and physicians. No one wants to be in a nursing home, either! Systems designed for dependents are ALWAYS designed for the benefit of those who do the caretaking!

        So it’s good to have options that are more palatable than public school. Sudbury is a good option for families needing or wanting a babysitter, and that is most families. I wish my town had a Sudbury.

  6. Susan Overbey
    Susan Overbey says:

    “Veil of ignorance” seems to be another way of defining objectivity and intellect. Intellectual people already can consider the impact of social decisions on people of other social groups. Further, they can make choices that might not be in their own interests because they consider them the right choices. I have practiced education law in the NY public school context–first on the “side” of the schools then, and mostly, on the “side” of the parents. I think ignorance is prevalent in public school administration and intellect is scarce. That’s why usually I tried to help parents get their “disabled” students into appropriate private schools at public expense. I haven’t read all the posts and articles on homeschooling that are on this site, but two things occur to me. First, I don’t think every parent is suited to homeschool his or her child, unless transmitting parental culture is the goal. Second, at least in NY, you can be hauled before Social Services if your homeschool plan isn’t approved by the superintendent of your school district. Go figure that one!

  7. Jared Cosulich
    Jared Cosulich says:

    You seem to believe that it’s possible for a private school that costs a great deal of money to provide a great education by acting like an unschooled household, but you don’t believe that a less expensive alternative school can offer the same educational environment.

    Why wouldn’t an “alternative school” be able to provide such an educational environment?

  8. LAP
    LAP says:

    I agree with everything except #2. Democracy places emphasis on majority opinion, which happens to be strongly tied to self-interest Because, contrary to what Rawls asserts, it’s impossible to expect everyone to ignore themselves when making decisions. The best system is one that allows as many people as possible to act in their best interest. Democracy is not that system as you point out earlier in the list. However, socialism is an even worse system and is not at all encouraging of self-directed learning.

    • Bernhard
      Bernhard says:

      I’m sure you are aware that you are comparing an economic system (socialism) to a form of government (democracy).

      These concepts are by no means not mutually exclusive, but complementary, even if history would suggest otherwise.

      I really wonder what makes you say that socialism is worse than democracy when it comes to self-directed learning.

  9. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    The Wikipedia link to ‘democratic education’ mentions John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I’d like to have them review the current state of public schools and then interview them. Ask them about the implementation of their ideas on democratic education. Somehow I don’t think democratic education has evolved as they envisioned it. Ideas are one thing and the nuts and bolts of the whole operation are something else. I’m on the mailing list of the thefederalistpapers dot org web site. I recently downloaded one of their pdf files – John Locke’s ‘Some Thoughts Concerning Education’ and started reading it. It’s a slow read (i.e. – not “modern” English) but it is interesting. It’s 123 pages so I may be skimming and bouncing around in that text.
    There’s a link to Lisa Nielsen’s blog (The Innovative Educator) in this post. I recommend it for kids of all ages in school or other type of learning environment. I see in this post and other posts on this blog the mention of choice in one’s education. It is to me a fundamental right to have the ability to choose. In fact, it’s the subject of the first post on this blog written by Lisa.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I could link to Lisa’s blog all day. Something that really impresses me about Lisa is that she can write such supremely subversive and smart ideas on her blog while she maintains a high up position in New York City’s Department of Education. You have to really know what you’re talking about in order to maintain that balancing act.


    • Commenter
      Commenter says:

      One important thing to remember about the child’s freedom to choose vis-a-vis his education is that the child must also be free to choose to go to school, whether or not the parent thinks it is a mistake.

      I have many homeschooling friends, and almost all of them, at one time or another, have had to bite their tongues as their kids chose to go to school.

      If your kids don’t have the freedom to choose something you wouldn’t recommend for them, they don’t really have freedom of choice.

      I don’t anticipate doing this with my son, who is too introverted and self-directed for school, until and unless his scientific pursuits outgrow our home’s lab space. But my daughter, who is vivacious, gregarious, and extroverted, is likely to want to spend her days with groups of children. I believe she will at some point come to the conclusion that such a thing will happen better at school. I am glad that we will, in such a case, have the option to send her to a democratic school, where she may pursue her own interests all day, rather than being subjected to a standardized, dumbed-down curriculum all day long.

      If that is stupid, then I guess I’ll have to be stupid. Maybe my kids will even be stupid. But at least we won’t engage in a straw-man argument about it, knocking down nothing but our own ignorance.

  10. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    I don’t think you have much of an idea what happens at democratic schools. Certainly nothing like the picture you came up with.

    Really, it’s like what happens at your house every day. Except with more kids and more resources.

    Here’s a good place to learn about it:

  11. Bernhard
    Bernhard says:

    Have you ever visited a democratic school, or at least talked to people who teach there, or to kids to kids who attend these schools, or their parents?

    It seems that you do not have much of an idea about democratic schools, you don’t even appear to have read up on them properly.

    Probably your bias for homeschooling as the one-size-fits-all solution prevented you from actually investing time in this.

    There’s a special word for that kind of fallacy, I’m sure as a homeschool teacher you are familiar with it.

    I’m afraid with homeschooling kids would be subject to all kinds of delusions, conspiracy theories, half-truths and misunderstandings, just like your strange ideas about democratic schools.

    A school with many teachers, many students, and many parents tends to be less biased than two parents and a handful of children, both for the content they teach and for behaviour towards individuals.

    I think it’s self evident that a larger group of teachers, all with their different fields of expertise and passion, with the sum of their experiences and stories could teach group of kids more stuff than just one or two persons can.

    But it’s also about what kids they can discover about themselves and for themselves, it’s important even for small kids to make experiences of their own, without their parents, to develop into self-sufficient adults. Homeschooling does rarely account for that, nor for the social learning that happens in larger and more diverse groups.

    Relevant social learning takes part when expectations are not met, when surprises make you challenge the beliefs you held. This takes exposition to diversity and complexity, and there’s rarely a thing more complex than a larger group of people and their interactions.

    Another great thing about schools: your kids come home and bring back new ideas and stories to you. They could have told you what democratic schools are like. How cool would that be? You could have written a blog post about that.

    Yet I do agree that most schools are broken, I think Seth Godin makes a fairly good case for what’s actually wrong in the US of A (not all of this applies to, say, Europe) and how to fix it in his free book “stop stealing dreams” . You might want to read that. You might even assign it as a homework to your kids and see whether or not you come to the same conclusions. Wouldn’t that be fun?

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      Penelope is very familiar with Seth Godin’s book – “Stop Stealing Dreams”. All of his books actually. She wrote a review of his book on 3/12/12 on her career blog. There’s 231 comments on that post. Check it out.

      • bernhard
        bernhard says:

        Thanks, I have just read the post you referred to.

        How you would call it a “review” when it barely says anything about the book is beyond me, though.

        I find it preposterous to accuse Seth Godin of writing that book only as a justification for not homeschooling his kids. I haven’t read his other books and I certainly don’t have an opinion about the man, but there’s absolutely nothing in the book that warrants that conclusion.

        Apparently it takes all kinds of people to make a world.

        • Mark W.
          Mark W. says:

          You’re right. It really isn’t a review of Seth’s book. More accurately, it’s a review of section 121 ( “Home schooling isn’t the answer for most”) of his book. The first sentence of Penelope’s post links to Lisa Nielsen’s post on that section of Seth’s book.
          I can understand your statement of “I find it preposterous to accuse Seth Godin of writing that book only as a justification for not homeschooling his kids.” from your perspective. However I’ve been reading Penelope’s posts for years so I know her writing style and also know that Penelope knows Seth personally. Penelope has also written about her Asperger’s Syndrome on the blog so her content here is not filtered very much.
          The reason I mentioned 231 comments on Penelope’s post is because the comments (including Penelope’s comments) add a lot to the post. And the links within the post are many times important to look over. Thanks for your reply and reading Penelope’s post of 3/12/12.

          • bernhard
            bernhard says:

            Thanks for explaining that, I was under the impression this was just another crazed american blogger.

      • bernhard
        bernhard says:

        I don’t know, do you?

        Maybe you can also detect some valid points in what I said and enter the discussion, that would even be more awesome, at least IMHO.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This comment is from my brother. As soon as I read “Lord of the Flies” in his comment I thought: yes! That’s exactly what I imagine as democratic school. I love my brother because he’s able to go straight to the worse-case scenario as fast as I am.


    • bernhard
      bernhard says:

      From my experience, most democratic schools are a pleasant place to be, nothing like lord of the flies at all.

      You should read up on how democratic schools actually work.

  12. David R
    David R says:

    Very interesting start of the morning for me. First, I read a piece by Peter Gray in Salon promoting democratic schools. (That piece can be found here:

    Next item I turn to is a quick takedown on democratic schools. Though after sifting through the comments, I see that maybe Peter Gray and Penelope are not talking about the same type of institutions. That may actually be for the better, as some really good comments illuminate the ideas and variations behind democratic schools, including one that also cites Peter Gray.

    But what I really love about this post are the references to Rawls and The Federalist Papers. I am not a fan of Rawls – but I will not waste anyones time debating his philosophy. My positions on the failures of his circular reasoning are more eloquently made by others. However, I am tremendously interested in The Federalist Papers and the collection of various Anti-Federalist Papers. And all of this is getting my brain to move at 100 miles an hour to analyze what Penelope wrote.

    The sad thing is that through school-work in high school, my college history major and law school, I never read a single word of The Federalist Papers or The Anti-Federalist Papers. And I only read Rawls because I took a class taught by Stanley Fish in my third year of law school. How could that be?

    I was only able to fully appreciate this post because of my intellectual curiosity, not because of the incredible sums I spent on credentialing. And I do not need to be in a classroom to be part of a community of people bringing diverse ideas and experiences, and sharing with me articles, ideas and experiences that I had yet to come across.

    Now we are raising our own kids, and we are lucky enough to live in an age where education is easily accessible. And it is so obvious how badly those in charge of credentialing have really performed at what they state is their primary goal: education.

    Just the reading I do with my morning coffee is more intellectually stimulating than most college courses – let alone public school curricula. It seems crazy not to try allow my kids to fully take advantage of the great resources available to them.

  13. Mariana
    Mariana says:

    PT, I’m sorry this post is stupid. If you have a homeschooling blog, and you want to discuss democratic schools, you have to read “Free to Learn” from Peter Gray. Other people have commented on his book before, so you can’t say you were ignorant. I was really excited when I saw the post, I am eagerly looking for reasons not to put my kids in a democratic school. But you gave me none, because it is obvious you don’t know how they operate.
    Sorry for the bitter comment, but I know you can take harsh criticism.

  14. Dave
    Dave says:

    Penelope, I often like your subversive and critical takes on both conceptual and practical issues but I felt I had to add my voice to the chorus as I think you have waded into the issue without doing enough research. I would never send my child to the school you describe but it seems I won’t have to worry about it as that school doesn’t exist. As other’s have said it would be great to see your criticisms of concepts or practices that actually exist among so called “democratic schools”. Barring that I look forward to seeing this post in one of your future “things I was wrong about” posts.

  15. J.E.
    J.E. says:

    There are people out there who send their kids to school for the exact reason that they are gone 6-7 hours a day five days a week and I don’t think they are pondering whether the kids are being forced to all learn the same things the same way. How many parents do you hear say “I can’t wait for school to start back!” each year? Maybe I’m just very cynical, but for all the talk of what people believe to be the best ways for children to learn (homeschooling, unschooling, self directed learning, etc.) there are those who just simply want the responsibility of educating children,even their own, to be someone else’s job. And these are not parents with low incomes and low levels of education.

  16. Steve
    Steve says:

    I don’t view school as babysitting, or daycare as babysitting. In the right places, those people are coparents, helping to raise children with you. I choose not to homeschool my kid. In terms of outsourced options available, there are very big distinctions.

    • Annie
      Annie says:

      You can view it any way you like. It doesn’t make it a reality-based view.

      Ask any person who’s ever worked in daycare, and they will tell you they are not co-parenting. Not even close. They are close to minimum wage workers, with enormous turn over.

      As for school, it is not fair to expect a teacher to co-parent your child… and 20+ others, and be “on” all day teaching in a way that’s accessible to EACH child, and teach to tests, and lesson plans, and and and… Totally an unfair and unfounded expectation.

      Don’t lie to yourself to make yourself feel better. Your kids are not being parented when they are in daycare and at school.

  17. Alex
    Alex says:

    Hi Penelope,
    I love your blog and generally agree with it but this post really surprised me. Next time you are in NYC I invite you and your sons to spend a day or a few hours at my son’s school – The Agile Learning Center at Manhattan Free School. It is unschooling among a group of peers, teachers and volunteers. My husband and I come and go and volunteer our time and talents there as and when children are interested in what we can offer.
    As an only child, our big concern when we originally signed our son up with the NYC Department of Education as a homeschooler, was two things:
    1. Wanting him to be among a group of peers day in and out to have the time with them to form friendships, mentorships, work out problems etc.
    2. Wanting him to have his own space and world separate from us where he can learn from and interact with a larger group of people than just us and those we hand pick for him.
    In the end, we got cold feet that homeschooling could provide him with enough of these experiences.
    I cannot rave enough about how happy he is at MFS. There is no ‘tyranny of the majority’. Children do exactly what they please when they please, either on their own or in groups. He would much rather be there doing his own thing among his little group of friends than doing his own thing in his much quieter and less populated home: he spends his day playing Minecraft, going skateboarding, learning to program, 3D printing his own designs, having philosophy discussions, cooking, sharing funny books, playing board games, doing music jams, learning guitar, wading in the river in Central Park, visiting the city museums. etc. etc. And always in a group, among a gaggle of other children who wanted to do the same thing at that moment of the day.
    He was a boy who complained bitterly every day of his life about going to his traditional elementary school and preschool. Now we can’t tear him away.
    There are some basic rules about cleaning up mess you make, respecting others’ property and stopping physically rough housing with someone if they ask you to stop. But no rules about what children have to do with their time. There is a 5 minute stand up meeting each morning where people announce their intentions for the day and offerings of classes or group projects by volunteers or members of the community are announced for students to consider whether they want to participate or not. If a volunteer is specifically coming in to work with a student who has requested and scheduled that time, the student is expected to honor their commitment, just as adults would be expected to do so in their world. But other than that, each day is for the child to invent on their own.
    It is closer to a Hacker Space or a Maker Space than a traditional school. It uses “Agile” business practices to help students organize their own goals and plans on a daily and weekly basis (such as the use of Kanban boards). The kids set individual goals and are assisted by a coach they pick themselves from among the group of older students or adult volunteers.
    This is the 21st century face of democratic schools: creative, exciting places where people of all ages – children and the staff and volunteers who work with them – get together and make stuff.
    Visitors are always welcome. I do hope you will come and see how your 1970’s image of endless meetings and tedious ‘democratic’ processes is not at all what a free school today has to be.

  18. Chitown Girl
    Chitown Girl says:

    Wow. I got more information here than democratic school sites! Thanks to people who commented without being nasty to others and provided helpful information for this confused parent!

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