The importance of democracy in our society and our schools

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Ian M. Mette is associate professor of educational leadership at the University of Maine. This column reflects his views and expertise and he does not speak on behalf of the university.

In Maine we like to think of ourselves as independent thinkers. Many of us were raised by parents and teachers who taught us the value of examining issues separate of political affiliation. We also have many examples of politicians who were independent thinkers, including Margaret Chase Smith, Edmund Muskie, William Cohen, George Mitchell, and Olympia Snowe, just to name a few. These politicians embraced Maine values by leading with a conscience for Maine people, working across party lines, and developing policy that ensures the betterment of all people. These are the role models who allowed me to develop my own political identity as an independent thinker, one who thinks critically about issues and belongs to no political party.

In Maine, our independent nature is both historical and cultural. We emerged from being a territory of another state, proud to be independent and to celebrate Maine heritage as our own. Growing up in Maine helps you develop a sense of pride, about the rugged land you come from, our traditions we celebrate throughout the seasons and the ability to think for ourselves.

Having spent my youth here, lived in multiple other states, and later returned, I can tell you we have some of the most nuanced politics in the U.S. And that is something that should be celebrated. Gay marriage, open carry gun laws, legalized marijuana and ranked-choice voting highlight just a few of these nuances, and the ability for citizens in our state to debate these often opposing and conflicting legal rights is critical to strong democracy.

Our PK-12 schools should be fostering Maine’s egalitarian heritage, but sadly there seems to be an attack on their ability to serve as engines for democratic principles and structures. Two major issues contribute to this. The first part to this issue is the slow but steady erosion of schools being able to serve as the bedrock to our democracy. For the better part of the last two decades students have been subjected to federal and state education policies that increasingly overvalue standardized test scores and have all but eliminated the ability to debate openly and honestly about issues of social justice, human rights, the value of peer-reviewed science.

A second but equally concerning aspect of this issue concerns the philosophical differences we have based on our own racial and cultural backgrounds, something that is clearly under attack in our current politics and within our society at large. I have recently read opinion pieces by Mainers, some by fairly influential contributors, who believe that science does not belong in politics and that race and privilege should not be addressed in Maine schools.

Sadly, these positions wrongly identify us as uneducated, simple, and backwards. As Mainers, we know these labels are unfair and inaccurate, but ultimately will negatively influence how future generations of Mainers will view themselves, many of whom continue to choose to leave the state and never return home. So what can we do?

Broadly speaking, we need to support schools to reimagine what they can be, not what they currently have become, starting with a recommitment to democratically share governance with all stakeholders in a community. Schools should be modeling how to debate ideas and democratically decide how to problem solve issues in a community. We are at a critical time in our society, one that will be judged by future generations about how we chose to address structural inequalities, historic racism, and economic segregation. While these might be uncomfortable subjects, discussing and acting on them should be a non-negotiable.

Finally, we need to show our children that independent thinking is at the heart of democratic principles. We have a rich history in Maine of being independent thinkers, and we need to stand up to the divisive rhetoric that is eroding our democracy. Acknowledging that science, specifically peer-reviewed science about climate change and COVID-19, belongs at the center of our decisions about our democracy and our future is central to these debates. If we want to remain independent thinkers, let’s look to our history — including Smith, Muskie, Cohen, Mitchell, or Snowe — for examples of how people have led with conscience and compassion. The future of our state depends on it.

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