In college, I took a pair of courses about the Soviet Union’s transition from a communist dictatorship to a capitalist democracy. The series of courses was fascinating, and the one labeled “Political Economy” thankfully fulfilled my economics requirement for my Ed.M.
The professor grew up in Poland while it was under Soviet influence. Since the subject matter was so relevant to his personal experience, anecdotes were inevitable. These stories always had a bit of an absurdly humorous bent to them.
The most memorable of these stories came in the form of a joke that he claimed was popular back in Poland. I can’t vouch for the authenticity of that claim, but it is a perfect illustration of the concept he was trying to explain: democratic centralism.
This was the practice adopted by Lenin in organizing Communist elements in Russia prior to the Bolshevik Revolution. Since the party was illegal (the Tsar didn’t like revolutionaries, I suppose), a process was needed to make decisions and take action without comrpomising security.
Democratic centralism calls for the party to be divided into a bunch of local cells. These groups get together regularly to democratically debate issues and to elect representatives to move up in the party hierarchy. They’re also more or less isolated from the other cells. As the local cells come to their conclusions, their opinions are passed up the hierarchy to the top.
Once the debate reaches the top, the party leader(s) come to a decision. That decision is passed back down to the local cells, and everyone is obliged to follow the party line. Infighting is dangerous when the Tsar’s police forces are trying to have you found and executed.
The name comes from the notion that the practice is essentially democratic – since people are voicing their opinions and passing them up the chain of command. However, it is ultimately centralist and autocratic, since the party leader(s) make the ultimate decision for all participants.
In explaining this concept, my professor told us a joke. Fair warning, it’s a tad crude.
Democratic centralism is like two guys standing at the bottom of a ladder. First, they argue and debate about something – that’s the democracy. Then one guy climbs the ladder and pisses on the other. That’s the centralism.
Sounds like a splendid practice, doesn’t it?
Democratic Centralism in Education
I’ve discussed this with colleagues before, but the topic flared up yesterday in my Small Learning Community Common Planning Period. The one other member of my cluster hadn’t shown up for the meeting, so I was left alone chatting with the women who orchestrates and coordinates these small learning communities.
She often asks for our input about various problems in the school – like low test scores. How can we improve them? What should we be doing?
As she explains it, our ideas are passed up the chain of command to her boss – one of the vice principals. Our common planning periods are supposed to be the fertile breeding ground for ideas, even though we often feel like they aren’t heard. Her advice was to keep saying them until someone (i.e. the higher ups) decided to listen.
In the course of this conversation, something she said struck me as odd. “I keep hearing the same ideas from a lot of people.”
If we’re all voicing the same ideas, why are they being ignored? She suggested that we just needed to keep saying the same thing until someone decided to listen. When is that going to happen?
At this point, I jumped tracks to the democratic centralism analogy. It seemed fitting for two reasons.
First, we were being asked for our input. In theory, these small learning communities were supposed to generate ideas from teachers that could be implemented to improve the school. We were being given a democratic voice and a stake in the school’s success.
Great in theory, except for the centralism part. It’s clear to everyone – and her comments make it even more clear – that our advice and suggestions aren’t taken seriously. If the administration wants to do something, they’ll do it. A chorus of voices apparently isn’t going to change that – especially a disjointed chorus that is filtered through multiple channels before it gets to the decision makers.
Second, we’re extremely disjointed and isolated. The faculty as a whole is pretty segregated into cliques, but the small learning communities are even more isolated. We meet in a sparsely furnished room, one group at a time (up to four people in a group) throughout the day. We never have a meeting of multiple clusters, there’s no formal way for us to communicate with each other, and there’s really been no attempt to bring any of the clusters into collaboration on the topics the administration wants us to solve.
Like the underground party cells in Tsarist Russia, we’re isolated and we’re dictacted to by the higher command. Unlike the underground party cells in Tsarist Russia, we don’t need to be.
Insert Foot in Mouth
Somewhere around this point, I suggested that there was a better way to organize things. Instead of passing ideas up the chain of command – in the form of disjointed discussions and endless paperwork – there could be a public discussion between all of the clusters on a digital venue.
The advantages to this?
It engages more people in the discussion. My cluster has two members. We agree on a lot of things. More conversants leads to more disagreement – which can ultimately lead to more progress.
It makes the discussion public. At the moment, I only know about the other clusters through the chain of command. Am I being told everything? Are things subconciously being censored out or forgotten? How many people are really echoing the same ideas as us? Are there only a few of us, or is the entire faculty asking for the same thing?
I’d be far more engaged in the discussion if I knew that it was going to be publicly recorded – instead of possibly swept under a rug somewhere. This idea is empowering to teachers, as it makes it harder for the administration to simply ignore the suggestions that they don’t like. It breaks down the centralist barriers of the old system and at least paves the way for democratization.
As the conversation wound to an end, and the cluster coordinator seemed very doubtful of the possibility of such a public discussion, I stuck my foot in my mouth and volunteered to start the ball rolling. Oops.
Now I’ve got the unenvious position of trying to figure out how to do that. Hmm…
On a side note, my favorite part of the sparsely furnished room is that there is one computer. It’s an old Mac that has no power cable, no keyboard, no mouse, and no ethernet cable. It’s a nice paperweight, and at the moment it is 100% useless.
One last aside. For the time being, my official recommendation for improving student performance: Provide my classroom with enough operable desks. That would be nice.
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