One of the great paradoxes of human beings is that we feel two pressing needs at the same time — the freedom that comes from defining ourselves as individuals, and the security that comes from feeling connected to one another.

Sometimes, this paradox leads us to satisfy one need at the expense of the other. But these two impulses are not mutually exclusive. To join an orderly community, we are not required to abandon the freedom to express our individuality. And to be free, we do not need to sacrifice our sense of security or the meaningful connections we make in our relationships with others.

This tension has important implications for any democratic society, but it is particularly relevant for our schools, which often struggle to balance the need for individual freedom with the responsibility to create order and serve the greater good.

In a school setting, cultivating democratic practices to honor individual freedoms doesn’t mean turning the asylum over to the inmates. To create a climate where people feel both empowered and protected, you don’t start by just telling everyone that they’re free. You do, however, make helping people learn how to exercise freedom responsibly your ultimate goal.

Before that vision can become a reality, we must ensure that the central elements of our social covenant are also in place in our schools: a clear sense of structure and shared identity on one hand, and an unwavering commitment to individual freedom on the other.

To help create such environments, the Five Freedoms Project urges school communities to foster cultures that honor individual freedom and civic responsibility, and ensure that all members of the community have the understanding, motivation and skills they need to become active, visible contributors to the common good.

Schools can gauge the impact of their efforts by measuring the extent to which:

  • The school encourages people to use their voices to help create a safer, more equitable climate that supports student learning
  • Students routinely agree and disagree honestly and respectfully
  • The school actively encourages people to model democratic principles, practices and policies in their daily work and interactions with others
  • Teachers are adept at acting as coaches and facilitators to promote the more active involvement and ownership of students in their own learning
  • The school’s mission statement clearly addresses the democratic purposes of education
  • Students have learned different ways to resolve disagreements so that everyone can be satisfied with the outcome
  • The community is committed to ensuring that religious liberty rights are protected for persons of all faiths and none
  • The principal relies on shared governance to help the school run more effectively
  • Students understand how to participate in the political process and institutions that shape public policy
  • Students take public action on personally meaningful issues and concerns

As The Forum for Education and Democracy makes clear in its recent Democracy at Risk report, “The challenge is clear: Improving education and improving democracy go hand in hand. We need to build upon the natural curiosity of children to help them make sense of the world. We need to arm them with the knowledge and skills, as well as the resourcefulness and inventiveness, that will be required to invent solutions to tomorrow’s problems. We need to give them the tools to live their lives respectfully and collaboratively with others, building communities that can tackle the challenges that lie ahead. We must think of education as more than a collection of standardized tests if we are to reverse the decline of democracy and create a stronger fabric for ‘We the people’ among the next generation of citizens.