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Aspiring to democracy


I live to be inspired. Life can be tough sometimes, and moments of inspiration are the stepping stones that help get me across its roughest patches. Thankfully, I find most of the inspiration I need right under my nose in family, friends, work, and community. But I also find inspiration in ideas - ideas big enough to challenge my thinking, grab my heart, and give me hope for the future.

One of those big ideas is tattooed on my left wrist. It is agape, the Greek word for unconditional love. My wife and I both have these tattoos because our work in education (and in life) is all about accepting others as they are and giving love that doesn't have to be earned or deserved. Agape is not a feeling, but love expressed in action. Sometimes a quick glance at my wrist is all the inspiration I need to do the right thing.

I think I may have one more tattoo left in me, and it is the other big idea that inspires and guides my life. My next tattoo is going to be democracy. Not democracy in the narrow political sense, but democracy as a value system and moral ideal. Educator John Goodlad wrote that "Democracy, first and foremost, is a shared way of life. It begins with who we are as individuals and the relationships we have with those around us, and it radiates outward from that center to encompass all of humanity." He goes on to describe democracy as the best word we have come up with to "embrace such moral concepts as compassion, civility, civicness, equality, fairness, freedom, and justice."

Democracy is based on a belief in radical equality. Not equality as sameness, but equality as the paramount importance of every single individual, no matter what our assets, our abilities, or our attributes. And when every individual is equally valued, then it goes without saying that the well-being of any one of us is largely dependent on the well-being of all of us.

Democracy is not a means to an end, but an end in itself. When we are living and working with others in respect, openness, freedom, and cooperation, then we are living democracy. When we solve problems by talking and listening to each other - even heatedly arguing with each other - rather than resorting to coercion and violence, then we are living democracy. When we actively practice the biblical injunction to "Love thy neighbor as thyself," then we are living democracy. When we guarantee everyone the right to participate in the decisions that affect us, then we are living democracy.

Democracy is about empowering each other to take ownership of our lives and community. It works not just because it is morally right, but because it is our human nature to support and take responsibility for the things we help create. Think about the implications of this for our homes, our workplaces, our schools, our community, and our government. We were not born to be spectators in any of these realms, but participators, and it is our responsibility to make sure that real participation is an option for every individual.

Let me leave you with a quote from Walt Whitman's Democratic Vistas:

"Did you, too, O friend, suppose democracy was only for elections, for politics, and for a party name? I say democracy is only of use there that it may pass on and come to its flower and fruit in manners, in the highest forms of interaction between people, and their beliefs - in religion, literature, colleges and schools- democracy in all public and private life..."

May we all find the inspiration we need to have courage, hope, and perseverance in our ongoing work together. Aspiring to democracy is a great place to start.

Jim Strickland is a teacher at Marysville-Pilchuck High School and an advocate of Student Centered Education. He can be reached at


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