The Dream of Democracy

Doc tried a lot of things -- many smart things; some slightly cock-eyed -- to build a rule-breaking, adventuresome school. He was fallible and not every tactic he tried stands the test of time; nor was he immune from occasional lapses of wisdom.

Underlying everything that Doc did, however, are a set of values: democracy; knowing yourself; the inter-relatedness of knowledge; the innateness of human dignity even during adolescence; the value of experimenting with the forms taken by learning and of accepting nobel failures as part of the quest for great achievements. These values may have been stomped on, spit on, mutilated and ridiculed during the avaricious '80s, but they are too inherently luminous for their light to have been extinguished.

Some schools -- hopefully many schools -- in future times will rediscover these values and venture forth on the paths where they lead. Do we Indian Springs grads really want to read articles in national magazines about the remarkable achievements ofsuch schools and say to ourselves, "We were doing that at Indian Springs, but we threw it all away by asking so little of those in whose hands we placed our school's fate"?

Many in the ISS Glee Club have sung Thomas Jefferson's words: "The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time. The hand of force may destroy but cannot disjoin them." Some of us who sang those words were atheists; some of us were less than certain that such idealistic formulations inevitably work in the real world. Yet I suspect that we all felt a fundamental, and immutable truth about the potentials of human nobility swelling in our chests as our voices rose and the cymbals crashed.

Thomas Jefferson is long gone, now, and his flaws are manifest in history books along with his greatness. But the valid, visionary feeling that's brought to our chests by memories of singing those words should not be surrendered, however. Ever. And it should lead us to ponder how we lead our lives and think about government.

No doubt someone could have come up with a study in 1775 showing that the American experiment being proposed could not possibly work, given, y'know, the trends. If Thomas Jefferson read them, though, he ignored them.

Howard Cruse
Class of '62

The Indian Springs School-Community Constitution was created cooperatively by the students, teachers, and alumni in the school's first year. It's not terribly long. Try to overlook the aspects of its of its language that may now seem quaint and musty. (It was the 'Fifties, after all!) Imagine yourselves in the shoes of the people who composed it. At that time, no one knew what kind of school Indian Springs was going to turn out to be. It could have gone in a lot of different directions. But the goal, under Dr. Armstrong's leadership and informed by his belief in the value of participatory democracy, was to form organizational principles that would allow the students the greatest possible freedom in shaping their educational experiences but would also include checks-and-balances to insure that irresponsible use of that freedom would be noted and addresses -- whenever possible by peer influence, but also, when necessary as a last resort, by the authority of the grown-ups present. (We students were adolescents, after all!)

The thing that impressed me, arriving seven years into the school's life, was that there were also checks against administrative abuse of power. No "Faculty Policies" (rules created from above that students couldn't veto, like rules about drinking on campus) could be implemented without an opportunity for the students to air their views about the policy in a Town Meeting held before the new rules were put in place. This amounted to a voluntary surrender of power by the faculty and administration in the interest of fostering respect by the governed for the limitations placed on them. (On less momentous matters, of course, the students themselves made the rules by which they lived.) I've never been in any other institution where students were treated with this level of respect.

A quick aside: my own freshman year began on a startling note when, a week into the school year, a Town meeting was called during which Dr. Armstrong was reprimanded by the students because he had created a new Faculty Policy over the summer without inviting student discussion first. I was startled and impressed by the students' audacity. Doc took the public scolding in good humor and pled guilty to violating the Constitution in the interest of perceived expediency. He apologized. High-spirited and non-recriminatory conversations continued without interruption at the table that he and Mrs. Doc shared with students every day at the Dining Hall.)

Digression over. Maybe that Constitution has seen its day and no longer has relevance to the ISS of today. Or maybe there's something in it that could serve as a guide for asking questions about the school of today. In either case, it would seem worthwhile to revisit it today and make some decisions about whether its usefulness as a democratic blueprint remains viable today. Maybe it doesn't. Or maybe, with a few amendments, it could still be serviceable. I'm too removed from your situation to know. But for it to work, the administration and faculty must voluntarily agree to be among the group being governed rather than simply the authorities doing the governing. And the students must take seriously the responsibilities involved in shaping their everyday campus lives for the good of the community.

Both individually and as a group, imagine that Indian Springs were not something that's already been sculpted and baked in the kiln. Imagine that you were a generation who had arrived on a campus only half-built along with some teachers desirous of creating a vital educational experience as a cooperative collaboration between young and old. Pretend for a moment that Doug Jennings, Bryn Roberts, or anyone else who presently wields power over you were at least temporarily out of the picture. You have four or five years ahead of you that you will spend in a still-scenic, if somewhat shrunken, area of Shelby County, Alabama, and you have some knowledgeable adults around who are interested in stimulating your intellects and broadening your perspectives on life. How will you spend the time? What sort of organizing principles will you develop among yourselves so that you will get fed, get your clothes laundered, be able to read without somebody's radio driving you crazy -- all the small but essential stuff of life? What kind of Indian Springs would you create, if you had a chance to start over?

In talking things through without the weight of history weighing too much on you, you may begin to have shared goals. That's where community gets born. I don't mean to be sunny about it; history and authority figures will keep making their presence felt, and I suspect that things will get worse before they get better. But it seems to me that fresh start is needed.

Howard Cruse
Class of '62

(Edited by Joseph Sack, Class of '99)

Not only ISS, but our entire nation, was founded on the central principle that government (i.e. any kind of power wielded over groups of people) should ideally be "of the people, by the people, and for the people", as Ole Abe once said, and that to accomplish this, steps need to be taken to ensure that one faction or individual cannot seize undue power - hence "checks and balances". And despite some notable exceptions (J. Edgar Hoover, for example), on the whole, this approach seems to have been more successful for a longer time than anything else that has yet come down the pike.

I stated it in the way I did because it struck me that Howard Cruse's proposals were largely encouraging us to act as if this were the case, at least at ISS. And I just wanted to underscore that such notions, which were indeed considered radical in 1776, and perhaps just as radical in 1952 as applied to _MINORS_ in a mere _school_, are in fact part and parcel of what has made ISS what it is -- a truly remarkable (and remarkably successful) experiment in Learning through Living.

John M. Merritt '67