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Democratic Transformations: Eight Conflicts in the Negotiation of American Identity

reviewed by Robert Guyver - September 12, 2013

coverTitle: Democratic Transformations: Eight Conflicts in the Negotiation of American Identity
Author(s): Kerry T. Burch
Publisher: Bloomsbury, London
ISBN: 1441173781, Pages: 224, Year: 2012
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This is a timely and important book in which Kerry T. Burch succeeds in making a significant contribution to the tradition established by James W. Loewen and Howard Zinn. To this could be added other traditions, for example, one associated with displaced First Nation peoples, exemplified by the work of Ronald Wright; or the body of literature about American exceptionalism, not all of which, like this, is linked to historical amnesia, although recent work by Jonathan Clark is. Burch examines not only the conventional political wisdom behind his chosen eight pieces of political rhetoric, but also uses detailed historical evidence to reach the range of interpretations behind them. In doing so he paints a prophetic picture of contemporary American society and identifies some serious obstacles to the operation of a fully democratic educational project. Burch is a philosopher of education and draws on professional expertise in his references to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Dewey, Habermas, Gadamer, and Freire; but his book is philosophical not only in its content but also in its method, for it is about the transformation of the principles (behind the contested rhetoric) into practice, or praxis, and searches for a fusion to bind his chosen and problematic landmarks, with their implicit hermeneutic conflicts, to the operation of a democratic critical pedagogy. What follows is an evaluative sequential summary of the book, ending with Burch’s Epilogue, and my own conclusions.

The Prologue sets out the theoretical underpinning for this project, giving prominence to the ideas of Freire, Dewey, and indeed Hannah Arendt, thus demonstrating a link between critical theory, critical pedagogy, American pragmatism and democracy. The handling of the eight conflicts is to be characterized by a feeding of ‘contradiction, paradox, ambiguity and irony’ into ‘civic self-deceptions.’ Music, and jazz in particular as a key trope, underpinning and responding to conflict with improvisation and revisability, is introduced here, as well as the notion of a ‘civic aesthetic.’

‘The pursuit of happiness’ touches on themes returned to in Chapter Two on the Declaration of Independence, Chapter Four on property, and in Chapter Six on business.  It contrasts the influential vision of Enlightenment philosopher John Locke with that of Thomas Jefferson, and is part of an argument which challenges the view that the USA was set up primarily as the kind of property-owning democracy favored by John Locke. Instead the Jeffersonian ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ principles were included. Burch contrasts what he interprets to be the original meaning of the pursuit of happiness with the acquisitiveness and materialism that later took hold.  Using Greek philosophers and the work of John Dewey, Burch establishes the relationship between ‘individuality’ and ‘the common good’ which is a strand throughout the book. This is the first example in the book of democracy as something that is lived, not just something that is ‘done to’ citizens, and this is seen as being an integral part of the pursuit of happiness.

‘The tyranny of the majority’ picks up several strands that are developed elsewhere in the book, particularly through fears and warnings expressed in Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic two volume work, Democracy in America (1835, 1840), and in recent work by Sheldon Wolin.  The commercialization of society and its militarization, as well as the neglect of community values in the relentless search for satisfaction by the individualistic ego, undermine principles set out in the Declaration of Independence, which as a document demonstrating a radical response to tyranny is cited several times throughout this chapter. The classroom response to powerful trends to enforce conformity, especially in the face of controversial national and international events like the invasion of Iraq in 2003, links with Burch’s philosophical approach, supporting teaching as dialogue and the serious matter of teaching as having a strong bond between process and content, with process disciplining the way the content is handled.

‘Four score and seven years ago’ is of course a quote from the beginning of the Gettysburg Address where Lincoln seems to imply that he believed that the real founding document was the Declaration of Independence of 1776, referred to elsewhere by him as an ‘apple of gold’, contrasting with the ‘picture of silver’ provided by the Constitution of 1789. The Constitution back-tracked on the principle of equality enshrined in the Declaration.  The Gettysburg Address is seen as an example of the Platonic use of Eros or ‘the erotic’ as signifier of rebirth or as an aspiration to bring broken fragments to a state of wholeness.  The pages of Democratic Transformations probably do not provide quite enough space to do full justice to this idea of Plato, and clearly it would be necessary to read Burch’s other work dedicated to this topic.

‘Forty acres and a mule’ demonstrates a worthwhile grasp of detail in a narrative that explains what went wrong in the fulfilment of a promise to liberated slaves to give each family ‘forty acres and a mule’ after the Civil War. Burch does not mention that conflict over land could be seen at this time elsewhere in the Anglophone world and of course within the USA itself, notably with First Nation peoples, although his example of a broken assurance involves former slaves. Again the narrative centers around Presidential activity, mapping the unfortunate transition after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln to the era of political compromise under Andrew Johnson, but in so doing returns to the theme of the gap between rhetoric and reality, principle and practice. A link is made here with the Epilogue in that despite not having the opportunity of a property base for their democratic activity and even being denied education for literacy, African Americans nevertheless had a voice, which would eventually develop into the musical genius of jazz. A gloss on this episode is Burch’s reflection on how the fate of these newly freed slaves has almost been lost to the collective memory, and therefore marginalized, with even a recent academic article by John David Smith on the subject ignoring a key piece of evidence (Sherman’s Field Order No. 15 of January 16th 1865, also discussed in Zinn, 2005, p.197) in its drive to justify the actions of the status quo in the late 1860s. Burch brings the conflicts arising from the land denial into the controversy surrounding the circumstances of the killing of Martin Luther King who seemed to be on the verge of a breakthrough in the struggle for African American rights and restitution, providing some evidence that it was a political assassination.

‘The moral equivalent of war’ is a piece of rhetoric is based on a quote from William James (first made at Stanford in 1906) and a ‘site’ for much debate, especially about the wisdom or folly of bringing military methods to moral effort. Also examined here is the role of heroism in the creation of the American myth, and in the construction of American ‘exceptionalism’ which is interchangeable with the notion of an American canon, and runs as another strand of conflict throughout these pages. Gender issues are important here, in the old-fashioned view that real men embrace the opportunity to go to war with open arms, and pacificism is seen by some to be a form of cowardice. William James’ vision provided a strong counter-narrative much needed when the pioneering drive to the west was no longer such an imperative  – the idea of an internal struggle for a moral frontier, or even a social frontier, as an alternative to Theodore Roosevelt’s imperialist tendencies during his Presidency (1901-1909). Yet another strand linking to music education is provided by a report by Howard Mann, dated 1844, where the importance of music to unite people of different backgrounds and reduce conflict is reconsidered through a recent evaluation by Martha Nussbaum.  

‘The business of America is business’ is both an American and an international problem wherever there is a conflict between corporate and democratic values, especially around such ‘sites’ as schools. The extent of the departure from the original 1776 national mission statement is alarming, especially in the effects of advertising and privatization projects on schools, denying them their full birthright as the nurseries of democratic citizenship. Another development that worried John Dewey was the raising of the level of the rights of corporations to have equality under the law with individuals.

‘The military-industrial complex’ draws on three troubling factors: the evidence for America’s imperial aspirations despite its outwardly anti-imperial pretence, the enormous expense in financial and human terms of maintaining and deploying such a military machine, and the secret state behind the workings of military strategy. The consequential effect on other programs to address poverty, education and health-care is seen to be a move away from the fundamental principles of 1776, especially Jefferson’s concerns about the keeping of standing armies, a feature in the 18th century of ‘absolutist’ European states. Some detail is given of the privatization of military activity in Iraq, where much work on the ground was devolved to private individuals or groups, effectively endangering lives and the whole operation, apparently for the sake of individual or corporate profit, another departure from the USA’s original principles.  

‘The personal is political’ starts with an examination of the second wave of the feminist movement, and Burch reflects on how it mirrored a much older debate about separating the polis (city-state) from the oikos (home). Having considered how the feminist revolution was characterized by some internal disagreements about its own identity and trajectory, the argument moves out to embrace a vision of how democracy is not something imposed from outside, by the state, but is an ever-evolving set of attitudes, best seen in dialogue, in listening and responding, in school, work and everyday life. This is a return to a theme set out in the Prologue about natural tensions between the pursuit of individuality and the duty of community involvement where true selves might be fulfilled.

‘Epilogue: Educating the souls of democratic folk’ is the final section, and this uses the metaphor of jazz and interactions within jazz groups/ensembles for a model of the kind of spontaneous and impassioned improvisation and revisability that can operate in pedagogical situations where lively dialogue replaces rote-learning, and handles with inspiration the contrasting ‘mood music’ of different viewpoints, from which new fusions can emerge. In a sense Burch’s book echoes the ‘freedom music of America’ and draws inspiration from W.E.B. Du Bois’s analysis of American society, to use Burch’s words (p.166) as ‘a culture beset with internal division and wilful ignorance about the ongoing racial injustices.’ The spiritual heritage of jazz has implications for democratic education in that it reflects the comment by Du Bois that ‘the gift of story and song’ can provide ‘a soft stirring melody’ to join disparate elements’ in an ill-harmonised and unmelodious land.’

By adopting this overall structure and general approach Burch has avoided the caricature-like polarization between the politics of the Left and the Right that often reduces the complexity of such debates, in the words of David Cannadine, to irreconcilable simplicities. Democratic Transformations is nevertheless, but at a subliminal level, a gloss on the culture wars that have plagued America since the mid-1990s and before (see Nash, Crabtree & Dunn, 1997). The conflict then seemed to be about whether a curriculum should consist of a canon, and the only way to view such a canon seemed to be to consider it either as set of nationalistic-patriotic landmarks in the grand narrative tradition or as a set of alternative landmarks focusing on inclusion and human rights. Burch has provided a very different lens by showing that a political canon can be a starting point for dialogue, based on the important addition of a rigorously critical methodology. Indeed his choices have shown that in order for a narrative to be grand in the most American sense, it must also be inclusive and show a critical self-awareness. The only missing element in his laudable selection is the conflict surrounding the fate of America’s First Nation peoples.

In a passage in Chapter Eight, drawing on the work of Dewey (the several references to Dewey range from 1888 to 1939), but also drawing on further comments from Counts and Giarelli, Burch discusses the possibility or impossibility of teacher neutrality, and acknowledges that teachers face a neutrality dilemma when making decisions on how they embed critical democratic processes in their teaching.  However, this book succeeds in attaining a kind of neutrality for itself in that its re-appraisal of this selection from a national ‘canon’ demonstrates that by adopting a critical stance the canon does not have to be ‘reproduced’ in the service of political indoctrination or a narrow nationalism. By setting the eight conflicts in the context of America’s founding documents and principles, he has brought not only a philosophical dimension to historiography, but also an historiographical dimension to educational philosophy. Indeed, and using a set of mixed metaphors, the canon can be regarded as a dialectical vehicle if placed on a critically Freirean gun-carriage. Perhaps the best results occur when history is taught and learnt alongside citizenship so that each can provide a critical measure for the other, using a style not unlike that provided in this book.

Jazz is imaginatively used as a trope for the handling of philosophical contestation (drawing on Socrates in Plato’s Symposium, Plato’s ‘erotic’ approach to wholeness [the topic of another book by Burch], Gadamer’s fusion of horizons in his Truth and Method, Freire’s conscientization), pedagogical [Piaget’s notion of cognitive conflict], and the resolution of psychological conflict [Freud and Jung]). Relating this back to identity the concept of double consciousness is useful, and throws light on what Paul Gilroy referred to as a ‘diseased discourse’.

Although he clearly did not set out to do this, in a sense Burch has identified within his examination of the ‘scripture’ of this distinctly American meta-narrative a pattern which could be applied internationally, and seems particularly relevant given the disturbing developments of the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, especially recently in Egypt, and with the continuation of ‘cultural heroism’ in North Korea and China, or its re-emergence in the Russian Federation.  Although he has devoted space to music as one possible vehicle for the kind of improvisation and revisability that such a democratic curriculum might require, it is clear from his own careful treatment of the historical developments that make up the eight ‘conflicts’ that it is within the teaching and learning of history itself, either on its own or within a social studies framework, that the educational master-key might be found which could open up this kind of embedded contestability to students in schools, as a built-in antidote against historical amnesia, but for the common good.  Indeed, in seeking the necessary component parts for historical literacy, contestability has found a place in the Australian F-Y10 history national curriculum (2010). This touches on another important point, that a continuation of a domination of school programs by the ‘basics’ of literacy and numeracy as set out in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) programs, could also be viewed as part of what Eliot Eisner referred to as a ‘null curriculum’ where not only the humanities, but also as a consequence, a full preparation for democratically participative citizenship, suffer. But again a more judicious and negotiated balance might well be the answer where literacy, numeracy and the humanities are fused and serve each other in creative ways.  

What Simon Schama wrote about the state of history education in the UK in The Guardian in November 2010 would equally apply to the USA. He commented that in a pluralist society of many cultures the vocational skills of literacy and numeracy are insufficient conditions of modern civility. School students need to know that they belong to ‘a history that’s bigger, broader, more inclusive than the subject they imagine to be the saga of remote grandees alien to their traditions and irrelevant to their present.’ For Schama a truly capacious national history would ‘not be the feeder of identity politics but its dissolvent . . . It is the greatest, least sentimental, least politically correct tutor of tolerance.’  In Democratic Transformations Kerry T. Burch, as a true social frontiersman in the tradition of Teachers College Record, has given an example of how identity politics can be, if not dissolved, then re-crystallized within the context of a ‘truly capacious national history’, meaning having enough room to allow for the discussion and negotiation of conflicted viewpoints in which there is not only an academic recognition of the gap between rhetoric and reality, but also in the service of democracy a pragmatic motivation to bridge that gap.   


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 12, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17244, Date Accessed: 5/21/2022 9:17:52 AM

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About the Author
  • Robert Guyver
    University of St. Mark and St. John
    E-mail Author
    ROBERT GUYVER is Emeritus Teaching Fellow at the University of St Mark and St John, Plymouth, UK. He taught in elementary (primary) schools for 21 years, and was an advisory teacher for history in Essex, 1990-1992. He was on the Government’s National Curriculum History Working Group (for England) 1989-1990, and is the co-editor, with Associate Professor Tony Taylor of Monash University Australia, of History Wars and the Classroom – Global Perspectives (IAP, 2012), which includes a chapter by Professor Keith Barton on the USA. He is also an editor of the International Journal of Historical Learning, Teaching and Research, and he sub-edited the special edition, IJHLTR 11(2) (May, 2013).
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