The Experience of Democracy

photo by trialbyjury on Flickr

Kathy McLellan is the Youth Outreach Librarian at the Johnson County Library in Kansas. From 1998-2008 she facilitated CLTL groups for juvenile offenders and visited residents at the Juvenile Detention Center bringing books and promoting literary discussions.  She is currently working to create an Early Literacy Center for the library.


A recent summons to jury duty reminded me of what it means to be a participating member of a democratic community.  When the judge entered the courtroom, we all rose until he was seated and his first order of business was to explain the reason for that little ritual.  It was, he said, not for him that we stood, but for the robe, a symbol of justice. It struck me as significant that these were his first words to us. I had first met this judge while facilitating a CLTL session. I was reminded of the many CLTL participants I’ve encountered over the past 10 years and thought about the similarities of these two different experiences.


Foremost, serving on a jury can change how an individual thinks of him or her self and society; CLTL practitioners believe that literature is a vehicle for change and a mirror of self in relation to society.  As Professor Waxler says, CLTL is an exploration into the meaning of democracy of which trial by jury is a fundamental right.


Looking around at this ‘jury of peers’ I realized that, like a CLTL group, there was a diverse mix of experience and opinion. Attitudes ranged from those eager to participate to those with a hint of contempt for the system.  Based on their answers to the attorney’s questions and under-the-breath comments, I recognized the cynicism that often shows itself in those first few meetings of a new CLTL session.


The individuals selected as jurors would be called upon to apply their judgment and decision-making skills to the case they heard. The position required a level of commitment and willingness to engage. The jury would engage in focused discussion that would require them to communicate their thoughts and analyze a situation.  There would be disagreement, persuasion and a presentation of various points of view.  Hopefully, the jurors would eventually reach an agreement.  

This type of conversation and commitment strongly resembles the qualities inherent in CLTL classrooms across the country. For both groups, the process is pure democracy at work.  


The two major differences between the two groups, in my view, are the focus of the deliberations and the role of the judge. In CLTL the focus is on probationers and choices they make for themselves.  In the courtroom, on the other hand, the juror’s focus is to apply the law to a specific case.  


For juries to be competent in doing this, we need citizens who trust and have confidence in the system. They must have the ability to reason, argue and make good choices.  This is just what CLTL offers some of the most disenfranchised among us (probationers)–an opportunity to participate in public discourse in a way that empowers and builds confidence in themselves and the system.


With regard to the judge, it was powerful to have sat at a table with a man who now sat elevated at his place on the bench in this courtroom wearing the ceremonial robe.  I’m not alone in this feeling; evaluations from CLTL participants consistently show that the judge’s attendance at the discussions has a major impact on them.  I am positive that the experience of sharing ideas with a judge elevates probationers’ understanding and appreciation of the process. 


CLTL offers a powerful opportunity to participate in a democratic process where there is an exchange of ideas with the man or woman in the robe.  Whatever your beliefs about how a community governs itself, it seems true that for democracy to work, we must all participate just as we must all agree to respect the robe.



3 thoughts on “The Experience of Democracy

  1. Kathy: I had never thought before about the similarities between a jury and a CLTL group. What a great idea! And what an interesting essay. I wonder about the image of “the robe” though, as you use it here in the post. In CLTL, is it primarily “the robe” we respect or is it “the human heart” we honor? In any case, watch those turn-abouts and keep the vision always.

  2. Hi Bob – yes, it is definitely ‘the heart’ we honor. the point i wanted to make is that for democracy (the robe) to work, we have to agree to ‘play’. cltl is a powerful way to engage those least likely to participate. thanks for all you do!

  3. Pingback: Continuing Conversations: One Year of Changing Lives, Changing Minds « Changing Lives, Changing Minds: A Changing Lives Through Literature Blog

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