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Curmudgucation: Education and the Nation

It has become standard for folks on the pro-public education side of ongoing debates to talk about public schools as a foundation of democracy. I think that's true, but perhaps beside the point.

True because it is our delivery system for trying to, or at least saying we intend to, provide basic tools for all young humans to have a shot at achieving that whole life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We've understood that connection for a long time, back to the days when we had laws in place to deliberately deny some Americans access to a free public education because we understood that it would be harder to hold them down if education was allowed to lift them up. 

It's also true because public education not only serves the public, but creates the public. We understand on some level that people who don't know stuff and don't understand stuff--those people are easier to steer and not always good at making healthy choices for the country as a whole.

But all that may be beside the point because we don't all agree that democracy is important. For some people, the government needs to be aligned with the right values and run by the right people, and a democratic approach that allows the wrong people to have a say in government is bad. 

This is not a new argument in this country. You can't build an economy that depends on the labor of enslaved people without making mental gymnastics to embed the idea that some people are more actual people than others. And if you create a system of government based on the notion that only True Believers should be in charge, you're also inclined to believe that some people are more people than others.

As a country, our history is built around setting up ideals and then trying, with very mixed results, to live up to them. That struggle doesn't make us a particular evil or wretched nation as much as it makes us a very human nation. After all, is there anything more human than trying to live out your life as if you really believe what you claim, try, or aspire to believe. It turns out to be really hard, and the people who come close are rare enough to become well known for it.

So, "all men are created equal" says the guy keeping enslaved human beings at home. "Let's establish religious liberty," say the folks executing and banishing fellow believers for believing exactly the right thing. And just as surely as we have kept violating those values, we have also tried to stand up and do better. Do we contradict ourselves? Very well, we contradict ourselves. We are large. We contain multitudes.

Those contradictions always find their way into schools. That is not new. The fight over how to undo generations of slavery and mistreatment under the law found its way into schools. What is arguably different this time is that schools are being used to drive changes the nation instead of vice versa.

We are living through a decades-long argument about the very nature of the public education mission, and that is being used to fuel the current political argument. 

I suppose that means, in part, the so-called culture wars, though as one of the principal architects of that war has told us, quite plainly, that the purpose of the culture wars is to drive a wedge between the public and their schools, to decrease trust in public schools so that they can more easily be swept aside.

Because if we can raise a generation that thinks of public schools as a toxic remnant of the past, we can get closer to an "I've got mine, Jack" nation, where "freedom" means I can get what I can and you--well, if you have obstacles in the path to your freedom, that's not my problem (even if I helped put those obstacles there). It's a nation guided by the kind of conservatism Frank Wilhoit described when he wrote “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.”

I still have no doubt that there are people who are sincere in believing that we would have a better world with market-based education, with education-flavored businesses that live or die based on their ability to serve the public, but which would eventually yield a rising tide that lifts all boats. I think they're absolutely wrong--that to transform education into a private commodity that parents must purchase (with a tiny bit of government voucher assistance) in a free(ish) market would yield us a country divided between educational haves and have-nots, a system that would not empower poor parents, but further impoverish them. And while I believe in the sincerity of some proponents, I also believe that some DeVos-style fans know full well that they are proposing a change to an education system aimed at sorting rather than lifting or leveling, and for them, that's a feature, not a bug.

And once we accept the idea that schools should sort and that "freedom" means "you're on your own in this race, no matter how far behind we made you start out," we've begun spreading that idea throughout society.

My frustration for all these decades is that very little of the debate and discussion is about any of that. The modern reform movement has been all about changing the whole promise and purpose of public education without admitting that's what's going on, without discussing what's really on the table, without talking about what we're really talking about. And those of us who defend public education have too often been suckered into doing the same. Just as in the larger culture, folks keep hollering, "But that is against democratic principles" as if the honest answer wouldn't be, "Well, yes, that's the point."

Part of the experience of our country is an endless debate, an unrelenting struggle over who we are and what we're about. I don't expect it to ever end. This is the hard work part of a pluralistic society--no matter what ideas you champion, when it comes to your opponents, you will never achieve either a perfect compromise or a total victory. 

Maybe it's a true thing that I've come to understand, or maybe it's just me reflecting that I grew up in this country, but I've come to believe that Truth is not a verifiable spot in the constellation of ideas, but a point that is defined by the tension between a complex of contradicting and striving ideas. It's all about balance, and like any balancing act, it requires constant shift and adjustment. Like any balancing act, it is never settled, not even when one overbalances in one direction and falls on one's butt.

Cultural debates usually drive school; right now, schools are being used to drive cultural and political debates. That's a threat to education because it converts students into pawns, tools to make a rhetorical point instead of young humans trying to find their way, figuring out how to be their best selves, how to be fully human in the world. 

A nation is great because its people--its persons-- have the chance to become great. Not just the ones who believe The Right Thing, not just the ones who come from The Right Background. Education is not a commodity sold to parents, but a public good and a societal responsibility shared by us all because we all have to share in the results. That's the promise of public education that I believe in and that I will continue to argue for--that it is a debt we owe to every young human in this country to provide each and every one with a free quality education that empowers them and builds a better nation for all of us (not just the fortunate few). 

We have failed many times. But I have to believe that no matter how badly you did yesterday, today you can always do better. Let's do that. 

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Peter Greene

Peter Greene has been a high school English teacher in Northwest Pennsylvania for over 30 years. He blogs at Curmudgucation. ...