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Janresseger: Public Schools: Our Democracy’s Essential Institution

This blog recently discussed (here and here) Derek Black’s new book, Schoolhouse Burning: Public Education and the Assault on America Democracyabout the long battles to protect the right to public education under the principles embodied in the nation’s founding documents and the 50 state constitutions. Black believes that public schools are our nation’s essential public institution; he also argues that protecting public education and protecting democracy both require constant attention: “The question today is whether constitutions are enough, whether courts can, in effect, protect and save that right for the rest of us. Might it be, as it has always been, that constitutions are just ideas, the force of which ultimately depends on how deeply they penetrate our cultural psyches and how faithfully we pass those ideas along?”  (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 224)

Reading Black’s new book sent me back to some books on my shelf in which a political philosopher and a philosopher of education explore the role of our nation’s public schools for informing and preserving our democracy.

What about the threats today to the social contract—the idea that along with expecting government to protect our individual rights, we must all take responsibility for ensuring that our institutions and laws protect our collective wellbeing? What about a period like the one we are living through, when the President of the United States and the U.S. Secretary of Education insist that we turn away from “government” schools and instead divert our tax dollars to privatized (but publicly funded) charter schools and publicly funded tuition vouchers to pay tuition at private and religious schools?

In a 2007 book, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, the late political theorist Benjamin Barber describes precisely how today’s move to privatize public schools in the name of expanding individual parents’ freedom to choose ultimately means that the powerful can serve their own purposes while society loses its capacity to protect the rights of vulnerable families and their children: “Through vouchers we are able as individuals, through private choosing, to shape institutions and policies that are useful to our own interests but corrupting to the public goods that give private choosing its meaning. I want a school system where my kid gets the very best; you want a school system where your kid is not slowed down by those less gifted or less adequately prepared; she wants a school system where children whose ‘disadvantaged backgrounds’ (often kids of color) won’t stand in the way of her daughter’s learning; he (a person of color) wants a school system where he has the maximum choice to move his kid out of ‘failing schools’ and into successful ones. What do we get? The incomplete satisfaction of those private wants through a fragmented system in which individuals secede from the public realm, undermining the public system to which we can subscribe in common. Of course no one really wants a country defined by deep educational injustice and the surrender of a public and civic pedagogy whose absence will ultimately impact even our own private choices… Yet aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further from the public sector.  As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us’ as citizens and civic educators—and thus for me the denizen of an American commons (or what’s left of it).” (Consumed, p. 132)

Derek Black defines public education as “the state’s absolute and foremost duty.” (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 254-255)  Exactly what is it that makes our public schools so essential for a viable democracy?  In a 1998 collection of essays, A Passion for Democracy, Benjamin Barber defines our schools’ public purpose precisely and what we will lose if we neglect to pay attention: “The logic of democracy begins with public education, proceeds to informed citizenship, and comes to fruition in the securing of rights and liberties. We have been nominally democratic for so long that we presume it is our natural condition rather than the product of persistent effort and tenacious responsibility. We have decoupled rights from civic responsibility and severed citizenship from education on the false assumption that citizens just happen. We have forgotten that the ‘public’ in public schools means not just paid for by the public but procreative of the very idea of a public. Public schools are how a public—a citizenry—is forged and how young, selfish individuals turn into conscientious, community-minded citizens.” (A Passion for Democracy, pp. 220-221)

Why is all this especially important at a time when the President of the United States has condemned public schools for teaching about the injustice of slavery and has advocated for public schools which whitewash our history?  Barber counters the President’s argument: “Our public schools are our point institutions in dealing with our nation’s oldest and most intractable problem: racism….(T)he ‘public’ in public schools (must) be understood as signifying plurality and diversity… America is not a private club defined by one group’s historical hegemony. Consequently, multicultural education is not discretionary; it defines demographic and pedagogical necessity…  English will thrive as the first language of America only when those for whom it is a second language feel safe enough in their own language and culture to venture into and participate in the dominant culture. For what we share in common is not some singular ethnic or religious or racial unity but precisely our respect for our differences: that is the secret to our strength as a nation, and is the key to democratic education.”  (A Passion for Democracy, pp. 227-231)

In a profound 1998 book, Common Schools: Uncommon Identities, Walter Feinberg, professor emeritus of education philosophy at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, considers the urgent importance of a critical approach to the teaching of the nation’s history: “To be an American, that is, to submit to the nation’s laws, is different than to identify oneself as an American and to participate in the public will formations that determine the direction of national action and inaction. This identification is active and requires an engagement with interpretations of events that comprise the American story. That there is an ‘American story’ means not that there is one official understanding of the American experience but, rather, that those who are telling their versions of the story are doing so in order to contribute to better decision making on the part of the American nation and that they understand that they are part of those decisions. The concept is really ‘Americans’ stories’…  This means, among other things, that students must learn about the various meanings that people from different backgrounds might give to different events. They need to address these differences in ways that promote continuing discussion…  (T)he common school must be involved in teaching students both to speak from the knowledge that their cultural identity provides and, as audience, to hear the voices of others… It is within and across this medley of difference that the common school continues the dialogue begun during the American Revolution about the nature of national unity and the character of national identity.” (Common Schools: Uncommon Identities, pp. 232-245) (emphasis in the original)

Finally to summarize the public role of our nation’s system of public schools, we can turn back to Benjamin Barber and his 1992 book, An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America: “This book admits no dichotomy between democracy and excellence, for the true democratic premise encompasses excellence: the acquired virtues and skills necessary to living freely, living democratically, and living well. It assumes that every human being, given half a chance, is capable of the self-government that is his or her natural right, and thus capable of acquiring the judgment, foresight, and knowledge that self-government demands. Not everyone can master string physics or string quartets, but everyone can master the conduct of his or her own life. Everyone can become a free and self-governing adult… Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer. Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity. ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical… Schooling is what allows math washouts to appreciate the contributions of math whizzes—and may one day help persuade them to allocate tax revenues for basic scientific research… The fundamental assumption of democratic life is not that we are all automatically capable of living both freely and responsibly, but that we are all potentially susceptible to education for freedom and responsibility. Democracy is less the enabler of education than education is the enabler of democracy.” (An Aristocracy of Everyone, pp. 13-14)

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—working ...