Public schools: our best democratizing institution?

My argumentative friend recently asked me about the new http://vivateachers.org/ site, which seeks “to dramatically increase classroom teachers’ participation in important state and national policy decisions about public education” through “direct communication between individual teachers and public officials, giving public officials authentic insight into how public classrooms and schools work best and they make policy that works better for classrooms.”

Their vision (or the mission in technical terms) is rather democratic and uses ICT. It envisions “teachers from all corners” sharing “their best ideas,” collaborating on “actionable policy initiatives that will directly shape decisions…public education.” The Vivateachers site claims that it works for education policy “that puts classroom teaching and learning first.”

In his best provocateur style, my friend asked if I’d heard of it, and I responded saying that vivateachers appeared “the sort of grass-roots, collaborative solution-finding that holds promise as we reform America’s public schools.” Unlike many other educational institutions, [vivateachers] has yet to be funded by the Gates Foundation, and it wisely leverages social networks to empower their knowledge base users (teachers themselves) through dynamic crowd-sourcing. I sanguinely approved of the vivateachers project, and stated that it might be “one guarantee against the corporate privatizers who want to take over our best democratizing institution.” [Full disclosure:  I still have not read beyond the front pages of vivateachers, and so remain rather ignorant them.]

But it was not my “Viva!” to vivateachers that caught my friend’s attention, but my secondary thought. He responded promptly, attacking my claim that public schools are “our best democratizing institution,” emailing, “…I think public schools have a crucial role to play in fitting pupils for participation as citizens, workers, investors, and entrepreneurs…[but] I don’t view  public schools as the principal democratizing institution.  Free elections, a free press, representative government, and free enterprise are necessary conditions for public schools to fulfill any democratizing function.  I note that these other institutions accomplished the democratizing mission for generations in the US prior to the advent of mass public education.”

And not being the quick cogitator my friend is, I ruminated over my response, since he challenged me to my pedagogical core. As I was perhaps pre-maturely hopeful on vivateachers’ score, have I not similarly exaggerated the importance of schools by placing them at the heart of our democratic republic? It is true, I have always been a sanguine school teacher, an enthusiastic cheerleader for the cause of a high-quality public education. But how important to the American experiment have they been? What is the role of schools in our society? There is, fortunately a wealth of information on the question, and so I referred to them to craft my reply.

My friend is an historian, and his point that for a long time we had a USA without public schools is well-taken–the country grew and prospered quite well without them. For the first 50 years or so of US history, only those with money could educate their children. Education was a private affair. In the same way, the electorate was limited for the same half-century. Only land-owning white males could vote until the era of Jackson (mid-1830’s). And around that time, with an influx of immigrants and the rise of industry and urbanization, the idea of educating the masses, rather than merely the privileged class, took hold.

But our visionary founder Thomas Jefferson, in his Virginia had legislated for state schools at the start of our democratic republic. And although it never passed his legislature, his original concept of schooling as a necessary component of a free state provides me support for my claiming the centrality of public schools. In his “Bill for the more general diffusion of knowledge” (1778), Jefferson writes a brief for establishing schools that everybody will pay for. I quote it in full:

Whereas it appeareth that however certain forms of government are better calculated than others to protect individuals in the free exercise of their natural rights, and are at the same time themselves better guarded against degeneracy, yet experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large, and more especially to give them knowledge of those facts, which history exhibiteth, that, possessed thereby of the experience of other ages and countries, they may be enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes; And whereas it is generally true that that people will be happiest whose laws are best, and are best administered, and that laws will be wisely formed, and honestly administered, in proportion as those who form and administer them are wise and honest; whence it becomes expedient for promoting the publick happiness that those person, whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance; but the indigence of the greater number disabling them from so educating, at their own expence, those of their children whom nature hath fitly formed and disposed to become useful instruments for the public, it is better that such should be sought for and educated at the common expence of all, than that the happiness of all should be confided to the weak or wicked:…


In sum, Jefferson’s reasons on behalf of schools are that

  1. an educated public will resist tyranny
  2. an educated public will have wise and honest administrators
  3. potentially useful but poor children will be wasted without public education

Now, no one can seriously claim that the first two effects of public schools have entirely succeeded in the USA today. A mostly-educated, yet apathetic and morally empty populace is what we all too often seem to have. But because even today, schools still offer access for able but poor children into the center of our society, their value can be averred.

The biggest proponent of public schools was probably Horace Mann (1796-1859), whose “common school” model in Massachusetts was eventually adopted by other states. His system of “normal” colleges for teachers is at the heart of even today’s system. Mann argued that schools were essential for the well-being of the republic–without them, society would not exist. “Education,” he wrote, “is our only political safety. Outside of this ark all is deluge.” He also saw that a common, non-sectarian public education would “equalize the condition of men.” Mann goes so far as to characterize education as “the balance-wheel of the social machinery,” an industrial-age metaphor that indicates the school’s central position.

So with Mann, I argue that in addition to providing the orderly, literate, and group-oriented citizenry upon which elections, economies, and a free press depend (and which my friend claims as pre-conditions for a democratic republic), schools also serve as social scaffolds, a place where natural talents can be developed and honest virtues rewarded. As such, schools are engines of social justice necessary to a healthy democratic republic, and to some extent they continue as such now.

And here is a reason for public schooling for which I do not need to find empirical support, since I see it happening every year, in every class. It  happened for me in my schooling as I’m sure it happened for you if you went through public schools. I mean  the normalizing of relations between the many ethnic and religious peoples of our nation. More than other social institutions, it is our public schools that provide a neutral, common playing ground on which young Americans can come to know and care about their fellows. Social capital, in large part, develops here. While there are certainly outrageous eras of segregation and mis-education in our history that detractors can point to, there has also been a very real–because experienced regularly–democratic spirit in our schools. One might adduce the impact that de-segregation of schools has had on lessening reacial prejudice in US society. Maintaining our public schools means that our pluralistic society can continue to exist (the existential argument). Isolated into family, ghetto, or church groups, Americans will not experience a democratic society so well as they can in public schools.

And finally, an argument with personal significance to me. For the child living in a disorderly home, the public school can provide an important source of structure and order, helping to keep the child from criminality or insanity. This was certainly true in my case.  When all about is chaos and bad adult behavior, schools can be a refuge of sanity and decorum necessary to healthy cognitive development.

My friend makes another charge against the effect of public schools that is well-taken. Having public schools alone will not sustain a free society. He noted that “free public education in the absence of such other institutions [as a free press and elections] has often been anti-democratizing in certain other places.” And here I agree with him. You need the schools AND a laissez-faire economy, free elections, and a free press. But opposite my friend, I see the schools as necessary pre-conditions for these, not the other way around.

Will Americans continue to value public schooling as vouchers and charter schools (run by for-profit entities) proliferate? That is a question I am sure the next several years will begin to answer. But as I have attempted to show here, public schools have been indispensable to creating and sustaining our somewhat free society. They should not be dropped for their manifest failures, nor have their “civilizing” function farmed out to the lowest bidders–not if we value what we have.

one-room Kansas schoolhouse image found on search.creativecommons.org

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