Great Ideas

        April/May 2007

(reprinted from the Forum for Education and Democracy blog)

Some people wake up with great ideas. But I’m a night person. Right before I fall asleep I think I’ve finally found just the right way to say what it is I’m thinking. Often when I wake up I’ve either forgotten it or it seems banal.

But here are two ideas that keep reoccurring, and it is morning now so I’m going to try to capture them.

Great Idea 1:
The whole point of public education (vs job training or even some forms of private education) is to prepare a public for its responsibilities which, in a nutshell come down to exercising careful, thoughtful and reasonable judgment in the face of complex evidence. In the two tasks that confront 18 year olds—voting and serving on juries—these are the presumptions that lie behind the privilege.   Our best judgment is what in the end we bring to the table. Note there are neither admissions tests, nor licensure requirements for either voting or serving on a jury. It’s the unspoken and awesomely heavy presumption and also the most irrational facing governance by democratic principles and practices. It makes no sense, except (as Churchill said) it’s better than any of the alternatives.  But for every problem confronting this absurd idea—that everyone has a “right” to such power—there is a solution. Better education.

Not just formal K-12 schooling, surely not just or even college—which comes too late for many voters and jurors and is not open to everyone. But, as the slogans say, our aim is “lifelong” learning, on-going adult education. Newspapers are one of these educating forces, as are all the new technologies. Public access to books, libraries full of resources for getting at “the truth”, public spaces for communicating one’s ideas, and for demonstrating on behalf of them, etc, etc. I’m enamored even of the idea of subsidizing adults for going back for a liberal arts education later on, when they are more likely to appreciate its usefulness. But the one and only institution we set aside for this and only this purpose—with no obligation to make a buck in return—is our K-12 system of schooling.

I challenge any of us to spend a day with a kid in an average school and try to connect the dots between what is being learned there—formally and informally—and what a citizen of a democracy requires (in contrast to citizens perhaps of countries that don’t even pretend to be democratic).  The world is full of virtues. And economic necessities. But what are the explicitly democratic predispositions, skills, habits of mind and heart that we are not born with, but could learn in a setting devoted to such a purpose?

Great Idea 2:
Then, one night it occurred to me, that for all my ranting and raving against the term accountability, in fact the idea of being accountable lies at the heart of democracy. Democracy is a form of accountability—a concept intended to hold the powerful’s feet to the fire. Naturally as our schools have moved further and further away from being attached to their publics, it has become more and more important for us to invent other non-democratic, bureaucratic, “mandarin” forms of accountability. When there were 200,000 school boards serving a population less than half the size of today’s, a lot of people knew who was making judgments about their schools.  Today with as few as 10,000 school boards, and with some of them having almost no realistic power over anything but floating bonds, well….  No wonder! There ought to be a half million school boards or more, if—big if—we really believe in democracy as our most special and effective form of accountability.

Given that I’m not a fan of many of the decisions reached by democratic decision making bodies—including many school boards as well as state legislatures and Presidents—this is a leap of faith. I make it because I still agree with Churchill about the alternative to holding on to this often counter-intuitive and even counter-reasonable faith.  Neither various forms of benign dictatorship or market-place utopias seem more reasonable. Although if I got to choose the dictator it does some nights appear to be the solution. But by morning I have to face the fact that it’s unlikely to be someone of my choice; and if it were I’d probably be in the opposition the day after—coercion just has its limits when it comes to the important stuff—the stuff inside our hearts and minds.

These two ideas have become more than nighttime fantasies, but daytime ones too. I long for a more robust discussion. We confront the increasing  daily power of BOTH my dystopias— increased centralization of public schools in the hands of the few, and increased “selling off” of our schools to private interest groups. And yet we confront a very thin response to both.

What, readers, would we have to do to make these issues part of the conversation about K-12 schooling among our friends, parents of our children’s friends, colleagues, fellow citizens?

© 2007 Deborah Meier

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