October 6, 2023

Jan Resseger: Protecting Public Education to Protect Democracy: A Challenge for Our Times

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Resseger reflects on an article by Fernando Reimers, and what it means that public education and democracy seem under attack. Reposted with permission. 

I find myself struggling these days to understand how those of us who prize our U.S. system of public education seem to have lost the narrative. As I listen to the rhetoric of today’s critics of public schooling—people who distrust or disdain the work of school teachers and who believe test scores are the only way to understand education, I worry about the seeming collapse of the values I grew up with as a child in a small Montana town whose citizens paid so much attention to the experiences its public schools offered for the community’s children. The schools in my hometown provided a solid core curriculum plus a strong school music program, ambitious high school drama and speech and debate programs, athletics, a school newspaper, and an American Field Service international student every single year at the high school. While many of us continue to support our public schools, what are the factors that have caused so many to abandon their confidence in public education?

It is in this context that I found myself reading “Education and the Challenges for Democracy,” the introductory essay in the current issue of Education Policy Analysis Archives. In his essay, Fernando M. Reimers, a professor in the graduate school of education at Harvard University, explores the interconnection of public education and democracy itself. Reimers explains, for example, that the expansion of our democracy to include more fully those who have previously been marginalized is likely to impact the public schools in many ways and that these changes in the schools will inspire their own political response:

“(T)he expansion of political rights to groups of the population previously denied rights (e.g. women, members of racial or religious minorities) may lead to increased access for these groups to educational institutions and a curriculum that prepares them for political participation. These changes, in turn, feed back into the political process, fostering increased demands for participation and new forms of representation as a result of the new skills and dispositions these groups gained by educational and political changes. But these increases in representation may activate political backlash from groups who seek to preserve the status quo. These forces may translate into efforts to constrain the manner in which schools prepare new groups for political participation. In this way, the relationship between democratic politics and democratic education is never static, but in perpetual, dynamic, dialectical motion that leads to new structures and processes. The acknowledgement of this relationship as one that requires resolution of tensions and contradictions, of course, does not imply an inevitable cycle of continuous democratic improvement, as there can be setbacks—both in democracy itself, and in education for democracy.”

Reimers continues: “Democracy—a social contract intended to balance freedom and justice—is not only fluid and imperfect but fragile.  This fragility has become evident in recent years… In order to challenge the forces undermining democracy, schools and universities need to recognize these challenges and their systemic impact and reimagine what they must do to prepare students to address them.”  While Reimers explains that the goal of his article is not only, “to examine how democratic setbacks can lead to setbacks in democratic education, but also how education can resist those challenges to democracy,” he presents no easy solutions.  He does, however sort out the issues to which we should all be paying attention—naming five specific challenges for American democracy:

“The five traditional challenges to democracy are corruption, inequality, intolerance, polarization, and populism… The democratic social contract establishes that all persons are fundamentally equal, and therefore have the same right to participate in the political process and demand accountability. Democracy is challenged when those elected to govern abuse the public trust through corruption, or capturing public resources to advance private ends… Democracy is also challenged by social and economic inequality and by the political inequality they may engender… One result of political intolerance is political polarization… Political intolerance is augmented by Populism, an ideology which challenges the idea that the interests of ordinary people can be represented by political elites.” (emphasis in the original)

Reimers considers how these threats to democracy endanger our public schools: “The first order of effects of these forces undermining democracy is to constrain the ability of education institutions to educate for democracy. But a second order of effects results from the conflicts and tensions generated by these forces….” As the need for schools and educators to prepare students for democratic citizenship becomes ever more essential, political backlash may threaten schools’ capacity to help students challenge the threats to democracy.

In their 2017 book, These Schools Belong to You and Me, Deborah Meier and Emily Gasoi articulate in concrete terms what Reimers explains abstractly as one of the imperatives that public schools must accomplish today: “(W)e need a means of ensuring that we educate all future citizens, not only to be well versed in the three Rs, and other traditional school subjects, but also to be able to see from multiple perspectives and to be intellectually curious and incisive enough to see through and resist the lure of con artists and autocrats, whether in the voting booth, the marketplace, or in their social dealings.” (These Schools Belong to You and Me, p. 25)  Schools imagined as preparing critical thinkers—schools that focus on more than basic drilling in language arts and math—are necessary to combat two of the threats Reimers lists: corruption and populism.

But what about Reimers’ other threats? How can schools, in our current polarized climate, push back against intolerance, inequality, and polarization? Isn’t today’s attack on “diversity, equity and inclusion” in some sense an expression of a widespread desire to give up on our principle of equality of opportunity—to merely accept segregation, inequality and exclusion? This is the old, old struggle Derek Black traces in Schoolhouse Burning—the effort during Reconstruction to develop state constitutions that protect the right to education for all children including the children of slaves—followed by Jim Crow segregation—followed by the Civil Rights Movement and Brown v. Board of Education—followed by myriad efforts since then to keep on segregating schools.  Isn’t the attempt to discredit critical race theory really the old fight about whose cultures should be affirmed or hidden at school, and isn’t this fight reminiscent of the struggle to eliminate the American Indian boarding schools whose purpose was extinguishing American Indian children’s languages and cultures altogether? Isn’t the battle over inclusion the same conflict that excluded disabled children from public school services until Congress passed the Individuals with Disability Education Act in 1975? And what about the battle that ended in 1982, when, in Plyler v. Doe, the U.S. Supreme Court  protected the right to a free, K-12 public education for children of undocumented immigrants?  Our society has continued to struggle to accept the responsibility for protecting the right to equal opportunity. As Reimers explains, action to address inequality has inevitably spawned a reaction.

Educators and political philosophers, however, have persistently reminded us of our obligation to make real the promise of public schooling.  In 1899, our most prominent philosopher of education, John Dewey, declared: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”  (The School and Society, p. 1)

In 1992, political theorist Benjamin Barber advocated for the very kind of public schooling Reimers would like to see today:  “(T)he true democratic premise encompasses… 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.… 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)

In a 1998 essay,  Barber declared: “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. If we want youngsters from Los Angeles whose families speak more than 160 languages to be ‘Americans,’ we must first acknowledge their diversity and honor their distinctiveness. English will thrive as the first language in 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.” (“Education for Democracy,” in A Passion for Democracy: American Essays, p. 231)

These same principles are prophetically restated by William Ayers in his final essay in the 2022 book, Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy:  “In a free society education must focus on the production—not of things, but—of free people capable of developing minds of their own even as they recognize the importance of learning to live with others. It’s based, then, on a common faith in the incalculable value of every human being, constructed on the principle that the fullest development of all is the condition for the full development of each, and conversely, that the fullest development of each is the condition for the full development of all…  Schools don’t exist outside of history or culture: they are, rather, at the heart of each. Schools serve societies; societies shape schools. Schools, then, are both mirror and window—they tell us who we are and who we want to become, and they show us what we value and what we ignore, what is precious and what is venal.”  (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, p. 315)

In his new essay, Reimers explores the interdependence of the public schools and American democracy. The threats he names today are all part of the long battle we’ve been fighting for generations to expand the right for every child to be seen and nurtured. In the midst of today’s attack on democracy and public education, it is worth taking the time consider the values which are the foundation of our nation’s unique commitment to universal public schooling. Holding on to these principles will help us keep on keeping on.

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