Johann Neem: Restoring the Democratic Promise of Public Schools
Johann Neem teaches history at Western Washington University. This piece appeared originally on Diane Ravitch’s blog at the beginning of the Biden administration, but ity makes a good reminder for today.
The last four years have taught us just how fractured America is. After a decisive but divisive election, President-elect Joseph Biden now begins the most difficult work ever: trying to weave back together a social fabric that has, after years of neglect, come unraveled. Biden has promised “to restore the soul of America.” At the heart of his vision must be a reinvigorated and renewed commitment to the democratic purposes of public education.
To restore the soul of America, we need to restore the soul of our schools. This means being committed to public schools as sites of integration, where students learn in common, equally, in the same classrooms. This means rejecting the privatization agenda of choice and vouchers, where the logic of the market instead of the commons dominates. It means remembering that public schools are not just serving individuals or families, as our current Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos argues, but all of us. It means finding real solutions to the ways in which residential segregation divides us by race and family wealth. Our public schools today reflect our divided soul, with whiter and richer Americans segregating themselves into exclusive neighborhoods with their own schools. All Americans must go to school together.
The founders of America’s public schools in the nineteenth century considered their integrative function essential. They imagined schools where native-born and immigrant, rich and poor, would learn to live with and for each other. The new state of Michigan’s first superintendent of public schools John Pierce celebrated public schools where “all classes are blended together; the rich mingle with the poor … and mutual attachments are formed.”
Our public schools’ founders shared the racism of their time. America’s public schools were segregated both de facto and by law. Black Americans struggled to achieve integrated schools in which all Americans would be treated equally. Sixty years after six-year-old Ruby Bridges courageously entered New Orleans’ William Frantz Elementary School, that struggle continues. President-elect Biden must work for schools that integrate us across our ethnic, racial, religious, and economic divisions. We must learn that we are not enemies, but Americans.
Learning to see each other as Americans also requires a curriculum that integrates rather than divides. The culture wars have torn us apart and undermined our faith in common institutions. Nowhere have the culture wars been more divisive than over the humanities curriculum, and history in particular. We need to move beyond multiculturalism to telling stories about ourselves that bring us together. But to do that, we also need to avoid moving backward to stories that emphasized the experience of one group of Americans—white men—and ignored or erased the experiences of others.
As an immigrant myself, I know how powerful and important public schools can be when they bring diverse people together and welcome them into the nation. By inviting me into these traditions, Americans demonstrated that, despite my foreign origins and brown skin, I was welcome here. This openness was considered a hallmark of American society. We considered ourselves a nation of immigrants, a place where people from around the world could start new lives in a new country.
While the federal government does not determine curriculum for local school districts, the Biden Administration can use its bully pulpit to do the opposite of what Trump did with his. Under Donald Trump, education was weaponized to tear us apart. In response, the Biden Administration should encourage educators to embrace cultural integration rather than division.
A curriculum that integrates across cultural and racial lines is going to be politically challenging. Today, many on the right are suspicious of such efforts. Fed on right-wing media, they respond with anger, especially when riled up by the likes of Trump, who argued, in his speech celebrating American independence at Mount Rushmore, that he and his supporters “will not allow our country, and all of its values, history, and culture, to be taken from them.” He reiterated these words at the first ever “White House Conference on American History.” “Whether it is the mob on the street, or the cancel culture in the boardroom,” the President proclaimed, “the goal is the same… to bully Americans into abandoning their values, their heritage, and their very way of life.”
The Biden Administration will also face resistance from the other side. Today, many on the left worry that to offer a common curriculum is inherently racist or ethnically biased because it privileges some Americans’ stories at the expense of others. Instead, they advocate culturally specific curricula for students based on their ethnic or racial backgrounds. Such an approach also divides rather than unites; it privatizes our history and culture. In contrast, an integration agenda emphasizes the public schools’ democratic aspiration to bring all students into the nation’s common life. Every student deserves to be introduced to American literature and history, as well as such subjects as math, science, and civics. Few Americans get this at home, whether they be native or foreign born. An integrative approach respects students’ diverse backgrounds while preparing all young people to be fluent, competent, and empowered citizens.
The debate between left and right has played out, in negative ways, over the merits of the New York Times’ 1619 Project. The conversation has become, like our culture itself, artificially divided. On one side, Republican Senator Tom Cotton introduced a bill to prohibit federal funds from being used to teach the 1619 Project. But the left responds, too often, in ways that make finding common ground harder. Thus, Illinois state senator LaShawn K. Ford, as if to prove Trump right, urged that public schools stop teaching all history until the curriculum can be revised to be less racist. As long as we think of our history as “us” versus “them,” rather than a complex story we all share, we will not heal America’s divided heart.
There is no conflict between an integration agenda and telling the truth about the past, unless we imagine that the past has only one truth to tell. For example, the national story means both celebrating our founding fathers for creating a democratic republic and coming to terms with their racism and support for slavery. They were—and we are—imperfect, but the goal of our country, as the Constitution proclaims, is to become “more perfect.”
Testifying before Congress in June 2019 during hearings about reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates argued, “we are American citizens, and thus bound to a collective enterprise that extends beyond our individual and personal reach.” For us to see ourselves as a collective enterprise will require, first, rejecting the privatization agenda of choice and vouchers. The next step is a positive commitment to bridge the boundaries dividing us, whether they be racist and economically exclusive school district boundaries, or curricular boundaries that reinforce our differences. White Americans need to see themselves in the experiences of those with darker skin, and those of us with darker skin must be allowed to consider the history and culture of white Americans ours as well. Our failings and our successes, our good and our bad, our flaws and our promise, and our traditions, belong to all of us. We are all Americans.
The public schools are public. Their mission is to forge a public. They should help young people to move beyond their pre-existing identities to see themselves as part of the nation. In a country so divided that we no longer consider each other fellow citizens, reviving the democratic mission of public schools has never been more essential.