December 09, 1992 4 min read

Benjamin R. Barber, a prolific author and the Whitman Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University, provides in An Aristocracy of Everyone a totally new and original framework for viewing the so-called crisis in American education. Many of the currently fashionable formulations of education’s problems, he says, miss the essential point: How learning in all its guises is to advance the American democracy.

In the following excerpt, Mr. Barber mulls some of the considerations that come into play when instituting youth-service programs:

If the aim of service is the encouragement of voluntarism and a spirit of altruism--if service is seen as a supererogatory trait of otherwise self-regarding individuals--then clearly it cannot be mandated or required. Coercing voluntarism is an oxymoron and hardly makes pedagogical sense. But if service is understood as a dimension of citizenship education and civic responsibility in which individuals learn the meaning of social interdependence and become empowered through acquiring the democratic arts, then the requirement of service conforms to curricular requirements in other disciplines.

To coerce behavior is to impose beliefs externally on a resisting student: Liberty thus runs the risk of being made over into the enemy of learning. But to require a pedagogy is to empower the person and thus to cultivate autonomy: Liberty and learning become allies, although initially the first may be suspended in the name of securing the second.

The practical issue is evident to anyone who works in service-learning programs: Those most in need of training in the democratic arts of citizenship are in fact least likely to volunteer. Complacency, ignorance of interdependence, apathy, and an inability to see the relationship between self-interest and broader community interests are not only targets of civic education, they are obstacles to it, attitudes that dispose individuals against it. The problem to be remedied, apathy, here becomes the impediment to the remedy.

Education is the exercise of authority (legitimate coercion) in the name of freedom: the empowerment and liberation of the pupil. To make people serve others may produce desirable behavior, but it does not create responsible and autonomous individuals. To make people participate in educational curricula that can empower them does create such individuals. The ultimate goal is not to serve others but to learn to be free, which entails being responsible to others.

An Aristocracy of Everyone: The Politics of Education and the Future of America, by Benjamin R. Barber. Copyright 1992 by Benjamin R. Barber. Reprinted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House Inc. All rights reserved.

In the afterword to a revised edition of his 1986 book, No Contest: The Case Against Competition, the author Alfie Kohn argues for the comprehensive use in schools of cooperative-learning techniques. Below is an excerpt:

I am regularly informed that we would be doing children a disservice by minimizing competition since they need to be prepared for the rivalry they will encounter when they grow up. My response is that we need to work on two tracks at once: preparing children for what they will find in our society, and preparing them, if need be, to change what they find. To concentrate only on the latter, keeping our eye fixed on a distant goal, may make life difficult for children in the short term. But to concentrate only on the former insures that their children will encounter the same destructive institutions and backward values.

Beyond this, however, the fact is that students in our society already are well acquainted with competition. Even if some experience with trying to triumph over others were useful, children have more than they could ever need. Imagine a school that studiously avoids competition, in the classroom or on the playing field, from kindergarten through 12th grade. We may be confident that not a single graduate of this school, on entering college or the workforce, would suddenly exclaim, “Whoa! What’s all this about ‘competition’?’' Our best efforts to promote cooperation notwithstanding, children in this country are all too familiar with win/lose activities.

What students need is not more of the same but experience with alternative arrangements so that they can achieve a sense of perspective about the competition that proliferates in our culture. While a case can be made that students would benefit from a curricular unit in which they explicitly consider the effects of competition, talking about it is quite different from being immersed in it. (By way of analogy, consider the distinction between teaching schoolchildren about religion and indoctrinating them to be religious.)

Moreover, there is no reason to imagine that having children participate in competitive activities week after week after week could provide any incremental benefit. The rationale for doing so, if made explicit, would look something like a sign I once saw tacked to a wall in a 6th-grade classroom: THE BEATINGS WILL CONTINUE UNTIL MORALE IMPROVES.

No Contest: The Case Against Competition, by Alfie Kohn. Copyright 1992 by Alfie Kohn. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

A version of this article appeared in the December 09, 1992 edition of Education Week as Excerpts