Filmmaker Ken Burns subtitled his wonderful video love letter to our National Parks “America’s Best Idea.” Burns traced the history of National Parks, from genesis through a checkered history, as the plan for full public access to exquisite natural vistas and parklands was conceived, tended, neglected and even exploited.
And so it is with another one of America’s best ideas, public education.
Public education: the ideal of a free, high-quality public education for every child in the United States. The American common school, where children of immigrants, laborers, merchants and town fathers would learn civic responsibility and principles of democracy. The last, best hope for equity of opportunity.
You know--that public education. The action arm of what Martin Luther King called a “promissory note to which every American was to fall heir:" life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, embedded in the Declaration of Independence, and our Constitution.
Hold on--I do recognize that the Founding Fathers didn’t include K-12 schooling (with free transportation on big yellow buses) in the documents that shaped our national government and civic goals. But they laid a template--a revolutionary template--for an entirely new model of governance and human advancement. One that would depend on a knowledgeable citizenry dedicated to working out the challenges of democratic equality.
James Madison said, in 1822: Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
And, nearly two centuries later, Tony Wagner said: The future of our economy, the strength of our democracy, and perhaps even the health of the planet’s ecosystems depend on educating future generations in ways very different from how many of us were schooled.
What’s happened to that ideal of a free public education, to strengthen our economy, our national identity and our contribution to global well-being? It’s been enlarged, contested, ignored and even--lately-- attacked. It has survived westward expansion, lack of resources including qualified teachers, sexism, classism, and bigotry, and Brown vs. the Topeka Board of Education.
Public education has lasted despite misguided attempts to sort students into deserving scholars and academic lesser lights based on surnames, addresses and ethnic stereotypes. It has had amazing successes--like the G.I. Bill--and embarrassing collapses, like the high schools in Detroit where 75% of students who don’t graduate.
Now, public education faces the challenge of transforming itself--immediately--into a flexible institution that prepares children for a future of barely imagined challenges and opportunities.
That doesn’t mean pushing the poorest kids--those with no advocates--into cheap, standardized, basic-skills programs in crumbling buildings. Public education is not a money-making prospect for entrepreneurs and privateers. It’s not a way to “insanely leverage” public monies to provide a handful of lottery-winning children a traditional education--with a side benefit of great PR for would-be benefactors. Public education must not ever become our solution of last resort for the most vulnerable children in our great nation.
Who could be opposed to aggressive investment in our long-standing and valued principle of a fully educated population, built on genuine equity? Excellent question. Worth considering: What’s just happened in Egypt has come as a result of a youthful and educated citizenry acting on idealistic principles and supported by networking tools.
Despite its warts and weaknesses, I’m not ready to give up on public education. I still believe. If you believe, too, join the efforts to preserve what’s good in public education and speak out against policies that weaken America’s best idea.
The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.