Education Commentary

Making Democracy Safe For Education

By John I. Goodlad — July 09, 1997 7 min read

The common omission of context in our aims for education creates the impression that the bringing of educational opportunities (not defined) to individuals will push back whatever evils are storming the walls. Then, education will take care of human aspirations within, including the creation of a strong and just community or nation. Education transformed into schooling will eliminate poverty, crime, injustice, and urban blight, and ensure jobs and the nation’s security. Nations will become robust because of the excellence of their schools. Consequently, school reform is virtually an ongoing necessity.

This is dangerous thinking that runs counter to history. Healthy nations have healthy schools; schools become healthy as their local and national context becomes healthy. Schools mirror society; they do not drive it. Making schools appear powerfully instrumental, particularly to the individual good, invites their exploitation for private ends. The public purpose of schooling is lost. Education drains from them. Schools cease to serve the common good and, therefore, to be safe havens for education.

A society always should be investing in schools protected from the erosion of their public purpose--that is, the educating of persons committed to a society that nurtures its members. We come to a circuitous path: Virtuous societies sustain education that educates individuals to be virtuous citizens who sustain virtuous societies that... This condition is not simply reciprocity: The grateful citizen gives back to a nurturing society. It is, rather, the ubiquitous meshing of self and context that simultaneously shapes wisdom, altruism, and community and gives rise to descriptive words such as virtue, the word Pericles saw as best describing what was valued in his Athenian democracy.

In focusing intensely on school reform for an unprecedented period of time, we have kept obscured the question of whether our schools are now safe for this education. We confound their purpose with expectations for social engineering--create better jobs--and religious exhortation--provide time for prayer. We propose to divorce them from the federal government that forcefully pushed the civil rights interest of equal access for all of our people when some states and localities were blind to it. Either we have forgotten the public purpose of schooling or have an incredibly benign view of the degree to which we already have a virtuous social democracy. If the latter be so, how did we come to this ideal polity that attends to the good of all? Surely because of our schools, if we give credence to the rhetoric of most of this century.

Then why is it imperative that we now dismantle our system of schooling? Because the context of daily life is so educative that schools devoted to public purpose are no longer necessary? We all will acquire wisdom and virtue in the streets and marketplaces through paideia? I think not. Rather, I believe that the sudden shift from politically driven reform to make our schools better to politically driven exhortation to privatize schools of choice is evidence that even the political democracy we have striven so hard to attain is adrift from its moral moorings. Instead of politicians seeking to make democracy safe for education and education the handmaiden of democracy, we have too many heeding the special interests they believe will keep them in office. Is the considerable current public interest in the use of schools for private purposes of such political significance as to stimulate politicians to scuttle the public purpose of schooling? Or are schools serving the public purpose viewed as so formidable an obstacle to the unbridled exercise of power that political leaders seek subtle ways to downsize this role? Either way, or with the two perspectives in tandem, both social and political democracy lose.

Readers may regard the above paragraph as too harsh an indictment of the current state of both our democracy and our political leaders. But when one thinks carefully about the degree to which politicians of all political stripes and offices have used our schools for their own ends and pandered to special interests with the schools as both bait and barter, the sentences begin to appear to be understatements. And then, when one adds media quivering in unison over outrageous claims regarding the schools as cause of every ill in the corpus of our society, a rage rises within. How does one explain away the outcry over the schools when polls of a few years ago ranked Japan as the world’s economic leader for years to come and the dead silence a few years later when the same polls ranked the United States as first at that time and into the future? Benjamin Barber is right on target when he writes that "... society undoes each workday what the school tries to do each school day.”

We know enough to have good schools everywhere. The body of literature on how we--children especially--learn is deep and comprehensive. There is a comparably useful body of knowledge about shaping the context to maximize the probability that the self will mature in ways that are respectful of others. There is a growing literature on caring pedagogy that cultivates this mutuality. Further, we are fortunate in having or having had some seminal initiatives in school improvement, several accompanied by research, that provide useful trails for others to follow. These tell us, for example, a good deal about the conditions necessary to change and about approaches that should not be repeated.

Most of this knowledge and insight lies fallow. It lies fallow for at least two closely related reasons. The first is a complex array of circumstances that surround the schooling occupation: the legacies of teaching as a low-status, female occupation; the rise of administration as a higher-status career line often separated from teaching and connected to business management; the transfer of prestige deprivation from school teaching to colleges of education and the increasing isolation of colleges of education from both the schools and the rest of the university; the emergence of a university reward system favoring research but not teaching or service or the popularization of research; the accompanying separation of research productivity in education from research dissemination and utilization; the exacerbation of this separation by ways in which the pre-service education of teachers was controlled from without and hobbled within the university; the increased use of in-service education as a means of refining approved and desired school district practices; and more.

The second reason the knowledge and insight that could be harnessed to renew our schools goes largely unused is even more complex and difficult to pin down. Its elements include: the circumstances surrounding the schooling occupation just listed; the widespread personal experience of the population with schooling, which democratizes expertise to the point where nearly everyone claims some; the pervasiveness of the assumption that everyone knows what education is; inflated expectations for schools; manipulation of these expectations in the service of special interests; ambiguity in the meaning of the omission of federal responsibility for education in the Constitution; further ambiguity regarding the private interests of citizens in the public schools they support with tax dollars; varying interpretations of the meaning and legitimacy of compulsory schooling; disagreement regarding implementation of church-and-state-separation doctrine; sensitivity to the risk-laden nature of teaching; and much more.

The risk-laden nature of teaching, especially of the young, tends to be viewed from only the private and not the public perspective, however. It is necessary and understandable that parents be deeply interested in what teachers selected to be responsible are teaching children. But this interest should be twofold: in both the self and the transcendence of self to identify with and relate to the rest of humanity.

Since an important part of this transcendence has to do with citizenship in one’s community and nation, there is a public interest in which the state plays a role. Consequently, the state has an interest in the responsible role to be played by parents who choose to home school. The educational context must provide simultaneously for dispositions of personal efficacy, as well as those that attend to the well-being of others.

This, presumably, is the basic requirement of education in a social and political democracy.

A version of this article appeared in the July 09, 1997 edition of Education Week