Opinion
Education Opinion

The limits of localism

By Diane Ravitch — March 22, 2007 1 min read

Dear Deborah,

I love democracy too. Can’t imagine any other system under which I would want to live. I too grew up in the era when Communism and fascism were horrible realities, not theories.

Even in a democracy, there are mandates that we must all accept. When you write “mandates,” I think “laws.” The laws are passed by democratically elected bodies, and like them or not, we live with them.

Thinking about the power of self-governance and schools leads me to think about some situations where I am glad that there are democratic checks and balances on local preferences. I think, for example, of the segregated schools that I attended as a child in Texas. I have no doubt that if the issue had been put to a vote, it would have been overwhelmingly approved by the local populace. Unquestionably, racial segregation satisfied the white majority. Parents in the schools I attended would never have willingly opened the school doors to black children.

Or I think of the perennial debates about evolution and school prayer. I am willing to bet that you would be uncomfortable to find your views embraced by religious fundamentalists who want to see their children learning their own views about how the universe originated and want them to start the day with a prayer.

We could solve all these problems if every group had its own schools that reflected its own culture and preferences. But the courts do not look favorably on this libertarian interpretation of local governance. There are some activities—especially those of a religious nature—that the courts have ruled cannot take place in public schools. Sometimes I worry that the First Amendment rights of people with strong religious views have been jettisoned (my friend Joseph Viteritti has a new book about to be published on this subject, called The Last Freedom).

I worry too about public schools that teach only one culture and do so uncritically. I think that schools should equip students with the ability to examine their own culture and others with a critical eye.

But ultimately negotiating the boundaries between what is and is not permissible in the public square is what democracy is about. We have no final answers. We keep negotiating.

Diane

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