Community and Dissent

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In a recent Commentary ("The Threat To Freedom in Goals 2000,'' April 6, 1994), Prof. Stephen Arons takes aim at the Goals 2000: Educate America Act on the grounds of constitutional democracy. While I share many of his concerns, and recognize the significance of the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of speech and religion, as well as the 14th Amendment guarantee of equal protection, to a proposal for national education standards, the issue is less clear than he intimates. Constitutional democracy is not necessarily imperiled by the plan and may even be advanced by it.

Constitutional democracy, as constructed by the Framers and as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court, requires a sensitive balance between the competing claims of community and dissent. Common ends are as much a part of this puzzle as are the limits of the government's right to compel adherence to common ends. Case law that explores, for example, the parents' right to school their children at home for religious-based reasons (Wisconsin v. Yoder) is one piece of this cloth. But so is the case law that refuses to exempt Native American church members from a general criminal law that lists peyote as a controlled substance (Employment Division v. Smith).

Thus, to invoke "constitutional democracy'' as reason to oppose Goals 2000 is hardly dispositive. It begins, but does not conclude, our common inquiry regarding what common standards within a constitutional democracy should look like. The answer may be, to some observers, "nothing'' because they believe that liberty and equality are best preserved by denying the federal government authority to define standards, even if--as are the ones recently adopted--they are voluntary. But to other observers the answer is far less clear. National standards have defined and enforced equality far more fully and vibrantly than have local or state laws in many important arenas. National involvement therefore need not mean the curricular equivalent of compulsory flag salutes. Moreover, the other side of this coin is the concern, well documented in my view, that American education is not meeting the needs of its school-age population. Literacy, including the sort of literacy that Goals 2000 is intended to achieve, surely is essential to the baseline condition of a constitutional democracy: intelligent self-governance.

Of course, this is all a matter of balance. Assuring that the national standards adopted promote the interests that Mr. Arons, and many of the rest of us, cherish surely should be a central concern of the people who draft national standards. Warding off the danger of an "official catechism'' is something all citizens should do, and all too often neglect to do. History and contemporary reality reveal that American curricula--written and unwritten, formal and informal, national and local--have always been breeding grounds for divisive and sometimes regressive struggles over who has the superior claim to our "one'' vision. Professor Arons therefore is absolutely correct in sounding this alarm, and in drawing our attention to the abuses that often infect the process of defining common goals. ("Americanization'' was the word associated with this pathology at the turn of the century.)

But curricular entropy is also a pathology, and college and graduate-level teachers have seen the steep costs of the fragmentation of knowledge, the decentralization of curricular authority, and the lowering of academic standards.

So it is evident that one should not embrace uncritically the call to coherence and common goals. But neither can one dismiss out of hand the interest we all share, as members of a democratic society, in common lessons. Indeed, one of the first lessons I would like to see the national standards encourage for all schools is that of the importance of diversity and dissent in a democratic order. That is, our "constitutional literacy''--no less than our literacy in other respects--should be a central feature of any national-goals agenda.

Toni M. Massaro is a professor of law at the University of Arizona. She is the author of Constitutional Literacy: A Core Curriculum for a Multicultural Nation (Duke University Press).

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