'Workshops Of Our Democracy'

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It is easy enough to explain the continuing assault on America's children that passes as education policy nowadays: Kids are invisible and powerless. But it remains almost impossible to comprehend. Though a quarter of all children under 6 and more than half of minority children live in poverty, everything from the school-lunch to after-school program is being slashed at the federal and state levels.

Legislators take aim at government budgets, saying they want to spare the next generation the burden of an elephantine deficit. But they are shooting down the very programs on which that generation depends for its education and growth. Nor is it just a generation of citizens that is in peril: If schools are the vessels of our future, they are also the workshops of our democracy. In attacking not just education, but public education, critics are attacking the very foundation of our democratic civic culture. Public schools are not merely schools for the public, but schools in publicness: institutions where we learn what it means to be a public.

Cutting school budgets thus puts us in double jeopardy: We undermine our children's future, but more importantly, we undermine the future of democracy. In fighting to maintain the quality of a three-R's education and vocational training that keeps our workers economically competitive, we need to recall that education also has a central civic mission.

Thomas Jefferson, whose tombstone memorialized the Declaration of Independence and his founding of the University of Virginia but left his two-term Presidency unmentioned, believed that, absent public education, there could be no democratic public. His epitaph celebrated the hidden logic that linked an educated citizenry to democratic independence and civic rights.

If there was to be a common American people capable of pursuing a common American good, there had to be common schools. Although he boasted in the Declaration of Independence that we were "born free," Jefferson knew well enough that one acquires liberty, and that citizens are educated to a responsibility that comes to no man or woman "naturally." Without citizens, democracy is a hollow shell. Without schools, there can be no citizens. Not just the future, but the future of democracy rests on how well we educate the young.

If American schools are to be defined by the search for literacy, then civic literacy must take its place alongside science, math, English, and cultural literacy. Lawyers and doctors are no more likely to make good citizens than dropouts if their training is limited to vocational preparation and professional instruction. Liberal-arts education and civic education share a curriculum of critical reflection and autonomous thought.

That is how the "liberal arts" emerged in the modern era in contrast to the feudal "servile arts." The latter was job training for the unfree and indentured; it subordinated learning to an apprenticeship in the vocations. The former devoted itself to free thought and what Alexis de Tocqueville called "the apprenticeship of liberty." It was intended to serve that small minority lucky enough to be born "freemen." If schooling is to be guided once again by its democratic mission, it needs not only to be supported financially but re-endowed with a sense of civic passion. This means that:

  • Public schools must be understood as public not simply because they serve the public, but because they establish us as a "public." Too much market ideology has left our private/public worlds all topsy-turvy. We are demanding, via vouchers, that our last genuinely public institutions be made private. We need incentives to draw parents back into public schools, not vouchers to lure them out.

  • The "public" in public schools stands for plurality and diversity. America is not a private club defined by one group's historical hegemony. Consequently, multicultural education is not discretionary: It defines demographic and pedagogical necessity. If we want youngsters from Los Angeles whose families speak over a hundred languages to be "Americans," we must first acknowledge their diversity and honor their distinctiveness. What we share in common is precisely our respect for difference. That is the secret to our strength as a nation and is the key to democratic education.
  • Schools need to be as democratic as the civic ideals they wish to teach, consistent with the authority of sound pedagogy. This suggests cooperative learning where the facile help the less facile to the benefit of both--in place of tracking where the quick advance at the expense of the slow, or instead of large detracked classes where the slow advance at the expense of the quick. The goal is not to level down but to secure an aristocracy of everyone in which excellence is the common denominator.
  • Learning, above all civic learning, needs to be experiential as well as purely cognitive. Serving others is not just a form of do-goodism or feel-goodism, it is a road to social responsibility and citizenship. When linked closely to classroom learning ("education-based community service"), it offers an ideal setting for bridging the gap between the classroom and the street, between the theory of democracy and its much more obstreperous practice. Our schools and colleges are not social agencies but teaching and learning communities: Service is an instrument of civic pedagogy. It is a response to William James's quest for a "moral equivalent of war." In serving community, the young forge community; in assuming individual responsibility, they nurture social citizenship.
  • If service learning is to serve democratic education, it must be a responsibility of everyone, not just a requirement for the criminal or the needy. Teaching the young that white-collar felons or blue-collar loan-seekers owe their country civic service while the well-off and wealthy do not is a poor way to inculcate the ideals of civic equality. Service is a universal entailment of what it means to live in and enjoy the rights of a free society.

There is only one road to democracy: education. And in a democracy where freedom comes first--educators and politicians alike, take notice--the first priority of education must be the apprenticeship of liberty. Let schools sink into poverty, and we will not only put our children at risk but are likely to imperil the very foundation of our own liberties. Tie every school reform to this principle, and both education and democracy will flourish.

Vol. 14, Issue 30, Page 34

Published in Print: April 19, 1995, as 'Workshops Of Our Democracy'
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