Government of the People
The Democratic Essence of Public Education
In “Federalist 39,” James Madison argued simply and eloquently for a republican form of government (meaning in this instance a representative, rather than pure, form of democracy) based on what would become the U.S. Constitution.
“If we resort for a criterion to the different principles on which different forms of government are established, we may define a republic to be … a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure, for a limited period, or during good behavior. It is essential to such a government that it be derived from the great body of the society, not from an inconsiderable proportion, or a favored class of it.”
Thus we come to the true source of public education in our country: a desire on the part of America’s designers to prepare a ruling class capable of bearing the enormous responsibility of self-government.
As numerous commentators have pointed out, the ruling class of an evolved democracy is what Madison termed “the great body of the people”; indeed, America’s own evolution is little more than the history of our struggle to determine just who that great body may include. (For example, what might Dolley Madison have said if she knew that it took us 131 years to give American women the vote?)
Since Plato, we have known that a wise society trains its rulers for their vital role, and that the failure of such training is chaos. What the original designers knew only too well is that the primary function of public education in the United States was precisely this training for “the great body of the society.” Madison’s close friend and co-conspirator, Thomas Jefferson, was only one of the many who argued “for diffusion of knowledge among the people.” Indeed, Madison and the others who helped create the Constitution knew something important that we, by and large, seem to have forgotten. They knew that the first function of widespread education at public expense was not vocational or moral training; it was preparation for the rigors of citizenship.
Furthermore, if we stop to consider just how complex and convoluted the workings of our 21st-century democracy have become, it is now more necessary than ever that “the great body of the people” possess a high degree of skill and philosophical understanding in addition to extensive background knowledge.
Article I of the Constitution prescribes that element in republican government that the designers thought most important—the legislative branch. It is most important because it is through the legislature that “government of the people, by the people” is most direct and uninhibited. The legislative branch is intended to be the loud voice of “the great body of the society,” only modulated in tone and passion—never in message—by the wisdom of the individuals who serve there.
When, however, the people cease to understand or monitor the Congress (or, by extension, the state legislatures), the very heart of democracy begins to stutter and must eventually stop.
Periodically since 1788, when Madison helped write the Federalist Papers, we have been reminded of the democratic essence of public education. In this age of high-stakes accountability based on standardized curricula, it is high time we were reminded again. Despite the vast amount of apparent evidence to the contrary, nothing is more high stakes than the quality of our citizenship.
What I would propose in the next year is that state and federal policymakers accept the challenge of making citizenship as important a priority as standardized-test scores, and that they devote the resources to citizenship training that would reflect that commitment. Further, I would propose that the crux of that training focus on the crucial role of American citizens as they use the legislative branch to govern our nation. This proposition argues that we teach not just the knowledge but also the skill and philosophical understanding necessary to rule the Republic.
In the speech that closed the Constitutional Convention, 81-year-old Benjamin Franklin (who had to be carried into many of the sessions) argued for support of the Constitution despite its flaws. In his often humorous, slyly self-deprecating speech, Franklin included a stern warning. “I believe,” he said, “that this [form of government] is likely to be well administered for a course of years, [but] can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.”
When the legislative representative no longer performs the will of the people, in part because that will has become corrupt or incoherent, we have arrived at the despotism Franklin foretold. I would offer that education of “the great body of the people” is our only defense against this frightening conclusion, and that education in citizenship must again become a priority for our schools.
Vol. 27, Issue 06, Page 31Published in Print: October 3, 2007, as Government of the People