Standards Opinion

Educating for Democracy-and Liberty

By Deborah Meier — November 19, 2013 5 min read
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Robert Pondiscio continues his conversation with Deborah Meier today.

Dear Deborah,

I’m sorry you didn’t rise to my challenge to encourage combatants in the rhetorically charged edu-wars to come together on curriculum and instruction. I hope we can come back to those bridgeable differences before my brief residency here comes to an end.

We can also take up the Common Core State Standards if you insist. But I must admit I am feeling exhausted by the increasing vitriol over them. When I described a knowledge-rich core curriculum as the thing I will cling to with both hands, I was not referring to the common-core standards, which are not a curriculum at all. It is true that I’ve been an outspoken advocate for the standards. But that is chiefly because they encourage (but cannot mandate) the kind of specific, knowledge-rich curriculum that I believe best serves the democratic purpose of public education.

You want to talk about that purpose. Very well. You wrote that knowing “why” we teach must precede any discussion of “what” we teach. I have come to see the two as inseparable—the “what” is a function of the “why.” But let’s have it your way. I was struck—and I must confess, quite surprised—by your assertion that you want “schooling for ruling in a society in which every adult is a member of the ruling class.” Isn’t the very idea of a “ruling class” anathema to democratic impulses?

In my work in civic education, here is the outcome I hope to see in students: to understand the levers of power in our democracy, to learn how to pull them, and to be inclined to do so for the rest of their lives. Civic knowledge, skills, and dispositions, leading to a lifetime of active, engaged citizenship. That’s educating for democracy.

But more than “schooling for ruling,” I’m equally adamant that we should educate for self-rule. A good education must prepare us for our public role as citizens, but also for wise exercise of individual freedom and personal responsibility. In short, education for democracy also means education for liberty. Yet you and many of your readers gave Mike Petrilli a hard time in this space when he argued for self-sufficiency and upward mobility as important ends of education. We needn’t return to that well-trod ground, but I will note my general agreement with Mike. I see no conflict between education for democracy and liberty. Our national motto, E pluribus unum, implies an obligation to prepare children for effective participation in both the democratic public sphere and the pursuit of happiness in the private sphere.

Like you, I’m uncomfortable with a view of education informed purely by self-interest and economic competitiveness, but I cannot dismiss them entirely. At their best, our schools have always welcomed children into the body politic, while also serving as engines of upward mobility, individual agency, and self-fulfillment. If we break faith with either these imperatives, public or private, or if Americans lose faith in our ability to serve both well, education risks losing the deep good will and central place it occupies in our society as foundational to the American Dream.

Educating for democracy and liberty, I should note, is not a mere expression of personal preference. It’s the civic disposition described by the Civics Framework of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which describes the “traits of private and public character [my italics] essential to the preservation and improvement of American constitutional democracy.” They include becoming an independent member of society; assuming the responsibilities of a citizen; respecting individual worth and human dignity; participating in civic affairs in an informed, thoughtful, and effective manner; and promoting the healthy functioning of American constitutional democracy.

Not a bad description of “why” we educate, is it?

To say that every adult should be a member of the ruling class is as unworkable and utopian as to suggest that every child must by law read on grade level by 2014. I would offer instead the ideal that there should be no barriers to membership beyond what Jefferson called the “natural aristocracy of virtue and talents.” My own radicalization as a teacher began when I feared I might be one of those barriers while teaching 5th grade in a South Bronx public school.

The most deeply egalitarian educator I know is my friend and mentor E.D. Hirsch, whose work caused me to question my teaching. His work boils down to a single, powerful idea: In a democracy, knowledge is power. It is the job of schools to ensure that everyone has access to the knowledge needed for full and faithful participation. Not for nothing was Don’s last book titled The Making of Americans. It has been gratifying in the last few years to see Don get his long overdue reappraisal, as the field has come to realize he is neither a fact-obsessed Gradgrind or culture warrior, but as progressive in his passions and aspirations as you are, Deb.

In The Making of Americans and previous books, Hirsch has documented well our schools’ decades-long march away from a defined curriculum, which has undermined the democratic purposes of public education. More recently the muscular brand of test-driven education reform that has come to dominate schooling has ill-served those purposes by hollowing out the curriculum further still. If a child reads on grade level and graduates by age 18 our schools will eagerly pronounce him or her educated and send them off into the world, with diminished agency, fewer options, and less opportunity than their affluent and better-educated brethren. We have conspired—all of us—to make them less than fully free.

This fundamental injustice upset me and upsets me still. I sometimes note that my progressive credentials were in good order until I became a teacher. The education I was trained to give to my students left them less than prepared for self-sufficiency and upward mobility. My complicity in allowing the scope of their education to be narrowed, whether by progressive ideals or test-driven accountability, robbed them of some measure of their liberty. Not just economic liberty, but freedom of thought and expression.

If we do not give to our children the best of what has been discovered, written and said down through the ages, if we imprison them inside their own heads with only their personal interests to guide them out, we have limited our students’ liberty. We have denied them an essential piece of their birthright.

Warm regards,


Robert Pondiscio is the executive director of CitizenshipFirst, a civic education initiative based at Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem. A former 5th grade teacher in New York City’s South Bronx, Mr. Pondiscio has written and lectured extensively about education and ed reform. He previously served as the vice president of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Prior to becoming involved in education, Mr. Pondiscio was the communications director for BusinessWeek, and the public affairs director for TIME Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rpondiscio.

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