Why We Need the “Public” in Public Education

Without undervaluing any other human agency, it may be safely affirmed that the Common School, improved and energized, as it can easily be, may become the most effective and benignant of all the forces of civilization. Two reasons sustain this position. In the first place, there is a universality in its operation, which can be affirmed of no other institution whatever. If administered in the spirit of justice and conciliation, all the rising generation may be brought within the circle of its reformatory and elevating influences. And, in the second place, the materials upon which it operates are so pliant and ductile as to be susceptible of assuming a greater variety of forms than any other earthly work of the Creator.

– Horace Mann, Twelfth Annual Report to the Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, 1848

It is perhaps difficult to remember, in 2016, that the original purposes of the American common school movement lay in ideals about the public good as well as goals for individual advancement.  Since the publication of A Nation at Risk in 1983, politicians and policy makers have emphasized accountability as the primary goal of school law with an increasing emphasis on accountability for individual student outcomes.  Often supported by parents who saw the purpose of their children’s education in the accumulation of credentials, accountability as a framework for school success gives special importance to whether or not schools boost students’ seeking to improve their financial and social situations.  School is doing its job, we are told, in those places where the enterprise of personal advancement works as anticipated, and school is a failure when too many students remain locked generation by generation in the same economic circumstances as their parents.

The appeal of this is understandable, but it is also perilous.  David Labaree of Stanford University warned in 1997 that our concept of school’s purpose was already significantly out of balance.  Arguing that the rise of standards and accountability emphasized social efficiency goals for the labor force, Labaree also noted the significant rise of social mobility  for individuals as a key goal for public education:

Instead, the main threat comes from the growing dominance of the social mobility goal over the others. Although this goal (in coalition with the democratic equality goal) has been a major factor in motivating a progressive politics of education over the years, the increasing hegemony of the mobility goal and its narrow consumer-based approach to education have led to the reconceptualization of education as a purely private good.

We are now, in the late 1990s, experiencing the sobering consequences of this ideological shift. We find credentialism triumphing over learning in our schools, with a commodified form of education winning an edge over useful substance. We find public schools under attack, not just because they are deemed ineffective but also because they are public. After all, if education is indeed a private good, then the next step (according to the influential right wing in today’s educational politics) is to withdraw public control entirely and move toward a fully privatized system of education.

We are almost twenty years later and these forces have been driving education policy for most of that time.  Accountability measures set up under No Child Left Behind demanded that schools show consistent progress in increasing students’ standardized test scores, and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top Program moved accountability down to the individual classroom level – with the expectation that teachers would oversee constant student growth absent any other considerations.  Advocates of the Common Core State Standards wrapped themselves in the language of social efficiency by constantly emphasizing American competitiveness in the international economy and in the language of social mobility by claiming the standards would lead all students to become ready for “college and careers”.  Meanwhile, Common Core aligned testing systems have promised American parents that score reportscan  inform them whether or not their individual children are “on track” for college and career readiness, and no less a figure than former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared that our educational goal should be to be “able to look every second grader in the eye and say, ‘You’re on track, you’re going to be able to go to a good college, or you’re not…'”

As Labaree noted, there is nothing wrong, per se, in the goals of social efficiency and social mobility.  They have, in various instantiations, been significant forces in American public education and provided legitimate rationales for our national investment in universal, compulsory education.  We have long called upon schools to provide the economy with workers prepared for the ages in which they lived, and our constant expansion of education’s reach is at least partially premised on the belief that all children, regardless of circumstances, should have an equal chance to succeed in school and therefore achieve economically.  In his Twelfth Annual Report to the Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, Horace Mann stated:

Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men – the balance-wheel of the social machinery. I do not here mean that it so elevates the moral nature as to make men disdain and abhor the oppression of their fellow-men. This idea pertains to another of its attributes. But I mean that it gives each man the independence and the means, by which he can resist the selfishness of other men. It does better than to disarm the poor of their hostility towards the rich; it prevents being poor.

Mann embraced the power of education not merely to fairly distribute existing wealth, but also to create new wealth, adding both individuals and the nation itself.  However, Mann’s vision of the developing common school did not end with these purposes, and, as the opening quote demonstrates, he devoted great significance for the role of a public school system in promoting the very values necessary for the health and vitality of a democracy.  The common school ideally welcomes all the children of a community, creating a truly shared space without regard to economic and social stratification, and Mann recognized that children could be greatly influenced at a very young age by their education.  By educating those normally considered outcast by society – described in Mann’s 19th century language “in teaching the blind, and the deaf and dumb, in kindling the latent spark of intelligence that lurks in an idiot’s mind, and in the more holy work of reforming abandoned and outcast children” – society can save itself “against intemperance, avarice, war, slavery, bigotry, the woes of want and the wickedness of waste.”

Further, Mann envisioned a strong role for education in preparing all citizens to both embrace and cherish their franchise:

If the responsibleness and value of the elective franchise were duly appreciated, the day of our State and National elections would be among the most solemn and religious days in the calendar. Men would approach them, not only with preparation and solicitude, but with the sobriety and solemnity, with which discreet and religious-minded men meet the great crises of life. No man would throw away his vote, through caprice or wantonness, any more than he would throw away his estate, or sell his family into bondage. No man would cast his vote through malice or revenge, any more than a good surgeon would amputate a limb, or a good navigator sail through perilous straits, under the same criminal passions.

The contrasts with preparing children for jobs and for individual advancement are obvious and critical.  The “public” in public education refers to truly public purposes not merely to sources of funding, and those purposes are related to foundational aspirations of the American Republic.  Public education must be pluralistic by welcoming the children of all community members within its reach.  Public education must be equitable in assuring all children in attendance are provided with what they need to learn.  Public education must support a healthy and vigorous democracy by educating all in our system of government and promoting our admiration of the voting franchise.  It is absolutely and shamefully true that our public schools, like our society, have frequently failed these ideals.  School and society enforced a legal apartheid system for generations, and when the legal edifices of segregation fell, people with means fled integration.  Our system of school funding frequently betrays equity by leaving communities with low property values struggling to meet the needs of their students.  However, it is also true that our schools have steadily grown more inclusive over time, mirroring the slow but usually consistent progress of our society.

Mann was keenly aware that the democratic mission of school could be perilous.  After lengthy discussion of the keys problems that politics and political controversy could visit upon schools, leading to withdrawal of public support, Mann proposes a largely common sense position for schools in the civic curriculum:

Surely, between these extremes, there must be a medium not difficult to be found. And is not this the middle course, which all sensible and judicious men, all patriots, and all genuine republicans, must approve?–namely, that those articles in the creed of republicanism, which are accepted by all, believed in by all, and which form the common basis of our political faith, shall be taught to all. But when the teacher, in the course of his lessons or lectures on the fundamental law, arrives at a controverted text, he is either to read it without comment or remark; or, at most, he is only to say that the passage is the subject of disputation, and that the schoolroom is neither the tribunal to adjudicate, nor the forum to discuss it.

Mann’s proposal is for a studied neutrality that should be familiar to many teachers of civics.  In a modern classroom, teachers are frequently called upon to be moderators of contentious political topics rather than to be advocates, and by declining to take sides while ideally allowing open and full discussion, teachers can avoid exerting undue influence on matters of political conscience.  This is certainly a sensible position given the role teachers must take upon being fair and politically inclusive, and it is not hard to understand that in most situations, it is necessary for teachers to approach politics with caution and neutrality.

Under most situations.  But not under all situations.

There are times when situations in politics do not merely involve passionate partisan division,  but actually call into question values such as pluralism, equity, and democracy that are essential for truly public education.  There was no virtue, for example, for school and school leaders to treat Bull Connor as merely another citizen who held a passionate opinion.  Connor’s vicious racism and willingness to use violence to defend White Supremacy had a constituency, but no ethical validity.  So while school leaders in his time may have risked some of the political chaos that Horace Mann feared, speaking and, yes, teaching against Connor would have been the correct stance in defense of the values that make education public.

We are witnessing something akin to Bull Connor play out in the nomination contest for the Presidency of the Republican Party.  As hard as it is to imagine, the nomination for President of the United States is plausibly within reach of real estate developer Donald Trump who has run a campaign based upon plans to mass deport over 11 million people within two year, unleashing havoc upon the entire country and likely requiring a network of concentration camps to hold people being “processed,” a blanket ban upon over a billion people in the world from entering the country based on their religion, promises that he can force a sovereign nation to pay us billions of dollars to build a wall on their border, promises to make torture legal, has promised to order the military to commit war crimes, relishes the idea of setting off a global trade war, doesn’t possess even a casual relationship with truth, happily repeats racist mythology about African Americans and crime and about Muslims and September 11, is a lifelong misogynist, finds it unusually difficult to turn down the support of avowed White Supremacists, at a minimum flirts with fascist imagery and ideasis obsessed with “strong leaders” even when they are autocratic thugs, and, temporarily, turned the Presidential race into a conversation about this size of his penis.

If it is possible to be worse than the candidate’s avowed policies, many among his supporters come close.  While all of Donald Trump’s supporters are not racists, some of the worst racists in the country have identified his positions and rhetoric as their own. Consider white supremacist Matthew Heimbach, who was caught on camera in early march violently pushing and shoving an African American woman as she was ejected from a Trump rally in Louisville, Kentucky.  In fact, Trump supporters have a history of violently reacting the presence of protestors, even ones being entirely peaceful.  Despite his weak denials, the candidate has long encouraged and incited violence, expressing his desire to beat protestors and his promises to pay legal bills for supporters who engage in violence.  And just to make things even better, a group of Trump’s supporters have started organizing themselves to “expose” “plots” to disrupt campaign events and to use social media to encourage rally attendees to identify specific people at Mr. Trump’s rallies. Because in the past century, devotees of strongman ideology organizing to intimidate others has never gone horribly wrong.

While American politics possesses many backwaters that are, at a minimum, distressing, this campaign goes well beyond them in its reach if not in its ugliness.  If Donald Trump wins the nomination of the Republican Party, then one of our two historic great parties will have endorsed a platform of exclusion and violence that has energized and emboldened some of the very worst people in our nation.  Consider the implications: a political party that issued the Emancipation Proclamation under Abraham Lincoln, that forcibly integrated public schools over the violent objections of White Supremacists under Dwight Eisenhower, and that expanded educational opportunity to children with disabilities under Gerald Ford will put up for President a man whose major policy proposals center on narrowing America.  At its core, the Trump campaign is against pluralism and inclusion – and it is willing to employ violent rhetoric that stirs up actual violence in its pursuit.

This is far beyond mere partisan politics, for it threatens the very values that make public education possible. There is no “public” in public education if we do not, even with our manifest flaws, strive towards greater pluralism and greater equity within those schools, and how can we strive towards those goals if our electorate rejects them for the highest office in the land – and tacitly endorses Trump’s racism, sexism, nativism, and affection for strongman rhetoric and violence?  The normal political season role for schools and for teachers is to arbitrate among competing ideals for the future of our democracy, but a normal political season does not typically feature a campaign that actually threatens the core values needed to have a democracy.  Schools and, especially, school leaders cannot be on the sidelines under circumstances where vast portions of the public are actually threatened. Truly public education cannot be silent this time.

 

 

 

4 Comments

Filed under Activism, Drumpf, Media, politics, racism, Social Justice

4 responses to “Why We Need the “Public” in Public Education

  1. You very clearly expose our nation’s tacit support of segregation as well.

  2. suzanne Dorsett

    EXCELLENT PIECE!!!!!and still applies today in 2016

  3. Pingback: Kansas Has Had Just About Enough of This Public Education Nonsense | Daniel Katz, Ph.D.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s