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Saturday, August 13, 2011

For Better and For Worse: Public Education in a Democratic Society is Political

Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber. -- Plato
It is quite common to hear educators and other would-be school reformers express the desire to "rid education of politics." But politics should not be seen as a contamination. Rather, we should understand any decision as political if it is based on something other than considerations of efficiency within a framework of a consensus on goals.

Thus, most public decisions in a pluralistic democracy -- where consensus on any issue is normally narrow or more apparent than real -- will be political. (See G.K. Clabaugh & E. G. Rozycki, "Getting It Together (the nature of consensus)" Politics is the art of reconciling disparate ends to common means. It is not an excrescence on education; but, in a democracy, its very soul and substance. However, politicizing of educational method is likely to produce the following:
a. the most politically viable methods will tend to low efficiency; this may lead, in times of scarcity, to a rejection of the goals they are instrumental to;

b. "excellence" will tend to be perceived either as an empty slogan, or as an elitist, undemocratic pursuit; 
c. teaching will tend to "deprofessionalization" in any politically sensitive arena; 
d. expertise will be seen as antipathetic to an increasingly popular concern for "sensitivity to human differences."
Given highest priority to a goal of maximizing social harmony, the following student characteristics may be pursued as efficient means: ignorance, incompetence, impotence and irrationality. (This provides a structural explanation for public school failure.)

Such trends may, in the long run, enable non-democratic elites to gain or to maintain disproportional influence. Schools in a democracy, may not -- contra Dewey -- best serve that democracy by being run democratically. --EGR

To examine these issues further, see Pluralism and Rationality: the Limits of Tolerance. Why public schools fail.