Sunday, March 13, 2011

Does Public Education Support American Democracy?

updated 8/20/20

…there is a need to redefine democracy, making it consistent with what people are able and willing to do and to know in the complex modern world. Jefferson’s model of “government by consent of the governed” is much more realistic in such a world than is the classical definition of “government by the people.” -- E. E. Schattschneider (1969) The Semi-Sovereign People: A Realist's View of Democracy in America>

Dewey’s primary public message was that public schools, in order to prepare their students for life in a democratic society, should replicate that democracy within themselves: the schools, making allowances for student intellectual development, should be democratically run. Throughout his lifetime John Dewey was lionized, honored and seldom listened to by “practical people.” His opponents said aloud what his followers guided their practice with: he has got to be kidding!

In Philadelphia recently, a public school teacher was removed from duty for having provided carfare to high school students so they could participate in a protest over the closing of their school and the transfer of their teachers. The same administrators who were unable to predict a $400,000,000 budget shortfall for the coming year, who awarded contracts in a questionably unofficial manner to persons they favored, apparently ascertained in a very short time that the teacher’s behavior threatened the health and welfare of the students she gave bus tokens to.

Most of the people I went through twelve years of public school with were intelligent enough to dodge being dragooned into service as a student council representative. After all, as Class Representatives, we would be intimidated by our teacher sponsor to “discuss” at length what everyone knew were unimportant things, e.g. what rooms could be used for holiday parties, what color the balloons would be, etc. Certificates at graduation were no recompense for hours of boredom.

What public school students’ experiences with such “democracy” seems to inculcate is, on the one hand, something obvious: there is no “real democracy” in public school.

But what is bizarre is that a second thing manages to be planted in their brains: “real democracy” means “everyone should participate and make important social decisions in order to exercise their rights as citizens.” John Dewey put it that the more people we can interact with, the more democratic our society becomes. This seems to be the classical model that Schattschneider in the epigraph above mentions.

The total population of the United States in July 2009 was 307,006,550 (in 2020, ~330,000,000). When we take into consideration this number along with time, energy, money and opportunity needed for interaction with even a small fraction of Americans, how are we supposed to make such a democracy work? How many people will you be able to discuss any given issue with?

Perhaps Jefferson’s idea is more appropriate. And then we wouldn’t need to feel, in school or out, so hypocritical about making necessary decisions for others; or to feel so irresponsible for allowing others to make the decisions for us. And we would come to understand that, but for their compulsory nature, public schools fit right in with American democracy.

To examine these issues further, see Democracy vs. Efficiency in Public Schooling

--- EGR

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