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February 1997 | Volume 54 | Number 5
Education for Democratic Life
If civic life is eroding, reinvigorating civic education for our youth is not enough. We need to make education itself more democratic by involving citizens in meaningful deliberation of the purposes and goals of public schools.
Trying to solve social or economic problems by improving the young has been an American habit for more than a century. If people drank too much, we provided temperance instruction. If there was carnage on the highway, we tried driver's education. Was the U.S. becoming less competitive economically? Then give students vocational training or computer literacy or hold them to higher standards. It seemed easier to shape the young than to correct adults.
Recently, commentators have lamented the "disappearance of civic America," saying we've become a nation of civic couch potatoes. Critics point to our disgracefully low voter turnout, sharply declining participation in social and civic organizations, and rampant distrust of government and other institutions. Single-issue politics have blurred our sense of the common good. To some, government and public have become curse words.
Those are the problems we face. Is the solution strengthening the civic education of youth? That no doubt is part of the answer, but focusing solely on young people dooms us to repeat the mistakes of the past. Students learn democracy not only in classrooms but also by observing democratic processes in the adult world. And when it comes to public education, we've hardly modeled how a civic society should work.
As trustees of the education of the next generation, we've allowed the politics of education to become fragmented and severed from a broad sense of purpose. We've sat by as the involvement of local citizens in school affairs has increasingly been undermined by the prescriptions of policy elites. Until we begin to reverse these troubling trends, reinvigorating the civic education of our youth will be a half-measure.
John Dewey said that we need not only education in democracy, but also democracy in education. For the welfare of the young, thoughtful citizens must participate in the politics of public schooling. But the present state of education politics hardly exemplifies civic health. All too often, hyperbole has displaced realistic hopes, litigation has substituted for deliberation and compromise, special interest have prevailed over a sense of trusteeship, and the search for private advantage has weakened public engagement, as schooling has increasingly been seen as a consumer good.
In recent years, national policy talk about the purposes of education has betrayed a survivalist style of thinking. Critics of the schools have often defined our chief problem as lack of competitiveness in the world economy. Making the next generation of workers better "human capital" is presumed to be the solution, and the bottom line has been narrowed to higher test scores.
Recall the military rhetoric that launched 1983's landmark report, A Nation at Risk:
If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war...We have, in effect, been committing and act of unthinking, unilateral education disarmament (National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983, p.5).
More recently, at the 1996 "Education Summit" of governors and business leaders, a participant called for a "war room" to track the progress of school reform (Lawton 1996, p. 15).
When the language of pedagogical survivalism takes over, it is not clear to me who is waging war on whom. Politicians invoke the language of battle to frighten citizens into activity. Elite policymakers create "bogeynations" to panic citizens about American human capital.
Preparing the young to be good adult workers is only one of the purposes of schooling, however. We also need better democrats, more people aware of the common good and willing to work for it. We need capital humans quite as much as human capital, narrowly defined.
Today, some people are talking about the broader democratic purposes of schooling. Deborah Meier (1991) puts the issue well: "While public education may be useful as an industrial policy, it is essential to healthy life in a democracy" (p. 270). Mike Rose (1996) shows in Possible Lives that in communities and schools across the nation, teachers, students, and parents are practicing John Dewey's dream of democracy in education and education in democracy. Rose finds that there is a far richer sense of educational purpose than we generally hear about in policy talk on the national level.
Such voices are often uninvited or unheard in elite circles, however; only on teacher, for example, was invited to the 1996 education summit of governors and business leaders. There is a very large gap between what the national policy elites are talking about and what people in local districts care about.
An irony helps to explain the decline of civic participation as it relates to education. American school governance is the most decentralized in the world; Americans admire and trust local schools more than those at a distance. Yet policy elites in education too often have worked to confine the exercise of local control. If citizens are less involved in school affairs, it may not be that they are uninterested; rather, policymakers haven't left a vital role for the people.
For more than a century, national policy elites have done their best not to build on but to undermine local control, to convince people that it's not a good idea, to argue that "schools should be taken out of politics" (which is, of course, impossible). They have succeeded in diminishing local autonomy by consolidating 90 percent of school districts and by regulating them heavily. School boards have become the "forgotten players" on the educational team, bypassed by reformers who talk of national standards and state legislation and supervision. When local citizens lose the sense that they can shape institutions, it's no wonder they participate less in civic affairs. A vicious cycle ensues, as less participation means less influence, and so it goes.
Tip O'Neill has said that all politics is local. I would argue that in a sense all education and all education reform is local. For two centuries, local control of education local determination of purpose and practice has been a fundamental building block of our education system. It's not just a way to govern schools, it's also a way to establish, face-to-face, a sense of purpose; a public philosophy of education. Polls and focus groups have repeatedly shown that Americans respect local school governance and local schools far more than distant governments and distant schools. This allegiance to and trust in local schools is a rare resource that we ought to recognize and build on.
One of the most needed reforms in civic education on that benefits students by involving adults more in their schooling is to create opportunities for citizens at the local level to negotiate a social contract with their schools, to awaken a greater sense of the common good. We need everywhere to ask: "Why do we have schools? How can we make them better?"
The "disappearance" of civic America and the atrophy of face-to-face associational life have become major social concerns. Meanwhile, the political climate is beginning to favor devolution of the functions of government downward. If these concerns are part of the environment in which local educators and activists work, what are some implications for action?
At present, local politics of education is usually reactive, responding to single-issue concerns, instead of proactively defining issues for deliberation. Such a reactive stance is a mistake. Forums about schooling can become instruments of democratic decision making and continuing education of citizens, young and adult. After all, if the members of a community have any common interest, it should be a concern for the education of the next generation.
School boards, PTAs, the League of Women Voters, corporations or unions, and civic groups of many kinds should work together with local newspapers and other media to arrange public discussions of educational issues. Citizens in Colorado discussed their new state curricular standards in such forums, to cite one example.
Such forums could take many forms: discussion of the results of local opinion surveys such as the Public Agenda Foundation polls; focus group discussions in local schools on issues like new forms of testing; radio or TV panel discussions and call-in programs on plans for reform; or town meeting styles of debate and deliberation on the purposes of schooling. One of the most common reasons reforms do not last is that they are too intramural, concocted by professionals for professionals. They exceed the public's taste for novelty. When parents and other citizens are well-informed and give their support to changes, reforms have a much better chance of succeeding.
Forums on reforms, as in Colorado, can lead to another, deeper , dimension: finding common ground on the purposes of education. A good deal of evidence suggests that citizens do agree on many goals. The Public Agenda Foundation found nearly universal consensus on the importance of promoting equity, tolerance of differences, and peaceful conflict resolution, for example (Farkas and Johnson 1996, p. 42). Citizens also agree on the importance of both the basics and safe, orderly schools. People no doubt differ on the particulars just what constitutes the basics or the proper scope of multicultural instruction, for example but it is important to seek common ground nonetheless.
The public good is not just something for students to discuss in civics classes, not only a message for the young. It is time for adults, in their actions and words, to show that a civic society is something all citizens can create. Citizens can do this through an ever-changing attempt to chart goals, through debate and deliberation, negotiation and compromise, and an appeal to shared values.
Farkas, S., and J. Johnson. (1996). Given the Circumstances: Teachers Talk About Public Education Today. New York: Public Agenda Foundation.
Lawton, M. (April 3, 1996). "Summit Accord Calls for Focus on Standards." Education Week, 1, 14-5.
Meier, D. (March 4, 1991). "Choice Can Save Public Education." The Nation, p. 270.
National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Rose, M. (1996). Possible Lives: The Promise of Public Education in America. New York: Penguin Books.
David Tyack is Vida Jacks Professor of Education and Professor of History at Stanford University, School of Education, Stanford, CA 94305-3096.
Copyright © 1997 by David Tyack
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