A Public Sphere for Poetry, Nature, and Politics
Freedom can exist only in the society of knowledge. — Benjamin Rush
When I taught high school, I once caught a boy scribbling anti-Semitic graffiti on a desk. He was immediately expelled. That was thirty-plus years ago. Things have changed.
The day after the election of Donald Trump, middle schoolers in York, Pennsylvania, spent part of their lunch chanting ,“Build the wall. Build the wall. …”
On “Univision”, I listened to a mother, a mother in tears, speak of how her Spanish speaking daughter was threatened by other middle schoolers because she “speaks taco.”
In Maple Grove, Minnesota, “Whites Only” was the least offensive thing painted on a high school door.
These examples are used because they occurred in schools. But they reflect a disturbing national trend.
Our problems are manifold. And Americans are not given to reflection. Nonetheless, this last election must give us pause. Let us focus on one problem. About those schools.
At least in part, this election is the logical, and perhaps necessary, result of the decades during which we neglected our public school system. The elemental thrust of American public education, from Benjamin Rush and Horace Mann to John Dewey, from the common school to today’s comprehensive high school, has been to educate for democracy and away from tyranny and plutocracy.
Educational theorists, like Benjamin Rush and Horace Mann, knew the fragility of representative democracy. They considered the need, to educate for democracy, so vital that they instituted a new form of schooling, the common school. The common school had many problems, but of importance here is its central demand for civic education. Common schools were the dominant form of schooling throughout the 1800’s, and well into the 20th century.
The philosopher, John Dewey, in his 1916 Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education , says, “If a plague carried off the members of a society all at once, it is obvious that the group would be permanently done for. Yet the death of each of its constituent members is as certain as if an epidemic took them all at once. But the graded difference in age, the fact that some are born as some die, makes possible through transmission of ideas and practices the constant reweaving of the social fabric. Yet this renewal is not automatic. Unless pains are taken to see that genuine and thorough transmission takes place, the most civilized group will relapse into barbarism and then into savagery.”
The demand, therefore, is for an educated and informed electorate. In this sense, educated does not mean a doctorate. It means the ordinarily informed citizen, one who reads the papers, debates the issues, considers all sides. This ordinarily informed citizen is one who understands the need for a civil dialectic, and takes loyal opposition as a given. Put simply, this citizen minimally understands facts, dialogue, voting.
Yet repeated studies show that we just elected someone whose followers are bound by their longing for the authoritarian. Authoritarianism is a world view that trusts rigid order, and distrusts change. It is not Republican or Democrat. But this year, yes, it is Trump and much of what he represents. Deferring to the authoritarian today results in a denial of scientific facts like global warming and evolution, as well as setbacks in our elemental civic progress toward civil rights, gender equality and religious toleration.
How did this happen? There are many reasons. But, in schools, we no longer educate for democracy. We educate for The Test. The Standards And Accountability Movement, begun in the 1990’s, has resulted, frankly, not in education but in ignorance. The measure of a student is no longer civic responsibility but test preparedness. Standardization created a moral vacuum filled now by the authoritarian.
Various studies, including some published in Education Week, suggest that “No Child Left Behind” resulted in a shift toward math and science, and away from social science. Other studies support similar conclusions. In any case, 36% of Americans cannot name the three branches of government. The Annenberg Public Policy Center also found that just 15% of Americans could correctly identify the Chief Justice of the United States, John Roberts, while 27% knew Randy Jackson was a judge on “American Idol”. And these folks can vote.
Authoritarianism trusts rigidity. It is antithetical to democracy, which values the fluidity of civic dialogue. Combine that with simple ignorance, and the result is – and this is not too strong of a word – terrifying. Why? Because the republic is fragile. Because authoritarianism, as we experience it today, thrives on ignorance.
Let us listen, once more, to John Dewey. “Knowledge is humanistic in quality not because it is about human products in the past, but because of what it does in liberating human intelligence and human sympathy. Any subject matter which accomplishes this result is humane, and any subject matter which does not accomplish it is not even educational.”
An education in civics does not track toward the left, right or center. It tracks toward an informed electorate. It does not result singularly in a Bernie Sanders, a Paul Gigot, an E. J. Dionne. It results in all of them.
I cannot end this essay without a personal note. I am a retired high school teacher. My observations are consistent with the educational studies mentioned above. I also know that Benjamin Rush, Horace Mann and John Dewey, despite any faults, left an ideological and pedagogical legacy, which we abandon at our peril.
So it came as a surprise to me, shortly before I retired, when a student teacher asked, “What is the greatest change in your forty years of teaching?”
And I spontaneously answered, “When did teaching become morally ambiguous?”
Thus do I mourn for my profession and my nation.
(c) 2016 John Samuel Tieman