Sarah M. Stitzlein
Public schools are intricately connected to the stability and vitality of our democracy in the United States. The important relationship between public schooling and democracy began as a foundational idea in our fledgling republic, and it grew slowly over the course of our country’s history. Along the way, the relationship has been tested and challenged, encountering significant problems and limitations over time, including some that continue today. Despite these struggles and the many ways in which we’ve failed to fully fulfill the relationship, it has become a key one for maintaining the strength of our society and our political system.
Unlike a monarchy and other forms of government, it is difficult to maintain a democracy. Democracies take work; they rely upon the ongoing effort of elected officials and citizens, because they cannot run themselves or rely on just one person to lead. While democracy may be a highly desirable political system, its benefits are not always self-evident to children, and the pursuant skills and work it requires do not come naturally to most people. This is the rather precarious position of democracy; in order to maintain it, we have to educate children about its benefits and rationale while also equipping them with the skills and dispositions they need in order to for them to perpetuate it well. This is why we must link education and democracy.
Democracy requires informed and active voters who seek information to make wise decisions on behalf of themselves and the common good. Such voters must understand their own rights and freedoms, as well as those of others, as they deliberate together to reach mutually agreeable policies and practices. They must be equipped to engage in free and critical inquiry about the world and the problems surrounding them. And, they need the imagination and creativity to construct, revise, add to, and share the story of democracy with others, including the next generation.
The relationship between public schooling and democracy is best understood and fulfilled when it is not just a unidirectional one, where public schools support democracy, but rather when it moves in both directions, with the formal and cultural elements of democracy shaping the governance, content, and practices of schools. In this way, democracy is not just the end of public schooling, but also the means by which we achieve it.
In 1954, Hannah Arendt wrote that talk of a crisis in education “has become a political problem of the first magnitude.” If one trusts the steady stream of books, articles, jeremiads, and statements from public officials lamenting the fallen status of our schools and calling for bold reforms, the 21st century has shown no abatement in crisis as an abiding theme in education discourse. But why does education occupy such a privileged space of attention and why is it so susceptible to the axiomatic evocation of “crisis?” Arendt provides a clue when she argues that “Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token, save it from the ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable.”
The crisis in education has come to signal a variety of issues for which the teacher is either a direct or indirect participant: declining student performance, inadequacy of teacher preparation, inequities of opportunity as well as outcome, or a curriculum ill-fitted to the shape of the modern world. However, at base is the issue of social reproduction that Arendt sees at the heart of education. Thus, the crisis in education serves as a forum for expressing, critiquing, and instantiating the values that are at play when considering “the coming of the new and the young.”