Education Blog Essay

Education and Democracy

Anna Deavere Smith, American actress, playwright, and professor, once said, “Art convenes.  It is not just inspirational.  It is aspirational.  It pricks the walls of our compartmentalized minds, opens our hearts and makes us brave.”  In that spirit, can we “prick the walls of our compartmentalized minds” and bring heart and courage to reflections on education and democracy?   Democratic governance in societies around the world faces serious challenge today.  Education sits at the crossroads of the information revolution and widening inequalities.   The frailties of education increase the fragility of democracy. Strengthening each is critical to the other.

What steps move toward strength, and what steps instead make matters worse?

Democracy is hard work, and often produces poor policies.  Playwright George Bernard Shaw was not stretching the truth when he had one of his characters say, “Democracy substitutes election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.” The work of self-governance takes time, produces conflicts, and leaves us with few to blame but ourselves.  So, it “is the worst form of Government except all those other[s].

On top of it all, it’s difficult to keep a democracy.  Elections can be rigged.  Politicians can take choices away from the voters.  And the people can be tempted to surrender their power — by failing to vote or by voting for tyrants. Only 4.5% of the world’s populations live in full democracies, and even in those nations, self-governance faces rising gains by authoritarian leaders in Venezuela, Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, and, some would say, the United States.

The founders of the United States understood that “an ignorant people cannot remain a free people and that democracy cannot survive too much ignorance.” The American movement for “common schools” initiated in the 1830s sought to promote political stability, equip more people to earn a living, and enable people to follow the law and transcend differences in religion and background. Yet we are far from embracing this ideal as a guide for practice in the United States. As initially advanced, the common school ideal excluded enslaved people and children with disabilities.  After the Civil War — and even today — public school systems still often divide students by race and class in practice.

A sustained legal strategy attacking legally mandated racial segregation in schools yielded official victory in 1954. But this also triggered resistance, and, despite some successes, massive racial separation persists in American schools.  According to work done by Jennifer L. Hochschild and Nathan Scovronick, of this country’s 5,300 communities with fewer than 100,000 people, at least ninety percent were white at the turn of this century. In large urban districts, nearly seventy percent of the public students were nonwhite, and over half were poor or nearly poor. In some communities, this pattern has continued to worsen. Disparities in per-pupil expenditures further reflect the sharp differences in local wealth because most of the country funds schools based on local property taxes.   Although a majority of Americans report that school integration is a good idea, a majority also agree that “we shouldn’t do anything to promote [it].” One commentator reports that now we live in an era of “hoarding” by upper middle-class families — those in the top twenty percent of income — who have used zoning laws, local control of schooling, college application procedures, and unpaid internships to pass their opportunities onto their children while making it harder for others to break in.

As a result, it is fair to ask whether we are holding up the ideal, so well stated by John Dewey, that schools should “see to it that each individual gets an opportunity to escape from the limitations of the social group in which he was born, and to come into living contact with a broader environment”? Controversial policy reforms would increase educational opportunities for disadvantaged students, but there is little political will for paying teachers more to teach in schools in poor neighborhoods, making higher education truly affordable, ending exclusionary residential zoning, and replacing reliance on local property taxes with state-wide or national redistributive financing.

To work, democracy needs effective schools that do even more than instruct students in the value and institutions of a democratic society (though this would be a good start, given that in 2014 only 36% of Americans could name the three branches of government). Schools can cultivate habits and skills of taking initiative, showing respect, listening, and controlling emotions in the face of disagreement.  Schools can help individuals take the perspective of others and learn to assess and organize information.  These capacities are presumed by democratic governance, but children are not born with these abilities.  Nor are they born with knowledge of what life is like under fascism or autocracies.  Students can learn by doing: learn to use the tools of democracy in their classrooms, debate controversial issues, and practice disagreeing with respect.  Schools can trust young people to follow their own interests, to take responsibility, and to take up governance of their own classrooms and lives. Civics education with these features leads to greater political engagement, voting, and higher degrees of acceptance toward people of different backgrounds.

At this moment, the distance between these ideals and aspirations much less actual practices around the country is enormous.    A global study found that few millennials object to autocracy; only 19% of American millennials surveyed report that a military takeover would be illegitimate if the government is incompetent. Not many young people may know how following a worldwide economic depression, people in Italy and Germany turned to fascism in the 1930s and gave power to Mussolini and to Hitler.  Mussolini and Hitler appealed to racism, fanaticism, and fear — and created global violence, mass killings, and destruction of communities and democratic ideals.  A ray of hope for democracy: survey research suggests that people are much more willing to deliberate than prior research suggested, and those most willing to deliberate are exactly those turned off by standard, polarized, interest group politics. If the conventional avenues for participation can involve more opportunities for deliberation, many who are disengaged and disaffected might join in the work of self-governance.

Digital resources offer both promise and risks for education, for democracy, and for their connections.  The Internet, social media, and search engines bring much of the world’s knowledge within reach of more people than ever in human history.  Information — and disinformation — are plentiful and a few keystrokes away.  It is more difficult for repressive regimes to keep information out of people’s reach.  The architecture of the Internet also enables people with little cost to find others with similar interests, to share and spread information and views, and to recruit others because it facilitates one-to-many communication. These features are exemplified by the work of MoveOn and Breitbart News — and also by terrorist recruitment and sexual predators online. Arab Spring and public protests in Turkey indicate the power of the Internet to promote democracy but authoritarian governments have also found the Internet useful for surveillance, intimidation, and purging opposition. Research suggests that some individuals tune out of politics with the help of social media and internet entertainment, but here the internet simply joins many opportunities for people to avoid political engagement.   Both education and democracy are fragile unless people desire — and fight for — political participation, knowledge, debate, critical reasoning, and freedom, whether in governance of their societies, schools, or design of the Internet.

Education and democracy both enhance human freedom but require rules and structure to work.   Both need ground rules.  Neither can work amid untrammeled violence, disrespect, and lying. Formal rules and informal norms can guide people to assess claims and bolster intolerance of intolerance.   Practicing the predicates of education and democracy — the norms of respect and truth — these are the tasks pricking the walls of our compartmentalized minds, opening our hearts, and making us brave.

This post is based on remarks given at Sarah Lawrence College.