Democracy and Public Education

 Democracy is a high-maintenance political system for the people who live in it. Dictatorships are not. Those in charge tell you what to do, how to do it, and when. They also tell you who your enemies are, who to like, and who to dislike. In a Democratic society the collective will informs politicians. In a dictatorship of any stripe, people are told what is good for them—the state, not the will of the populace, is the authority. People who buy into empty slogans such as “Make America Great Again” are desperate for an authority in a complex and confusing world, desperate for simple answers and decisive action. Populist personalities, the Hitlers and Mussolinis of history, offer them just that. The multitudinous contradictions and competing social demands of modern society are frustrating and confusing and the volkish are desperate for the simplicity of a demagogue.

Many people are chanting MAGA without asking or knowing what it means – it sounds good.  Ask them:

  What do you mean by GREAT?

When did America stop being great? 

What would it take to make America “Great” again?.

How will we know when it is “Great” again? 

The simplistic MAGA meme is nothing if not a sinister manipulation playing to ignorance, resentment, and anger. It has repeated itself under many names and many times in history – Communism, Fascism, Oligarchy, Neoliberalism, Populism, and “Whateverism”. These seem never to go out of style, and they are on a roll again. All it takes to start this ball rolling is someone willing to play to the lowest common denominator with simple assurances of better times, what one writer calls the “mobilizing passions”, a better economy, and the necessary De Rigueur enemy. And, consider for just for a moment the juicy contradiction of a billionaire playing populist.Oh, and don’t forget the ball caps and t-shirts being sold to the true believers who never question who is making a profit on the sales.

 Cooperation and community are dangerous to demagogues because they unite people and consolidate them around their collective power. Winner-take-all competition has been so inculcated and baked into the American psyche and thus into public education from kindergarten onwards that it makes social collectivity difficult. Competition—the antithesis of cooperation—keeps people at each other’s throats and is one of the most destructive practices in public education. Why? Because social competition in formative years ultimately undermines a sense of community, sharing, and cooperation. In competitive educational systems kids learn how to be “good” losers, to accept not being first or best, mirroring the economic system that similarly categorizes their parents. If a society is to succeed as a community, cooperation must be a fundamental tenet of how children are socialized. “Everyone’s a winner!”

When I was teaching I used to take my classes once a semester to the University gym for what I called the Participatory Democracy Exercise. In a very simple dynamic demonstration of how competition thwarts a cooperative social contract, we played a basketball game and the only rule aside from the normal ones was, if you get a basket the other side gets the points. The participants were immobilized and frustrated. Talk about cognitive dissonance! After everyone had a turn at this we spent the rest of the class time talking about the affect and effect of being winners and losers not because of skill or effort but because of rules they did not themselves make. If I were doing this exercise today, I would point the discussion towards the MAGA meme and ask how that relates to questions of community and cooperation within a fully functioning society. 

By definition, public education is a function of the Commons in which children are prepared for life in society as it is lived or, perhaps ideally, for a better society. Democracy is, at bottom, a collective political concept, an all-for-one and one-for-all social contract. Never forget “With Liberty and Justice for all.” We have all made that pledge not once but many times over the course of our lives, our pledge to social, political, economic, and educational justice. 

Public education, just like the right and duty to vote, is a vital and fundamental responsibility for members of a democratic society. Solid and responsible primary and secondary education isn’t about job training – it’s about teaching children to become responsible citizens who readily and competently participate in a Democratic society. It is about teaching, not what to think, but how to think and, most importantly, how to learn. Those qualities are anathema to demagogues and that is why the appointment of someone like Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education is profoundly insulting. The destruction of public education will be the inevitable destruction of our democratic society.

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 60 other subscribers


%d bloggers like this: