Education—as well as its political consequences and place in society—is not a subject about which I know much beyond the experience of working in education. I am to education what a volunteer combat officer is to war (in contrast to an officer who attended West Point to study the art, science, and history of war). I have fought in many types of wars—an appropriate metaphor given the conditions in which education is expected to take place and the goals it is supposed to achieve. What I know comes from the field of battle.
What that experience has taught me is that the purpose, challenge, and substance of education in a democracy are defined by two questions: How ought we to live, side by side, not as lone individuals but as citizens? And how can we, through education, help individuals answer that question? Answering these questions is hard, particularly in the United States, where many seem to view citizenship as a burden and even an unfortunate necessity. The rampant distrust of government and the public sector has become overwhelming. We sidestep the question and defend education in purely economic terms, linking education to work and productivity. Nonetheless, citizenship is more than economic; it is a defining political fact of life, one that even in its neglect can’t be dismissed. And active citizenship, embraced with some measure of critical enthusiasm, may be an indispensable foundation of justice, freedom, and civility.
Hannah Arendt’s view of education in America was based on an imagined comparison with her own biography. Her generation of European éé, who came to the United States during the years surrounding the Second World War, developed a love affair with the political ideal of America, if not with America itself. America was a nation in which citizenship could be acquired by anyone; citizenship (and therefore patriotism in its most palatable form) was defined by loyalty to a form of government and the rule of law, not blood or soil. Among those things distinctly American that émigré—notably Hans Weil (author of a book on education admired by Arendt) and Christian W. Mackauer, one of my teachers (and that of Anthony Grafton) at the University of Chicago—liked most was the fact that the American public school system, by any reasonable comparison to the systems of their former homelands, was fundamentally not authoritarian. A child, so the American progressive educators who held sway in the 1930s and ’40s believed, should be able to express him- or herself as an individual from the very start.
Learning was achieved not by rote, or by spoon-feeding a set of standardized materials; learning emerged out of active trial and error—by doing. For example, in one of the legendary progressive elementary schools founded in the 1930s, very young children were taught to operate a manual letterpress (placed prominently in the classroom), setting moveable type in order to motivate a love of books, the desire to read, and a sense of the beauty of words by designing and printing their own writing. This approach, sadly, has been under attack for decades. That kind of learning does not happen as much anymore in public school systems, having given way to teaching as repetitive drilling, based on crude, reductive textbook accounts of traditional subject matter linked to so-called “high-stakes” standardized testing.
But in contrast, during the Progressive Era, teachers believed not in today’s Common Core, but in something called a highly individualized “child-centered curriculum.” The purpose was the development of curiosity and skills, and cultivating the need to know. As part of this pedagogical ideal, the child, who knew nothing and could do nothing, was nevertheless entitled to express him- or herself; it was believed that only though active exploration and making mistakes would questions be inspired, ignorance discovered, the motivation to pursue knowledge heightened, and ideas, methods, and information be remembered. For all their snobbery about America as a land of unkultur, the thoughtful (if somewhat sentimental) intellectuals among the European refugees recognized the value of American pedagogy, if for no other reason than its potential merit as an instrument of political education for the sake of citizen engagement in a free society.
These Europeans encountered America at a time when there was considerable hypocrisy about demographic diversity, particularly on the matter of race. Nevertheless, in the midst of segregation and institutionalized racism in the 1940s and early ’50s, and in large measure because of it, white America appeared quite diverse and tolerant from a European point of view. The country seemed intent on harmonizing the “melting pot” of immigrant white-skinned citizens through public schooling.
From the émigré perspective, the attraction of the anti-authoritarian and egalitarian character of American education was therefore twofold. First, there was the premium placed on independence of thought, particularly as each child grew older. Second, and more importantly, independent judgment and the will to express it—the effects of a successful progressive education—were valued in terms of how well one learned to live as a citizen. A good education was neither purely cognitive nor solely based on subject matter or skill, but linked in both instances to legitimating the right of each individual to express judgment. The nation by its very self-definition was pluralistic and diverse; citizens—in the best sense of Rousseau—were not born. They had to be made. The Progressives understood that therefore the right kind of public education—a modern version of Horace Mann’s mid-nineteenth-century nonsectarian “common school”—was needed. Education was the experience that could transform private individuals with diverse faiths and origins into equal citizens in a democracy.
The American Way of Learning
What the European émigré discovered was a reality that partially resembled these principles. They saw from the outside, as it were, how vital the connection is between how we structure our schools and our capacity to maintain a functioning pluralist democracy. John Dewey, America’s greatest thinker on education since Mann, guided the ideology of public education. For Dewey, the justification for the proper pedagogy was not primarily political; his conception of teaching and learning derived largely from an epistemological conceit within Pragmatism. But for the European émigré, the contrast between the school systems from which they came and the school system in the country in which they arrived—the virtue and attraction of American educational practice—was significant in terms of its political consequences.
In those years, the defining factor in the American system was the idea of a single, unitary public school system in which everybody enrolled. All citizens went to the same sort of schools through to the end of secondary school. Private schools were an elite phenomenon and relatively insignificant. Most European public systems, by contrast, were intentionally segregated by ability, creating distinct groups beginning at age 11. The state, using examinations, divided the school population into varying categories, each of which maintained a different track. The majority of citizens never completed school beyond elementary school. Some percentage went on to vocational schooling. A very small segment of the population went, as adolescents, either to a humanistic academic high school (Gymnasium) or to a less prestigious practical and science-oriented high school (Realschule) and received a secondary-school diploma. A Matura or Abitur, the diploma from these two types of secondary schools, permitted an elite student to enroll in the university.
Consequently, the unitary public school system that kept all children together until college and that built citizens of character, devoted to democratic values, was viewed by the émigré generation as a marvel. American education appeared to fit the idea that the nation and democracy were tied to a homogeneity of rights, and that diverse constituencies could not only obtain equal legal status but through education achieve the means to realize it in economic and social terms. Citizenship via a nominally nondiscriminatory and standard process accessible to all irrespective of birth, religion, ethnicity, or even language was unheard of in Europe, but it—and the concrete advantages education added—seemed possible in America.
Higher education was no less eye-opening. Undergraduates delayed specialization and studied more than one subject. They were, from the start, asked to do far more writing that called for the expression of their own arguments and judgments. What was equally shocking to a European was the way in which the American university system seemed immensely flexible and open to new ideas. There was not a rigid hierarchy with one professor running each “faculty.” Young scholars did not have to wait for their elders to retire or die. The university was able to create new fields and new positions. Not only was there less hierarchy and formality, but in graduate education there was even less deference to authority than in the public school system. The dissenter, rebel, and ambitious entrepreneur were prized more than in Europe. In terms of graduate education and academic career advancement, American university practice still stands in contrast to that of Europe.
That was the good news. The bad news was that the academic standards by which the American common school system operated seemed horrifically low. The price paid by the democratic culture of the American school system, the émigré observers concluded, was the low level of shared culture achieved at the end of secondary public education. Freshmen could not read or write properly, and they possessed little understanding of literature, art, philosophy, or history. The thinly veiled (at best) snobbery of the mid-century éé scholars simply exploded when their members (such as Werner Jaeger, Leo Strauss, and Kurt Wolff) came to teach American college students.
Outside of the realms of science and engineering, the Americans—students and professors alike—seemed provincial, naive, and disoriented (consider, for example, the depictions in Nabokov’s 1957 Pnin, a thinly disguised account of his years at Wellesley College). They seemed to get little right and displayed astonishing cultural ignorance. This merited condescension. What they had to say did not engage the grand historical intellectual tradition, and, from the point of view of the émigré, Americans in the academy were materialistic and tone-deaf to vulgarity. And so a few of the émigré (Jacob Klein at St. John’s and Heinrich Blücher at Bard) allied themselves with the opponents of the Progressive movement, including Robert Maynard Hutchins and Stringfellow Barr. They favored core general educational requirements and limits to the free elective system, since they perceived a need to introduce American students to the noble traditions of learning and culture that seemed to hold little place in the curriculum of the American public school. For the émigré, the absence of knowledge or cultural understanding was the result of a distorted progressive emphasis on a misleading separation of content from method.
Since the 1930s, when a majority of Americans began to attend high school, a similar concern has arisen with increasing intensity. The notion that public schools fail to provide sufficient basic knowledge surfaces every few decades. The result has been a series of “back-to-basics” curricular movements. After the shock of Sputnik, the pride of place in progressive pedagogy assigned to ways of learning—to method—began to be challenged fundamentally. The focus in public policy, particularly in the 1980s, shifted to testing for content; in the past decade, the emphasis has been on science. Educational reformers now seek to define what all people ought to know, and when the proper subject matter should be taught and learned. However admirable the connection between progressive public schooling and democracy was supposed to be, the fatal flaw in American education was that people were encouraged to think for themselves, but they knew nothing. So what could they think about?
The overemphasis on method notwithstanding, the progressive legacy should not be forgotten or shortchanged. Its stress on nurturing independent thought, self-confidence, entrepreneurial and innovative ambition, and above all the ability to negotiate in a shared school setting with peers from different classes, religious groups, and ethnicities remains the right objective. Ironically, the fact that the quality of political discourse has declined over the very decades in our recent past that have witnessed the erosion of confidence in progressive pedagogy should inspire us, as a society, to redouble our efforts to forge the connection between American education and American democracy that defined the Progressive movement and captivated the refugees from European fascism.
Can the Common Public School Survive?
The mid-twentieth-century perspective on American education shared by Arendt and her contemporaries is only partially relevant to the situation we now face. Until 1980 and the election of Ronald Reagan, no one took seriously the prospect of dismantling the public school system and challenging its virtual monopoly throughout the 50 states. Now we do. One of the consequences of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision was the creation of a charter school movement in the South as a means to evade integration. The popularization and legitimization of the idea that the American public school system has failed and therefore ought to be deregulated and differentiated, largely through privatization, gathered momentum not only from the legal defeat of segregation but also from the revulsion at the counterculture of the late 1960s and early ’70s that inspired the “culture wars” of the late twentieth century, with which we still contend.
We are now caught in the throes of an anti-government movement that is 60 years old and that started with an attack, fueled by a fear of racial integration, on the notion that all children should attend a public school. Race and class interests, and the growth of suburbia as a refuge from integrated inner-city school systems, came to a head in the late 1960s. The 1968 teachers’ strike in New York City was a watershed in the decline of confidence in the historic role of public schooling as a key to fostering citizenship.
The initial motivations for the movement challenging the monopoly of public schools were ultimately ones of prejudice: White parents did not want their children to attend schools that were attended by blacks. This logic was then sanitized by appeals to religious liberty, insofar as parents fleeing integration attached themselves to religious movements. Evangelicals and observant Jews did not want their children to go to schools that idealized acculturation and assimilation into a secular society whose character promoted “godlessness.” The constituencies that wanted to circumvent integration allied themselves with those who resisted the separation of church and state. And no doubt, since school quality is dependent on local property taxes, the poorer the neighborhood, the worse the schools, making a mockery of the idea that public education was an instrument of social mobility for the disadvantaged. As the quality and extent of a person’s education increasingly determined his or her employment and income, the failures of public education became increasingly glaring, making the defense of public schools implausible.
The end result of these forces has been the elevation of privatization and the abandonment of the ideal of the common public school. Privatization and diversification have become the dominant objectives of school reform. This is a bizarre turn of events. The nice way of looking at this development is to concede, “Well, privatization is a way we can actually confront the failings of the public schools.” I agree that American schools are not what they might be. But they never were. The reconciliation of excellence and equity was never achieved in the United States, and certainly not after the Second World War, when the rate of high school attendance climbed to 75 percent. But high academic standards had not been their primary purpose. Their purpose was basic literacy (essential for a now-extinct manufacturing economy) and the creation of a common national identity out of diverse groups. Following the glass-half-empty, half-full image, one could argue that the achievements of post-World War II public education were remarkable.
The standards of American schools haven’t fallen if one considers that only after the end of the Second World War did the rate of high school completion surpass 50 percent. Before that, only a minority earned a high school diploma. So the project of attempting to educate 70 percent, 80 percent, perhaps 100 percent of Americans in a single system was never really tried until the 1960s. And even then, when it was about to be actually tried, the public system came under attack, thereby proving that if one wished to make public schools really democratic and excellent, it was going to be very hard indeed.
No other large, heterogeneous industrial nation has ever attempted the American ideal of a unitary democratic school system for all. And now, as the demand for unskilled labor decreases, the minimum standards of education have become higher and more rigorous. But privatization is now popular because many are saying that we ought not attempt to create such a universal democratic system, and that it is a poorly conceived and implausible ideal. Not only that, but the argument goes that since government is widely believed to be notoriously terrible when it comes to providing public goods, it may be better to deliver education through the private sector in a context similar to market competition in commerce.
I happen to think that the privatization of American education and the abandonment of public education is a strike against the very idea of democracy. It favors the rich even more than the recalcitrant inequities created by neighborhoods. And the fact that there is so little opposition to it, particularly among the privileged, is frightening to me. Not surprisingly, if one surveys the philanthropy of hedge-fund owners and Internet millionaires, the favorite charity of the fabled 1 percent is the funding of alternatives to ordinary public schools. That’s the idea every newly minted possessor of great wealth loves: the reduction of taxes—particularly taxes for public education—and the privatization of the American school. It has therefore become fashionable to attack teachers in the public system. Union-bashing is popular. And the unions, in turn, have not distinguished themselves as advocates of educational excellence. But have we ever addressed the question, as a matter of public policy, of who in fact our teachers are? Who now goes into teaching? Who has actually tried to do something to improve the quality of those who take on teaching in public schools as a career? Have we as a nation ever sought to recruit, train, and retain gifted teachers properly?
Public Education, Public Goods
Looking ahead, the challenges in education policy we face are twofold. First, we must ask ourselves: Do we still believe that American democracy requires a single unitary school system—with proper alternatives within that system, not outside of it—that is in the hands of the public instruments of government? For all the hand-wringing about public control of education, is it not true that fundamental government regulation, properly structured, can have good results? Even in the state of New York, distinguished private institutions of higher learning—Bard, for example—are regulated by the state. Private universities are actually part of a “state” university system under the Regents of New York. This means our accreditation process is shared and overlapping. The dangers of government regulation exist, but so too do the benefits; regulation can help temper, on behalf of children, the inequalities of wealth. Refining, protecting, and strengthening that shared public political umbrella for our schools represents the first challenge.
Our second challenge is to confront the undeniable failures of education, both for the poor and the privileged alike, at a time when the nation cannot forge a constructive conversation about public goods in general. Private and charter schools are not necessarily better in terms of teaching and learning, and they defy the goal of public schooling to educate citizens. We are caught in a moment when a distorted version of the virtues of individualism is rampant and in which a quite banal conceit of the primacy of the personal reigns.
I distrust private languages and the tendency to rely on one’s personal narrative as the basis for talking about politics and, in particular, education, understood as a political good. The personal narrative is always contingent on those outside of it. What a child has to learn in school is not only to formulate a personal narrative but also to set it aside; children need to listen, to observe others, and thereby to distinguish their personal narrative from those of others as each individual constructs a role as a citizen. However, the two imperatives—personal growth and citizenship—don’t appear naturally to overlap. A child needs to learn things that allow him or her to function in a democratic context, to learn to consciously ignore personal self-interest and contemplate the public good. What a common public school ought to teach, therefore, is the capacity for disagreement, contest, and compromise. But if I think public goods are irrelevant, that we can do without government, I automatically subscribe to a kind of illusion of individualism against which criticism is hard, since the point of having a discussion or debate—the creation of the public space of a shared participatory politics—is rejected.
The fact that the President and Congress are not in a productive political conversation not only has to do with issues of politics but also ideology and, most painfully, race. Certainly, we can wonder whether the President would be less embattled if he were white. The ugliness of this reality is incredible, but what is most incredible is the fact that even two white politicians can’t sit on the same platform and talk about ideas in a way that allows for give and take and some real flexibility. They can be socially friendly and go to the opera together as part of a private personal narrative (consider Justices Ginsburg and Scalia). But what good does that do us? None whatsoever. The private friendship among the Supreme Court justices has no consequence in the way we negotiate the compromises and exchanges that are essential in the public sphere.
The project of public education is fundamental to the notion of public goods in America. The restoration of public education seems a precondition for making the public sphere operate properly. Education must be about something more than personal happiness and benefit, economically defined; it has to map out the idea that there is more to the public good than the belief that through some free-market-style calculus of aggregate self-interests, the greatest good for the greatest number will emerge. In other words, public education is about educating the future citizen to consider a common ground in politics that can and will secure a more rewarding notion of personal security and tranquility for all.
But in the context of today’s disenchantment with the public sphere, what can a school-trained citizen do? Merely compete in the marketplace? Work for Google? What actually defines the public sphere today is not the government and Congress, but Google, Facebook, and Amazon. Conspiracy theorists when I was young pointed to the presence of socialists and communists who were said to undermine our system of values. Fear seemed reasonable in the Cold War and under the threat of nuclear war. The line between fear and paranoia was thin indeed. Fear was plausible.
But the people who frighten me and undermine the public sphere today are not terrorists and ideologues interested in overthrowing the government; they are not even those who work for the U.S. government within the NSA or the CIA. Rather, I’m afraid of the very large corporate giants that control our access to information, regulate our private lives by providing social networks—a platform for deceptive intimacy—and monitor every move we make in life and preserve a record of every message, thereby rendering secret-keeping and forgetting—two essential human experiences—impossible.
Technology and the Decline of Truth
Our task is to forge the connection in contemporary life between education and a politically viable public sphere and the realm of public goods. Ultimately, I think we need first to reverse the extent to which journalism, scholarship, and fiction have privileged the personal voice. We overuse the word “I.” By locating beliefs in biography and framing ideas as subjective, we remove ideas from scrutiny and protect beliefs, rendering irrelevant the need for education and the capacity of citizens to argue, to criticize, to listen, and to learn. Dissent has become today an act of personal offense.
In this regard, the ongoing information-technology revolution has had many unusual consequences. Technology is not itself an independent causal variable in history, one of history’s “shaping forces,” as Jacob Burckhardt termed them. Technologies flourish as a consequence of particular historical contexts of value. The excessive privilege accorded the idea of a personal narrative—that is, the foregrounding of the subjective “my point of view”—preceded the success of social networks such as Facebook.
The success of Internet technology has been a consequence of an intellectual crisis in the twentieth century about notions of objectivity and truth. From the Methodenstreit in German historiography and sociology—during the careers of Max Weber, Ernst Troeltsch, Erich Kahler, and Heinrich Rickert—to the era of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, the positivistic claims of the social sciences and the notion of objectivity and truth were eviscerated. The popular consequence was something angry neoconservatives in the 1980s (Allan Bloom foremost among them) feared and railed against: a moral and cultural relativism in which there was no consensus about truth. Neoconservatives fought the idea that in matters of culture there was no valid canon and that everyone is therefore entitled to his or her own judgment regarding matters of quality. Indeed, for their part, the extreme critics of the idea of “truth” at the end of the twentieth century seemed untroubled by the idea that there are very few things that one can come to some agreement about, that possess some plausible universality. The “truth,” at best, is provisional and in most things subjective. That being so, why seek to debate or come to an agreement in politics?
The early neoconservatives, the followers of Leo Strauss, believed that challenging an epistemological and moral relativism would restore a shared faith in the “truth.” But the irony is that all the neoconservative critique has done is further the agenda of the skeptics they took on as opponents. Contemporary conservatism erodes the need for the contest of ideas by shutting off debate altogether. The very defenders of notions of objectivity and the validity of truth have retreated into an enclave and rendered themselves immune from rigorous scrutiny. This defines the character of the Tea Party Republicans. The consequence of 1980s neoconservatism has not been consensus or a renewed sense of a common ground, but insularity, accelerated by technology, often at the expense of claims that legitimately can survive rigorous scientific scrutiny and assume the mantle of truth, such as evolution and climate change.
Internet technology allows people to segregate into hermetic communities of belief, without any need to test their beliefs against criticism. Supported by a community of like-minded individuals, we can come to believe things to be true that are not. Technology aggregates prejudices and dresses falsehood (see, for instance, the supposed connection of vaccines to autism) with the veneer of respectability, and sustains a virtual community that shares the same distorted views. Technology has become the ultimate relativizing instrument, for it makes all claims look alike. So how does one come to question something, investigate something, understand something, relearn something, and revise one’s views anymore? Where is the motivation for public debate and discourse?
The wonders of technology have also forced Americans to come to grips with the common-sense fact that schooling and education are not, and never have been, the same thing. The amount of time that a student spends in school is ultimately trivial. We educate and learn mostly outside of classrooms, in part through child rearing. By placing too great a burden on schools as the sole source of education and shedding our own responsibility as parents, families, and neighbors for the education of children and young adults day in and day out, we distort what can be reasonably expected of institutions. We ask too much. Schools have never been the exclusive source of education; they are of but a very minor influence when compared to other factors in a child’s life. That perception, however true, is not an argument for home schooling—quite the opposite, since schools can and should teach dialogue, collaboration, empathy, and tolerance, vital aspects of life in a democracy, particularly one dominated by cities and worldwide commerce.
Indeed, in the way we now construe the 24-hour day and seven-day week, education comes from a greater multiplicity of sources than in the past. With technology that multiplicity has grown, but the context of growth has been one of a declining dynamic in terms of self-criticism and dialogue. Technology, when applied to learning, encourages isolation and contact that is not face-to-face. Schools are designed at their best to make group learning a virtue, and to transmit knowledge and skills and foster dialogue regarding well-defined subject areas; they are not set up to act as surrogates for parents and communities. But as these structures become weaker and more fragmented, the shared common school experience, defined as a laboratory for citizenship, looms as more crucial than ever. The Progressives, in this sense, had it right.
Even within the narrow confines of academic learning, rightfully the province of schools, there are downsides to technology. Consider Wikipedia. In the “good old days” (which never existed), if you wrote a paper on Martin Luther King Jr. and cited an encyclopedia article, you got a C because the teacher knew you did not do much work. Today, at least in our personal lives, Google, Wikipedia, and the algorithms by which knowledge is searched for and located on the Web have given people access to what appears to be sufficient information. We now accept the illusion that what we find online is all we need to know. This illusion has wiped out any need for scholarship and expertise.
My favorite Wikipedia article is on St. Augustine. A lot of committed individuals with competing viewpoints are adherents of this particular entry: There are Catholics who have conflicting views, classicists who have various axes to grind, and then Protestants, mostly Lutherans, who read him in their own way. The composite result is confusing. It is very hard to figure out what Augustine actually thinks. Just like many a Wikipedia entry, St. Augustine’s page keeps changing; people are constantly erasing and adding new content. This is all admirable. But in the end, the entry is incomprehensible, and exceedingly long—one would be far better off reading St. Augustine himself.
This is only one example of how the Internet has compromised the standards of research, expertise, and scholarly debate. Indeed, it has leveled it. The original idea of the Web was that it would democratize expertise. Its unanticipated consequence is that it deflects from curiosity and research and has made the real expert irrelevant; it has also wiped away the need for and substance of scholarly controversy.
This is potentially dangerous. If you go to the doctor and the doctor says you have an allergy, you can spend several days reading on the Internet about that allergy. But what you understand from what you read could be frightening because, unless you have a remarkably good education in science, you can easily get misled. So the mass of data, with its allure of easy access, creates a semblance of sufficient understanding. This has made the conversation about negotiating different points of view harder, not easier. It has also given a kind of intellectual respectability to purely personal prejudices. I can now gather material, data, and even like-minded colleagues and presumed experts to defend a point of view that may be, in the end, indefensible. What Wikipedia does not provide me—which schooling can—are the tools of interrogation and criticism.
So where does this bring us with regard to education? As a practitioner of education, I still hold to the idea that the most difficult and yet most vital thing to do is to construct and sustain a language of public conversation. And that language of public conversation will inevitably be different from our several private languages. We cannot expect it to be the same. The conversation on matters that affect us all has to take place in real space and time. School is one source of that essential opportunity.
One of the depressing aspects of our politics today is the extent to which our candidates think it is enough to be a personality and to rely on a private language in order to get elected. We are more interested in the personalities of our politicians, as if they were our neighbors or private friends, than we are in what they think. Today’s politicians cannot speak a comprehensible language of ideas in public conversation about public goods, the matters at stake in politics. We have lost the taste for a sustained debate about ideas.
To confront this lack of public discourse based on ideas—ideas bolstered by claims and evidence subject to open scrutiny—public education needs to work. It needs to create a community of very diverse citizens who are able to occupy a public space in which they can negotiate matters of shared concern, from foreign affairs to domestic policy, using a shared language. The Internet does not offer such a platform, nor does the virtual space or Facebook or any other social media.
I therefore think that we need to redouble the defense of a single system of public education to which our citizens have free access. We need to resist the privatization of schooling. That does not mean that every school should look alike. But since we will continue to be (I hope) an immigrant nation, we will have to champion a public school system if we are to reconcile increasing differences, inequalities of wealth, and class distinctions into a functioning, dynamic democracy made up of citizens.
I share the émigré generation’s quite romantic optimism for the potential of a democratic school system, one marked by excellence and equity. I think such a system is worth fighting for. There are lots of reasons to be optimistic. There is evidence that we can improve schools. A welcome first step would be to instill in the best of our current college students and future generations of graduates the value of public school teaching as a dignified, honorable, lifelong career.
The writer and Nobel laureate Elias Canetti observed that the cruelest myth we cling to is the claim that language actually communicates. That belief is made worse by the assumption of a coherent language community within a nation, the claim that we all speak the “same” language. There is something witty in Canetti’s blunt observation. Yet I actually think that it is possible to create a shared language of conversation in politics about the public space that we share as citizens. That is the objective of education and one of the reasons why the relative precision of science is crucial to the curriculum.
The methods and findings of science tell us that many of the public dilemmas that we face—whether they be related to health, the environment, or other topics—are matters where understanding something about the world is indeed possible and subject to agreement, rejection, discovery, and constant scrutiny. We can agree as to what mutation is and what, for example, genetic engineering is all about.
Learning how science works provides a template for what might pass for certainty. It helps clarify what biotechnology really promises or what computers may really be able to do. Citizens need to know how degrees of certainty and doubt are established. They need to locate and understand the varied distinctions between fiction and fact. The rigor of thinking and argument, the rules of evidence, and the recognition of rhetoric and ignorance are part of the education we must provide children and young adults if we are going to retain our freedoms. And the sooner we get down to the business of doing so through public education, the better off we will be as citizens, and the more we will be able to develop a protected space for our private languages and intimate lives.