“Creating Citizens: Public Education and Liberal Democracy” (here), by Eamon Callan, is one of the books that has greatly influenced my thinking about public education. Callan begins his book with the following (pp. 1 – 3, Chapter One. Published by Clarenden Press, 1997, as part of the series “Oxford Political Theory”.)
In light of the American Presidency, and likely developments in places such as Alberta, Callan’s writing is timely. In 1997 it was prescient.
“Political debate in our liberal democracies is largely confined to questions about the pursuit of material prosperity and the maintenance of civil peace, respect for liberty, and the just distribution of wealth and privilege. Political debate about education follows the same pattern. We talk about how schools and other educational institutions could help to create a more productive workforce, mitigate the violence and lawlessness that afflict our cities, accommodate the freedom of people who want a very different kind of education for their children, and contribute to more just distributive patterns. These are certainly important questions, and what I have to say in this book bears on some of them. But most of the book is about what gets excluded from political debate about education when the questions I have just posed are thought to be the only really serious ones.
“The importance of what gets excluded can be approached through a quick thought-experiment. Imagine an enviably wealthy and peaceful society that has descended, through a couple of generations, from the society to which you and I belong. Imagine also that the society exhibits whatever distribution of wealth you think best. The particular rights we require of any liberal democracy – rights to political participation, freedom of expression, religious practice, equality before the courts and the like – continue to have the force of law. But when elections are held, scarcely anyone bothers to vote. The mass media ignore politics because the consumers to whom they cater do not care. The parties who vie for power are sponsored by more or less the same political elites, and so virtually nothing separates one party from another. Freedom of speech has been reduced to a spectral existence because speech is no longer commonly used to defend a distinctive vision of the good and the right or to say anything that might initiate serious ethical dialogue with another. That is so because (editor, at the end of the generations of neglect) citizens are either indifferent to questions of good and evil, seeing the point of their lives simply as the satisfaction of their desires, or else they commit themselves so rigidly to a particular doctrine that dialogue with those who are like-minded is thought to be repulsive or futile. This Brave New World, as I shall unimaginatively call it, still contains much of the religious, racial, and ethnic diversity of the society that preceded it. But although citizens respect each other’s legal rights, they shun contact with those who are different so far as possible because they despise them. When transactions across cultural divisions are unavoidable, everyone tries to extract as much benefit from the other (or cause as much harm as possible) within the limits imposed by the law.
“The institutions of liberal democracy seem poised for collapse here because the shared public morality that once enlivened them has vanished, and therefore, they survive only as a pointless system of taboo or a modus vivendi among antagonistic groups who will support it only so long as support serves their interests… The culture that has vanished was a great good, and the institutional framework it leaves behind is divested of much of its value because of that loss alone.
Who was there, in the last decade of the 20th century who wrote a more apt description of the political reality that emerges when we neglect the education of our children and, as adults, ourselves forget the tenets of our democracy? My thanks to Dr. Callan. I recommend the book.