What is the form and purpose/role of a public school education?

Particularly since the Presidential election in the U.S.A. last fall, the question haunts me. For me, the outcome of the election demonstrated the complete disappearance of the American public, replaced by the chaos and fragmentation of ‘identity politics’.

Yesterday I read Eliot A. Cohen in the Atlantic (A clarifying moment in American History). One of his observations: “To repair the damage he (Trump) will have done, Americans must give particular care to how they educate their children, not only in love of country but in fair-mindedness; not only in democratic processes but democratic values.” Canadians, and citizens of most democracies, should associate themselves with that sentiment before it is too late in other countries.

The idea that struck me most forcefully on the night of the American election was that 40 years of neglecting public education had yielded the inevitable outcome: the American public had disappeared, replaced by the chaos and fragmentation of identity politics.

We forget, at our peril, that the well-being of democracy depends upon a strong sense that we all share some common project that is vitally important to us, and that “we are all in this together”. One hundred years ago there was a plethora of binding agents in the U.S.A. (or in Canada). Even 70 years ago we were strongly imbued with the common project (victory in the Second World War), and we were certainly imbued with the sense that “we are all in this together”. Churches shared substantially common messages about a congregant’s relationship with civil life. The written word (sometimes it was literature) was the common medium, and most of us shared knowledge of a relatively few morality tales. Military conscription oriented us toward a common understanding of a common project, and the sense that “we are all in this together”.

In days gone by, what we today call the public school was called the common school, because one of its stated purposes was to draw us into a common understanding of our life together.

In days gone by, the binding agents that sustained the public were many, and strong. The public was a reality, and cherished.

Since the end of World War II most of the binding agents have either disappeared completely (conscription), or been marginalized (organized religion), or been usurped by agents of fragmentation (advertising, new media). Politicians and the political process have been at a loss to understand these changes, and they have abandoned the field. There is no political attempt to re-imagine and re-state the great common project that binds us all together. Politicians make no meaningful effort to sustain the public, to remind us that “we are all in this together”. Instead, they follow the technology and the ideology into identity politics. When we disagree, we no longer contend with, and remain friends: we contend against, and become implacable foes. (My identity is better than your identity. My identify is in the ascendency, and yours is in retreat. My identify cloaks more people than your.)

So, the public disappears. Identity politics emerges and becomes dominant.

How does this relate to public school education?

We need to remember that the very idea of the public school nurtures two great ideas, and both of them are vital to any democracy.

Public school education educates, in the sense familiar to us all. It has a program of studies and curriculum. It employs pedagogues to provide formal instruction. It does all of this on the understanding that democracy depends upon an educated citizenry.

The great idea we have lost sight of is that public school education must also be a deliberate model of a civil democratic society, with justice for all. Public school education must be inclusive, without pre-condition of any kind. It must be inclusive for students, as learners, and for all adults as practitioners of democracy and as citizens of that mythic village in which everyone is responsible for the education of all children. It is not enough that we have a civics curriculum and courseware that attends to our values. We must have a public school education that demonstrates democracy, inclusion, diversity, justice, creativity, good stewardship, and compassion on the playground, in the hallway, in the staff room and in the Boardroom chamber, as well. We must have a public school system that is supported, organized to be a reflection of the great common project, and attractive. We must dissuade people from choosing the gated communities of education. That initial choice makes subsequent choices in favour of gated communities easier and easier.

Over 40 years Americans, particularly, have neglected and then gutted public school education, whether in obedience to ‘choice’, or as an homage to elitism or as a submission to calls for back-door segregation, or in deference to those whose fears propel them toward isolated survivalism. They have gutted facilities, contracts with employees, morale, professionalism, and more. Most important, they have gutted the model of a civil democratic community that was once the home of almost every American student.

In such circumstances it is not hard to imagine why those educated in ‘elite’ private schools don’t understand (and perhaps don’t respect) those educated in marginal private schools, and why those educated in impoverished public schools take on a very different identity than those educated in wealthy public schools.

The debt needs to be paid. The debt is being paid.

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