Democracy and Education | Higher Ed gamma | Wender Mind Kids

The Great School Wars, which educational historian and policymaker Diane Ravitch wrote about in 1974, have returned with a vengeance.

Older disputes — about persecution, community control, public funding for religious schools, multicultural education, and even bus transportation — that were once thought buried have resurfaced, while a variety of new hot spots about critical race theory, “school choice,” publicly funded charter schools College vouchers, equity, standardized testing, teacher accountability, transgender student rights, and sex education have exploded.

Even a look at the news headlines reveals the depth and intensity of the profound cultural differences surrounding K-12 education. Here are a few examples:

  • “Public schools nurture children with critical race theory, ‘sexual chaos’ and ‘racial confusion'”
  • “Two bills to limit sexual content and discussion of gender identity in Pennsylvania schools pass Senate Education Committee”
  • “School boards become the fiercest front in the culture wars”

San Francisco has become a touchstone in this educational culture war, whether it’s over the names of public schools, the display of an allegedly racially insensitive mural of a 1930s communist, the use of the word “chief” as part of administrative titles, or um The district’s math curriculum, which professors from Berkeley, Harvard, Stanford and UCLA claim students, particularly those from lower-income backgrounds, are less prepared for post-secondary STEM education.

I recently spoke to a reporter who was asked by her editor to write about the relationship between education and democracy. This is, of course, a delicate, extraordinarily complicated subject.

There is the Dewey-like notion of education as the bedrock of democracy: as a tool for producing informed, reflective, independently thinking citizens, rather than passive, docile drones.

John Dewey’s civic vision has, of course, inspired generations of educators who strive to transform their classrooms into models of lived democracy and cultivate students who can think critically, challenge established beliefs, conduct independent in-depth research, and engage in various forms of the active learning.

Then there’s how education actually works in today’s democracy:

  • Where state legislatures invade classrooms, dictating topics to be covered or excluded from discussion and identifying interpretive frames like critical race theory that are out of bounds.
  • When elected local school boards interfere with curriculum and instructional content, pedagogy, grading standards, and retention and promotion policies, and institute rating and accountability systems that undermine teacher autonomy.
  • When activist parents demand complete transparency about what their children are being taught, they are denying their offspring certain tests and demanding the right to exclude their children from classes or readings they deem inappropriate.

As I spoke to the reporter, I thought quite a bit about what it means for the education system itself to be democratic.

  • Does this mean that the curriculum should be controlled by:
  1. a state school board
  2. Parliament
  3. an elected local school board
  4. the parents whose children attend a particular school
  • Has a democratic education system
  1. consist of public schools rigidly divided along neighborhood or county lines
  2. consist of a variety of school types – private, church, private, educational and homeschooling – each with its own curriculum and pedagogical approach
  • Is it possible to have both democratic control over K-12 schools and academic freedom for teachers?
  • Is a democratic education system compatible with achievement groupings and other forms of tracking?
  • Should a democratic education system have highly selective or specialized or vocational public high schools, each with its own curriculum – or should all public high schools offer essentially the same opportunities? If there are selective secondary schools, what should be the criteria or mechanisms for selection? Are neighborhood schools democratic since neighborhoods tend to be stratified by class, ethnicity, and race?
  • In a democratic society, should students be able to attend schools across districts – or will this undermine the quality of many existing schools?
  • Are magnet schools a democratic solution to educational inequality, or do such schools contribute to inequality?
  • Should parents be able to see teachers’ lesson plans?

I think it’s fair to say that the history of elementary and secondary education in the United States is actually a series of ongoing controversies about education and democracy. Even if the points of contention have shifted over time, it is about nothing less than these questions:

  • How can we ensure that marginalized groups – from 19th-century Catholic immigrants or their early 20th-century Jewish counterparts, to today’s English learners or children with disabilities or those who are gender non-discriminatory – have a safe, supportive and… healthy school environment that maximizes their learning opportunities?
  • Who has the right to decide what is taught in schools, whether the subject is Evolution, Ebonics, or Critical Race Theory?
  • Should American society embrace Horace Mann’s concept of a common school to ensure that all students start from the starting line, or should the education system maximize choice, options, and multiple alternatives?

Those of us who teach in college shouldn’t assume that we’re largely invulnerable to the kinds of cultural conflicts that rage on the K-12 landscape. Nor should those who teach in California or New York be confident that the kinds of controversies raging in Texas and Florida over tenure or on-campus guns have nothing to do with their states.

Faculty, even in the bluest of states, must recognize that institutional autonomy is waning and that their legislators are becoming much more intrusive on issues of admissions, curriculum requirements, credit transfers, remedial education, and institutional spending priorities.

Furthermore, one-time funding injections into public colleges and universities should not blind faculty to a host of worrying long-term trends, such as demographics and student preparation and interests, that will inevitably disrupt higher education.

Democracy is not just a question of free elections and voting rights. It’s about empowerment. It’s about opposing interest groups and lobbies, each pushing through their own values ​​and priorities.

Today, more and more campus stakeholders believe they should have a bigger voice in how institutions operate. The most striking examples can be found in the growth of student unions and the emergence of the first student unions. It came as a shock to many faculty members to realize that their voice in campus decision-making is just one voice among many, and not necessarily the loudest or most influential.

Democracy is messy and doesn’t necessarily lead to optimal results. Academic politics are particularly acrimonious, not because (in words usually ascribed to Henry Kissinger) there is so little at stake, but because the struggles are never simply struggles for power or struggles for dominance or the assertion of self-interest. Ultimately, these competitions are about values, vision, mission and institutional priorities with a larger goal of consensus building.

At best, colleges and universities and their departments operate under a particular form of shared governance that combines the best of two distinct concepts of democracy: deliberative democracy and participatory democracy. Consequently, the political process and representation within that process are as important as the resulting decisions.

If campus politics isn’t ultimately about mission and a broader sense of community good, then the academy really is just another corporate entity in today’s callous, callous bureaucratic society.

Steven Mintz is a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin.