Johann Neem: “A Republic, If You Can Keep It: Public Education and American Democracy”
Articles Blog

Johann Neem: “A Republic, If You Can Keep It: Public Education and American Democracy”

October 16, 2019


[ Bells Chiming ]>>Good afternoon. We have one more session to go. And, I think the whole day
has been really wonderful. But, we’re — in my book, since
I’m an educational historian, we’re saving the
best for last, here. Anyway, I’m Joan Smith, Regents’
Professor and Dean Emerita of the Jeannine Rainbolt
College of Education. And, I’d like to thank Professor
Terepka [presumed spelling] for an excellent session and
kicking us off this afternoon with a really strong lecture. Our next speaker is Johann Neem. And, he is the author of a recently published
Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public
Education in America. And, I think it comes at a
particularly important point in our — in time, when we’re — when the schools are
facing so many challenges. I was anxious to read it. And, it didn’t let me down. It’s a good read. So, I can recommend it for
another addition to your list of books that you’ll be
buying from today’s sessions. Dr. Neem is a professor
of history at Western Washington
University, and he’s Senior Fellow of the — at the University of
Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He’s going to talk to us,
today, about a republic, if you can keep it,
public education, and American democracy. Please join me in welcoming
Professor Johann Neem. [ Applause ]>>Thank you all for
still being here. I’m the closer, so
we’ll see how I do. I want to thank Joan for
that kind introduction, and the University of
Oklahoma for having me. I want to acknowledge, as
I get going on this topic, President Boren’s
work for both K-12 and higher public education, which I think is
really quite amazing, and also thank Kevin
Butterfield, Sarah Sewer [presumed
spelling], and the others who have made my time
here so pleasurable. I — the topic of this teaching,
the fragility of constitutions, is of course quite timely. I’m here because I wrote this
book, as Joan mentioned — Democracy’s Schools: The Rise
of Public Education in America. And, I started this project
because over the past decade — books take years to write. I didn’t start it because of
what just happened in November, or anything like that. But, because I felt a
broader, deeper concern that we’re adrift, and we’re not
sure what we’re educating for. And why we have the schools. And, what they’re
supposed to do. But, the issue of public
education gets to the question of the fragility
of constitution. So, I want to focus
on that today. The United States
is facing, I think, one of its most trying eras. We’re faced with
unlawful violence. In our streets. In our schools. In our churches. We are faced with the division
of our national community, into racial, religious,
and class sub-communities. We have trouble thinking
about the common good — about goods common
to each of us. As Professor Wood said, the res
publica — the public things. We are struggling to compete in an increasingly
competitive economic climate. But, we are losing, I think the
cultural and political resources that might allow
us to work together to meet our shared goals. We are losing faith,
perhaps, in democracy, itself, and there are some
polls to suggest that. Republics are among the most
fragile of political units. Some of the largest
empires — the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire,
the Han dynasty, and even to some extent,
the British, French, and Spanish empires
lasted hundreds of years. When the founding fathers
established the United States as a republic in 1776, however,
they lacked the same precedence. Rome had been a republic,
but it had fallen. Athens had had a
short-lived democracy. The Italian city-states
struggled to sustain republican ideals. The English Commonwealth of the 17th century had
quickly given away to tyranny, under Oliver Cromwell, before the monarchy
was restored in 1660. Even in our recent history, few nations have been
consistently democratic for long. With the exception of the
UK’s constitutional monarchy, still not a democracy,
the democracies of Europe are young
and have struggled. Indiana’s one of
the success stories. But, it too is struggling with religious diversity
and other challenges. The United States, of
course, as we heard earlier, had a major civil war
that ended slavery. But, I think sometimes
we Americans forget that Americans are no better
and no worse than other people. We share a common human nature. Democracies are fragile. Ours no less than others. We have been fortunate. But, we should not confuse
fortune past for the future. A republic, if you can keep it. Those were the words Benjamin
Franklin supposedly used when he emerged from the
Constitutional Convention and was asked what kind of government the
framers were proposing. A republic. A government of public goods,
founded on popular sovereignty. But, only if the American
people could keep it. And, history, as I suggested, gave the framers plenty
of cause for concern. For America’s founders,
public education was essential to keeping the republic. People were born, from their
perspective, ignorant, flawed — even many Americans would
argue, at the time, sinful. History suggested that
people could easily be swayed by demagogues — a Cataline,
a Caesar, a Cromwell. This meant that republics had
to fear both the ignorance of the many, and the
ambitions of the powerful, who might use their
power and their influence to subvert liberty,
as Caesar had. The people had to be
prepared to govern and watch over their leaders. And, leaders had to be
prepared and educated to favor the public good,
over their own ambitions. Threats to democracy could
come from the few or the many. For some of our founders, like
Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Rush, the real threat came
from the many. From the people. They tended to favor
the interest of their own pocketbooks, their
denominations, their region, over the common good of Pennsylvania or
the United States. Public schools, Rush argued,
would improve the people, by bringing diverse citizens
together into commons schools, and Pennsylvania, at the
time, was about 1/3 German. A diverse society
would be rendered, in his words, more homogenous. More important, a good education
would not just offer young people knowledge, but teach
them to be good citizens. What the founders called, as we
heard at lunch, civic virtue. To Rush, the people had to be, and again these are his
words, republican machines. Think about that phrase. A machine. A citizen had to be — had
to learn to make judgements about political questions on
the basis of the public good. They had to learn to put the
public good ahead of themselves. Now, other founders worried more about elites than
ordinary people. Thomas Jefferson believed
that history proved that the people are
more often the wronged, than the wrongdoers. But, that was because
they were easily misled by powerful politicians,
or by ministers of established churches. The elite had monopolized
knowledge. Jefferson hoped, in his
words, to diffuse — and that’s his word,
that knowledge to every white Virginian. Once ordinary Americans had
access to the kinds of knowledge that elites had once
monopolized, they would be better
prepared to govern themselves and to keep watch
over their leaders. Of all his goals, Jefferson
wrote, none in his bill for the diffusion of knowledge
proposing public schools for the state of Virginia, none
is more important than that of rendering the
people the safe, as they are the ultimate
guardians of their own liberty. What’s notable is that
the founders, both Rush and Jefferson, believed that
girls should go to school. While they did not
advocate equality in the way that we would come to understand
it, they believed that girls who had become mothers and
had an important social role to play were responsible for the
intellectual and moral formation of the next generation. In America’s early
public schools, girls and boys attended
at similar rates. And, there were private
academies that proliferated to offer girls a
higher education. The equivalent of
what boys might learn in a high school
academy or college. And, there was a lot of overlap
between those institutions. Indeed, many young women
had their first experiences with the liberal
arts and sciences, thanks to public schools
and private academies. And, many of those women would
go on to become active citizens, even if they did
not have the vote. The point I’m making is that,
for the founding generation, threats came from
above and below, from the few and the many. And, addressing both required
an educated citizenry. On that, Rush and
Jefferson agreed. People were not born capable
of being good citizens. They had to be prepared
to be good citizens. In a democracy, this is the
fundamental reason the founders gave for public education. Citizens must be prepared
to govern themselves. I want to contrast this founding
vision with our language today. Today, we tend to see public
education primarily in terms of its private benefits. We want schools to provide
economic opportunity. And, there’s nothing, of
course, wrong with that. I’m a parent. I have young children in
the elementary schools. And, I want my children to
be able to pursue careers that are both fulfilling
and remunerative. But, it’s not enough. It seems that this is all we
can agree on these days to. The common core state
standards consider the goal of public schools to be
college and career readiness. Those are — that’s the
common core’s phrase — college and career readiness. Given that many of the same
reformers now see college as professional training,
rather than preparing leaders for our democracy, we are
really talking about career and more career readiness. The economic language
has trumped the civic, as Americans respond to
decades of growing inequality and the challenges
of globalization. But, we are also sending
a message to our students that the best way to
evaluate a good education is by its impact on
their pocketbooks. Now, again, there’s nothing
wrong with asking schools to serve economic goals. A vibrant economy
is a public good. Social mobility is
a public good. They’re just not enough. Don’t we want more
of our schools? Do we want to revitalize the
mission of public education? So, to address these themes,
I want to talk, today — I want to ask, today,
three questions. Why did Americans provide
public schools in the decades between the Revolution
and Civil War? Which I’ve already
started asking. How did they do it? And, there, I’m going
to get a little bit in the historical
weeds for that part. And, then third, I want to
end by thinking about — why have we lost faith in
these institutions today? So, let me start with
that first question. Did I lose the mic? Let me start with
that first question: Why did Americans provide public
schools after the Revolution? So, I’ve already started
to answer this question from the perspective
of our founders. Their motives were
primarily civic. They believed that a democracy
required educated citizens, which meant equalizing access
to schooling, and especially to the liberal arts
and sciences. Those subjects that would
prepare people to grapple with the kinds of issues that
citizens and leaders would face. Americans between the
Revolution and Civil War — American leaders, I should
say, between the Revolution and Civil War wanted Americans
to have a liberal education. Jefferson, in Virginia,
proposed a pyramid structure. At the elementary level, students would learn academic
skills, such as reading, writing, and arithmetic,
as well as knowledge of history, science, and ethics. At the higher level — the
middle and high school levels, for us, students would learn
ancient and modern history, math, physics, chemistry,
anatomy, medical theory, zoology, botany, mineralogy,
philosophy, legal ethics, and what we, today, would call
political science and economics. This would prepare
them, he thought, to be knowledgeable-thinking
citizens and civic leaders. By the 1830s, in addition
to the civic component, there was a new reason
that our — the people of this generation
advocated a liberal education. And, this had to do with its
impact on human beings, itself. There was a human
component to education. The Reverend William Ellery
Channing, one of the founders of American Unitarianism — so,
a prominent minister of his era, argued that access to liberal
education was an obligation in a Christian-democratic
society that proclaimed equality. God’s world should be
accessible to every person, and every child had the image
of God within her or him. Every person deserved
an education, therefore, Channing wrote in 1838 — and these are his words
— because he is a man. Not because he is to make
shoes, nails, or pins. He argued against — and
these are his words again, those who would suggest a
liberal education is needed for men who are to
fill high stations. But not for such as are
doomed to vulgar labor. Whether we are rich or poor, in
the professions or on the docks, each of us is, in Channing’s
words, a son, a husband, father, friend, and Christian. Each of us belongs to a home,
a country, a church, a race. Education must not prepare some to lead flourishing
lives and others to toil. In a democracy, we
must all be educated to fulfill our various
capabilities. Citizenship and the
development of human beings. By the 1830s, there was a third
reason why Americans supported public schools. And that had to do
with diversity. As America became more
diverse, education reformers, including Horace
Mann, the secretary of Massachusetts’
Board of Education, and the so-called
founding father of American public education, believed that a diverse
society needed public schools to bring citizens together, and to help them see
each other as Americans. Others agreed. Our public schools are the
most democratic institutions that this peculiarly
democratic country affords, proclaimed E. Hodges, the
superintendent of schools in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. What made them great was that they didn’t just educate
students in the rudiments. But in a society divided by
religion, ethnicity, party, and wealth, public
schools would, he wrote, harmonize the various discord
and elements that are found in society, as students —
and these are his words, sympathize with and
for the other. Sympathize with and
for the other. Come to see each other across their diversity
as fellow Americans. Immigrants would also become
Americanized through the school. They would assume
Americans manners, and become homogenous with them. The equality upon which
they would be placed at the public schools,
and the discipline which they should there
receive, would Americanize them in the shortest possible time. Ohio’s Calvin Stowe agreed. In a speech in 1836, he said that unless we educate
our immigrants, they will be our ruin. To sustain an extended
republic like our own, there must be national feeling
— a national assimilation. Common schools funded by taxes,
free for all, and overseen by citizens would bring
together this diverse society. The schools would
serve as a glue that would bind a
diverse republic together. Now, it was not just diversity in ethnic terms that
worried people. This was a time of growing
economic inequality. Education reformers
worried that if well-off — well-off parents could opt
out of the public schools, then the schools would
become pauper schools, undermining their
public purposes. Americans had a duty to render
the advantages of common schools to all classes and conditions
of society, resolved the meeting of educators in Orange
County, New York. John Pierce, the new state
of Michigan’s superintendent of public instruction,
celebrated public schools, because they were places
where — these are his words, all classes are blended
together — the rich mingle with the poor,
and are educated in company, and mutual attachments
are formed. New York’s Free School
Society concurred, that schools can be
places where the rich and poor may meet together. Horace Mann considered bringing
together rich and poor to be one of the most important
functions of public schools. He said if rich parents, quote, turn away from the
common schools and choose to send their kids to what
he called the private school or the academy — and
academies were chartered schools of their era, then
the poor will end up with a second-class
education. To ensure that students and
their parents intermingle, quote, there should be
a free school, safe, and sufficiently good
for all the children within its territory. And, that word “territory”
mattered a lot. The children who lived together within a district should
attend the same schools. Segregation, whether of
immigrants and native born, or rich or poor,
hurt all children by increasing inequality and
reducing social solidarity. Now, in the south, where
academies were most active — and academies were generally
schools that were chartered by the state legislature,
voters treated public schools as charity for poor children. And, breaking the
link between public and charity required
schools attended by the entire community. In 1822, report of the Kentucky
legislature put it this way: Public schools could succeed, only when they become
for all children. To separate the poor from
the rich would turn education into welfare. And, in the words
of this report, that was a degradation
too humiliating for the pride of free men. It should be noted
that American society, in the decades before the
Civil War, was also violent. From frontier vigilante
violence in the west, to anti-Catholic violence in
urban centers, to race riots, Americans fought in the
streets against each other. There was partisan violence. Members of Congress
started carrying guns with them into the capitol. Slavery, of course,
depended on daily violence. Scholars have long argued that
democratic societies depend on social trust — on the
level of confidence that we, Americans, have in each other. And, as Americans looked around
in their nation, in the 1830s and ’40s, and certainly
by the 1850s when we were experiencing the
conflicts leading to civil war and even more violence, they
had reasons to be concerned. As Paul Gilje — who’s
in the audience — he’s a historian at
University of Oklahoma — put it, in this era —
and these are his words — Americans could kill each other because they did not
identify with each other. They did not identify
with each other. They were divided. Would public schools not just
prepare people for citizenship, but bring this diverse
society together? Was that too much to ask? It was certainly no easy task. It goes without saying
that African Americans in the south were not included. They learned to read and
write, if they learned it at all, usually in secret. Sometimes they learned it from
white masters and mistresses. Sometimes they learned
it from white children. But, often they learned
it from one another. Enslaved people caught
teaching someone to read could face
death, and often did. But yet, many African Americans
struggled to learn how to read. In the north, African Americans
pushed for integrated schools. But, the trend was
actually against them in the decades leading
to the Civil War. Many African Americans in the
north lost the right to vote. Northern states and
communities had both integrated and segregated schools;
there was no one pattern. Yet, northern African
Americans recognized what — the importance integration,
and they pushed for it. Of the way in which the public
schools not only made Americans, but determine who could
count — who was an American. Access to these schools was
a sign that you belonged to the civic community. Take the case of
Boston’s Benjamin Roberts. Now, Roberts was
trained as a shoe-maker. And, he became an
anti-slavery activist. He had a young daughter — elementary school-aged
daughter in 1847. And, he would watch her
walk by white-only schools to the black school, and
he recalled how he had felt when he had to do so as a child. He wrote: The pupils of the
several schools, as we passed, took particular notice
of our situation. And, we were looked
upon, by them, as unworthy to be instructed
in common with others. He did not want his daughter to experience the same
feelings of exile. So, he and other advocates
took the case of integration to the Massachusetts
Supreme Court. And, the court, in 1849,
upheld segregation. But, thanks to activism, the
legislature would overturn that decision five years later. Now, interestingly, if
African Americans wanted in, at the time, Catholics
wanted out. They wanted their own schools. Like many Americans today, especially religious
conservatives from various faiths,
Catholics argued that public schools were unsafe for the moral development
of their children. Some priest even considered
excommunicating parents who sent their children
to public schools. In cities across the
nation, Catholic leaders and parents asked for public
funding for parochial schools — vouchers, in today’s language, so that their children
could learn their faith, and also because the
public schools were, indeed, biased against
Catholic-Americans. Anti-Catholicism was no small
thing in the 19th century. Protestants rioted
against Catholics. And, at least one reason for
expanding public education was to Americanize Catholic
immigrants, at a time when the Catholic
church remained officially hostile to democracy and the
separation of church and state. On the other hand, the majority of Catholic children
attended public schools, and learned alongside
their fellow Americans, native-born and immigrant. But, the arguments Catholics
made, then, echo arguments that religious conservatives
make today, from various faiths, and that our current sector
of education has been making for much of her career. In a diverse society,
parents should choose schools that reflect their
values, their faith. The big question I ask, and I’ll
come back to this in a moment, is whether American
diversity means that we should allow families
to choose their schools, or whether our diversity
means that coming together in common institutions is
even more important than ever. In the antebellum era, at
least, African American leaders and Catholic leaders answered
that question very differently. But before I get to that — that’s a sneak preview to make
you hold on, I want to turn to my second question: How? How did the public
schools develop? And, I want to argue
to you, today, that one of the reasons
the American public schools developed, and one of the
reasons they had mass buy-in from the American public is that they originally
developed from the grass roots. They were local institutions. Unlike many countries,
to this day, the United States does not have
a centralized education system. Local districts continue
to be the heart and soul of our public system. These districts, of
course, are larger today than in the 19th century. We also have automobiles. But, they are nonetheless not
fully controlled by either state or federal government. Americans built the
decentralized system, and this is one of the secrets
why Americans were so successful in building a mass
public system. There are multiple reasons
why decentralization worked. Or grass roots education worked. For starters, state governments
simply lacked the capacity to build a school system. There was simply a
practical problem. Unlike today when state
governments have sizeable staffs, state governments in the
early 19th century were small. They had a lot of paper power — what was called the police
power, to keep the peace. But, they relied on
citizens to carry out many of their dictates. In the case of public schools, this meant that state
leaders had to nudge citizens to build schoolhouses
and raise taxes. But, the work would have
to take place locally, district by district. Citizens putting time
forward to build schools and to fund its schoolhouses. In most states, nudges
soon became mandates. But, the work still happened
locally — the labor was local. Citizens — legislatures
would pass laws, authorizing the formation
of districts, in which citizens could vote for
taxes to build a schoolhouse, to run a school, to pay the
salary of a school teacher. By the Civil War, many of these
nudges had become mandates. But, by that point,
there was capacity at the local level to do so. Whether they wanted to
or not, in other words, voters in districts across
the country were forced to confront the res publica — the public things
of a democracy. Because they had to meet
to decide whether or not to raise taxes for
their schools annually. And, that brought them together. It forced them to confront
the public thing of education. And, it forced them —
in each other’s eyes, to make a decision
about what to pay. So, just to give you a
sense of how this looked, I’m going to give
you some dates, and then we’ll pull
out a little. In Massachusetts, the state
legislature started early in 1789, by requiring all
towns to hire school masters. Larger towns were allowed to — were authorized to tax
for schoolhouses by 1800. And, by the 1820s,
Massachusetts towns were broken up into districts, with
elected school officials. So you see the formation of this
capacity for at the local level, with the state legislature
kind of nudging and pushing. The New York — New York State,
in 1812, offered matching funds for any community willing to
form districts and raise taxes. It was mandated two years later. And, by 1816, New York
had over 5000 districts with tax-supported
public schools. I say tax-supported because
they were not yet free. There was still a tuition
component at this time. In North Carolina, an 1839
law offered state subsidies to localities that voted to
raise one dollar for every — one dollar in local taxes for every two dollars
in state taxes. Districts directing a
schoolhouse would get even more dollars. And, in 1841, a new
state law determined that all school district
committees would be elected by free, white voters. In other words, voters
would have to come together to confront the public
things of a democracy. And, by 1860, about 2/3
of North Carolina’s young, white people were being
educated in common schools. A number not that
different from the north. A similar story plays
out in Ohio. And, by 1837, by one count,
Ohio had 7748 school districts, approximatingly — approximating
about seven per township. So, what do all these
numbers mean? Well, what they mean to me is
the mobilization of thousands of Americans to participate
in public education. They joined school boards. They came to meetings. They voted annually for taxes,
or if you read the reports of these — of some of
these local districts, they voted annually
not to raise taxes. But, they voted. They came — they had to confront the question
of education. And, in some states, efforts to provide schools
met deep resistance. In Pennsylvania, a tax
collector recalled — and these are the tax collectors
words: Many guns were leveled at me, and threats made. At one house, I was
badly scalded by a woman, throwing boiling water over me. At another, a woman struck
me on the back of the head with a heavy iron poker. And, at another, I was knocked
down with a stone, and assaulted with pitchforks and clubs. So, I don’t want to
make it sound too rosy. It was tough-going. Actually, Pennsylvania school
superintendent, Francis Shunk, observed, in 1838 —
and these are his words: And this was what the challenge of making education
a public good, when it had long
been a private good. It may not be easy
to convince a man who has educated
his own children in the way his father educated
him, or who has abundant means to educate them, or who
has no children to educate, that in opposition to the
custom of the country and has — and his own fixed
opinions on that custom, he has a deep abiding
concern in the education of all the children around him,
and should cheerfully submit to taxation for the purpose of
accomplishing this great object. In other words, it was
something foreign to people. I have to pay taxes, whether or not I have children
in the schools. I have to pay taxes to educate
other people’s children. Why? And, one of the
secrets to the success was that these schools were local,
so that at every level — at every community, you had
built up a set of stakeholders. Not just parents,
but officeholders, citizens who had come to
care, and had to actively care because they had to show up. A bureaucracy, in other words,
did not do all the work. Citizens had to do part
of the work themselves. And, that’s what led Americans
to continue to raise taxes. The schools, themselves,
helped build a case for public education in
community after community. Local citizens worked
together to build and run them. And, they gained a sense of
ownership over them, even pride. As more and more young
people went to school, other parents wanted the same
benefits for their own children. And, thus, more parents clamored
for access to public schools. They voted for taxes. They sent their children. And, whether their goals were
personal or public-minded, they invested through
this process in educating the
entire community. And, the results were marvelous. By the Civil War, almost
every northern state had made elementary education free, and many southern states were
trending in the same direction. Did civil war and reconstruction
make this trend more complicated in the south? On the one hand,
newly-freed African Americans and their leaders in the republican party
supported public education, and state constitutions
embraced public education. But, the south’s racial
politics, as we know, complicated efforts to support
equal access to public schools. Overall, by 1830, about
55% of Americans — 5 to 14 year-olds,
attended schools. A number that rose
to about 70% by 1850. The north had higher
rates than the south. But, some southern states,
such as North Carolina and Alabama produced
similar enrollments for their white children. And, the reason, I think,
is those were states that had locally-governed
districts with locally-raised taxes. So, even when the state was
involved, ordinary citizens and communities were forced
to think about education. They were forced to be citizens
confronting the public good — the public things, by meeting and thinking about
their schools. In sum, by building public
schools from the local level, rather than from the top down, policy-makers wisely
created widespread buy-in to public schools. It was because ordinary
people had become stakeholders and school district
officers, as parents, that Americans expanded public
support for their schools. Ideas mattered. But, the reason Americans
invested in educating each
other’s children was because they all shared
responsibility for, and had a stake in,
through their own children or their grandchildren,
the neighborhood school. And, that’s why,
by the Civil War, education had become the kind
of public good that founders, such as Benjamin Rush and
Thomas Jefferson could only have dreamed about. That’s the happy part. Now, the third part. Why have we lost faith? Today we are less certain that public schools play
the role they once did, or should, or can. And, I think both
— should or can. Our current secretary
of education, of course, has argued that families,
not society, should make education decisions. While political and business
leaders from both the left and the right have argued
that schools are primarily to prepare people for work. And, I think that there
are two big reasons for our loss of faith. Globalization — economic
globalization, and diversity. So, I want to take
both up and think about why those have
changed the way we think about our public schools. But to start, we often use
schools to fight the fight that we consider the
biggest contest of the era. Now, for the founding
generation, that question was whether
citizens would be able to govern themselves
in fragile republics. We knew empires could last; would a republic
be able to last? During the Cold War, the
US was engaged in a contest over whether democracy or
communism was a superior system. This meant that educating for
democracy was very important. And, at the K-12 and college
levels, we Americans invested in liberal arts and sciences,
and emphasized the importance of an educated citizenry, capable of participating
democratic public life. We believe that was essential to
proving not only the superiority of a democratic system,
but also to sustaining and fighting the threat
posed by communism. Today, that’s not our worry. Today, our worry is the rise
of China and other economies. And whether globalization
is eroding America’s economic competitiveness. At a time of growing inequality,
when good jobs are hard to find and corporations
have, themselves, become tied to no nation
or place, American citizens and leaders are rightly
concerned about how to create a vibrant economy. And how to get ahead
in a declining economy. And that puts economic
concerns to the floor. These concerns have been spurred
by international rankings that have placed other countries
schools ahead of America’s. Will we be able to compete? We see this, as I noted
early, in the common core. But, it’s not the
only place, of course. But, I think this effort
to focus on college and career readiness, while
it might raise test scores, is a lowering of our
expectations for our schools. Let me repeat that, because
we think of the common core and other state standards
as raising expectations. In many ways, they do. And, in other ways, I
think they’re a lowering of our expectations. I want to show you what I mean. So, I want us to take us back to
the first Bush Administration. George HW Bush. Under the first Bush
Administration, the National Education
Goal’s Panel concluded that higher academic achievement
should prepare students for — and these are the words of the National Education
Goal’s Panel — citizenship, further learning,
and productive employment. Alright? This is the
era of the Cold War. Citizenship is listed first. And, they will do so — the National Education
Goal’s Panel said, through engagement in, quote,
challenging subject matter, including English, mathematics,
science, foreign languages, civics and government,
economics, arts, history, and geography, and
teaching students to use their minds well. In other words, when we first
started pushing national standards under the first
Bush Administration, the ambitions were not that
different from Jefferson’s. To create an educated,
capable citizenry, through increasing access
to the arts and sciences. Another Bush era
document says that poor and minority students — and these are the words
of the document — have not been introduced
to literature, because the focus has
been on basic skills. Today the focus is almost
entirely on basic skills. The Bush era — they
wanted to introduce minority and poor students to literature. They were concerned about
our democracy, not just — they were concerned
about our economy, but not just our economy. Today, in contrast, a
Dayton, Ohio-area Chamber of Commerce member wrote: The business community’s
the consumer of the educational product. Students are the
educational product. They are going through
the education system, so that they can be an
attractive product for business to consume and hire as a
workforce in the future. And, this is a bipartisan
consensus. Arne Duncan, President
Obama’s education secretary, stated in 2012: Our president
knows education is about jobs. And, indeed, it was
under President Obama that the education department
published the college score cards that would rank colleges
according to graduate salaries. Something that many other
states have also done, encouraging students and
colleges to see getting ahead, putting yourself
first, as a primary, if not the only goal
of a good education. Now again, to be clear, I do believe public schools
have a responsibility to prepare people
for the workforce. And, I do believe that
a healthy economy is one of the fundamental public
goods that we should seek. Well, that does not concern me. What concerns me is
the whittling away of our other aspirations
for our schools, lowering our expectations of what our public
schools should be for. Now, let me take on, in closing,
the last — the second cause. Economic globalization
is one cause. People are not — there’s
no conspiracy here. There are real threats
to American — the American economy that
policy leaders are trying to respond to. What about diversity? Diversity is one of
Americas greatest friends. But, it’s also one of
Americas greatest challenges. Democracies require citizens
to have a sense of solidarity. To see themselves as a common
people, who trust each other and can work together. Now, not all governments
demand as much. We heard about this a
little bit at lunch. Empires can rule
diverse societies, because they want peace and
wealth, and they’re willing to use force, if
necessary, to get it. But, they don’t really care
if you buy-in to the project, nor are you expected to do the
things that we expect citizens in a republic to do, including
gracefully losing elections. The same is true of
authoritarian regimes. Democracies, on the other
hand, require a people. And a people who are able to
see themselves in each other. When we look upon each other,
we should see ourselves, despite our disagreements,
despite our differences, as fellow citizens,
willing to cooperate, willing to win and
lose sometimes. But, knowing that we are
all in it for the long haul. Diversity brings
innovation, vibrancy, and talent to a society,
no doubt. Also in a democracy,
such as ours, we respect people’s rights. So, we want them to be
free to choose their faith or pursue life that they value. Diversity is a product
of our freedom. James Madison said no less. But, it is also a
threat to work — to our capacity to
work collectively to protect our freedom. That’s the challenge. In the 19th century,
Protestants were the majority. And, while the schools were not
explicitly religious, they do — they drew deeply on American’s
Protestant background culture. For Catholics, Jews,
and non-believers, for much of our history, that meant the public
schools were not always welcoming places. That started to change
in the 20th century. But, in response today,
an increasing number of American Evangelicals have
opted out of the public schools, as Catholics did in
the 19th century. Because, today, they believe
the public schools are unsafe for their children’s faith. This has been put — this
is one of the reasons that Betsy DeVos has been
advocating school choice in Michigan. But, in the 1960s,
it was liberals who thought the public
schools were unsafe. That their efforts to foster a
shared national culture was a form of social control. Not a solution to diversity
or a way to even protect it. But, today, it’s DeVos and
many homeschooling families. Because the public
schools, to them, no longer represent the
traditional American values that Protestants would once
have taken for granted. Part of a background culture that one could rely
on and share. And, to an extent, of
course, they are right. Not only has the US become
more diverse religiously and ethnically, but Protestant
churches are struggling to retain their congregants. Now, the biggest threat to American Protestantism is
not the growth of other faiths. But, it’s in fact that many
Americans are choosing not to attend church at all. But, these changes were
made to feel more sudden and more abrasive
because of series of Supreme Court
decisions that one by one secularized
the public schools. So, let’s go back to 1960. A survey in 1960
found that about 88% of public schools had
Christmas celebrations, 42% had Bible reading, and
33% had prayer in homeroom. But, in the 1962 Supreme Court
case of Abington versus Schempp and the 1963 case of
Engel versus Vitale, the Supreme Court
outlawed both Bible reading and school-directed prayer. Fundamentally transforming
the school’s relationship with Americans’ fate. Now, many, if not most,
Americans at the time continued to want a religious
component to public education. Americans white and black, left
and right, north and south, Protestant and Catholic
condemned the court’s decisions at the time. The rulings, they argued, did not reflect public
will and American culture. By taking God out, schools
would impose secularism upon a religious people. In other words, I
don’t want to suggest that these changes are not real. They are real. But, as schools became
secularized, more and more Evangelicals came
to share with Pastor Tim LaHaye, the view that — and these
are Tim LaHaye’s words, the public school system was
unfit for educating the children of Christian families. And, we’re seeing that
rhetoric more and more. At the same time, on the left,
particularly the academic left, advocates of multi-culturism
argue that any effort to impose a national culture
was a form of social control that violated the rights
of minority groups. Even though bringing a
diverse people together was one of the most fundamental,
and still one of the most fundamental
reasons we have public schools in the first place. The question I wonder is,
have we reached a point, in communities around
our nation, where we no longer trust each
other to teach our children? That’s the question that I
think needs to be on the table. Do we trust each other
enough to put our children in other people’s hands? Or, do we no longer do that? And, if we don’t, what does
that mean for the solidarity that our democracy
demands from us? In conclusion, none of the questions faced
during the founding decades of our republic have gone away. And, in some ways,
they are more relevant than they have ever been. At a time when democracy’s
future appears uncertain at home and abroad, it is worth
remembering the founders admonition that republics are
fragile, and depend on educated and ethical citizens
and leaders. At a time of growing diversity,
when violence seems, once again, to be breaking out on our
streets, we must ask ourselves, again — do we see
ourselves as fellow Americans? Are we able to find
enough common ground to educate our children
in common schools? Our democracy demands and needs
us to care for each other. But, to do so, we have to
share things in common. And, we have to be
willing to work together for those public
things across class, religious, and ethnic lines. These were the concerns
and dreams of the founders of our republic and
of our common schools. I think that they’re concerns,
but also their dreams, should become ours once again. Thank you. [ Applause ]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *