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Role of public education–what do you think?

August 4, 2010

In her most recent blog, Deborah Meier, senior scholar with New York University’s Steinhardt School of Education, calls for the development of school-wide habits that teach the public skills needed for a healthy democracy. We’d love to read your comments about the role of public education.

…I heard [a Republican] congressman (Steve King from Iowa) speaking on TV about the Second amendment. It is not, he said, about hunting or protecting ourselves individually. We need guns, he continued, so we can confront a tyrannous government. He happened to think we were on the brink of an Obama-dictatorship. He was right: in 1776 the rebels saw liberty as closely allied to our ability to challenge a dictator with an armed citizenry. He is wrong about those guns, but he is right that democracy is always endangered and has a tendency toward centralization of power in few and fewer hands that must be resisted. If not by guns, what is the alternative?

Resisting the centralization of schooling of who decides what my children are taught and where the school’s moral code is spelled out requires being “armed” by the powers that come with citizenship. We need new words that distinguish the kind of heated argument that democracy arouses from winner/loser arguments that are only an exercise in exerting power over others. We depend upon such arguments, we depend such compromises, we depend upon resistance.

Yet there is only one public institution where these habits of heart and mind might be developed: our schools.

It is a shift in our picture of the tasks of schooling. To produce a community in which the young are learning from those older and wiser about democracy will take time to invent. Such schooling habits will not spring into being overnight. We will need to develop norms that make arguments, resistance, skepticism and solidarity–and a good laugh at ourselves–tolerable, even cherished. It does not happen just in a course of civics, but in all the activities of the school staff meeting, parent meetings, math classes, phys ed classes, music, and even the playground.

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