Education for All
#5: Education for All
This week I will continue to reflect on the role of education in a democracy.
Although the “red tide” that many predicted for the mid-term elections fizzled, conservative candidates in school elections did remarkably well in several parts of the U.S. In a close race for Superintendent of Public Instruction in Arizona, the incumbent Democrat Kathy Hoffmann lost her race against Republican Tom Horne. In the November 9, 2022 edition of The New Yorker, Jessica Winter, who is a member of the editorial staff, described the two candidates this way: “The Republican challenger, a seventy-seven-year-old named Tom Horne, was banned for life by the S.E.C. in a past career as an investor; violated campaign-finance laws when he was the state’s attorney general; and was cited half a dozen times for speeding, including in a school zone, during a previous stint as education superintendent—a busy time when he also tried to outlaw bilingual education in public schools and to eliminate the Mexican American studies program in the Tucson Unified School District. His big thing now is—wait for it—banning critical race theory in the classroom. He also wants a greater law-enforcement presence in Arizona’s schools, because, as he has said, “the police are what make civilization possible.” Horne’s opponent is the Democratic incumbent, a thirty-six-year-old speech-language therapist and onetime preschool teacher named Kathy Hoffman who wants to—wait for it!—raise school budgets and teacher salaries, and lower class sizes. (The signature achievement of her first term as superintendent was to lower the student-to-counsellor ratio in public schools by twenty per cent).”
In South Carolina, the battle to run the state’s educational system had a similar outcome. Jessica Winter wrote: “Lisa Ellis, the Democratic candidate, has twenty-two years of teaching experience and is the founder of a nonprofit organization that focusses on raising teacher pay, lowering classroom sizes, and increasing mental-health resources in schools. Her Republican opponent, Ellen Weaver, who has no teaching experience, is the leader of a conservative think tank that advocates for “education freedom” in the form of more public funding for charter schools, private-school vouchers, homeschooling, and micro-schools.” Weaver won that race by a comfortable margin. According to Winter, in one debate “Ellis argued that South Carolina does not have a teacher shortage, per se; rather, it has an understandable lack of qualified teachers who are willing to work for low pay in overcrowded classrooms, in an increasingly divisive political environment—a dilemma that is depressingly familiar across the country. Ellis also stressed that South Carolina has fallen short of its own public-school-funding formula since 2008, leaving schools billions of dollars in the hole. Weaver countered that the state could easily persuade non-teachers to teach, so long as they had some relevant “subject-matter expertise,” and warned against “throwing money at problems.” The salary floor for a public-school teacher in South Carolina is forty thousand dollars” (The New Yorker, November 9, 2022).
This trend also emerged in school-board races. Winter reports that the school board election in Charleston, South Carolina “ended with five out of nine seats going to Moms for Liberty-backed candidates. Governor Ron DeSantis—the maestro of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” legislation and a home-state hero to Moms for Liberty—endorsed six school-board candidates, all of whom won their races; Moms for Liberty endorsed a total of twelve in Florida, winning nine. In Texas, ten out of fifteen spots on the state school board appeared to be going to Republicans, including three seats in which G.O.P. incumbents either lost or dropped out of their primary when facing opponents who took a harder line against C.R.T. [Critical Race Theory]” (The New Yorker, November 9, 2022).
The philosophical issue related to these recent elections concerns the role of education in human society, especially when we are considering the kind of education that is essential for a democracy. In Podcast #4, when reflecting on the implications of affirmative action, I was especially mindful of the requirement that all people must be treated equally and that universal values alone can provide moral justification. For that reason, I suggest that in order to move from the unequal and unfair context in which only some citizens have access to the best education, we must aim at providing a genuine opportunity for all citizens to have the best education. One way to achieve that goal is to treat higher education as we now treat elementary and secondary education—free education should be available to all qualified applicants. Proponents of private education appeal to “freedom” as their justification. Ellen Weaver, the new leader of the state educational system in South Carolina, sides with the group called “Moms for Liberty.” Freedom or liberty, in this sense, seems to be captured in this passage from the article by Jessica Winter: “Public money pours into private pockets, where any space can be a school and anybody can lead a classroom, and where whatever compact remains between parents and teachers—whatever sense of a community collaborating in a public good—dissolves.”
Universal education in a democracy promotes a different vision of freedom, one in which all citizens are prepared to participate in the common good. The term “autonomy” might better capture this sense of freedom. Derived from two ancient Greek words, auto and nomos, it means that people make the laws by and for themselves—they do not depend on external authorities or powers to shape their political existence. The kind of education required for democracy promotes the kind of thinking that fosters the ability to think critically and make choices and decisions that benefit all members of the community. This same kind of thinking also applies to decisions and choices individuals make for themselves. Basic principles, especially moral principles, are essentially the same whether we are deciding about our own good or about the common good. The most important principles are (1) that all people have intrinsic value—others are not simply tools or means for our benefit, (2) that the principles must apply universally, not only to some people, and (3) that these principles are freely chosen, not imposed by coercion, manipulation, deception, or physical force.
Universal access to education does not mean everyone will receive the same education. The content depends on what one chooses for a vocation or for enrichment. Freedom is essential not only in how people are educated but also in choosing what they wish to study. The current political dichotomy that plagues the United States can be at least partially blamed on the kind of education that has dominated this culture since the eighteenth century. Vocational training has been separated from liberal education, and a caste system has emerged. Isabel Wilkerson, in her book Caste: The Origins of our Discontents, published in 2020, presents a strong case for the similarity of the caste system in India (the world’s largest democracy) and the system in the United States (the world’s oldest democracy). Caste undermines democracy, so an understanding of its role and its ongoing influence is important if we wish to seek an antidote. The primary premise of this series of podcasts is that universal values and universal education are the most effective way to replace the caste system with genuine democracy.
The current culture wars in the United States that were waged in the recent mid-term elections show that both progressives and conservatives fail to grasp the importance of universal values and universal education. Much of the public rhetoric consists of name calling, in which some are called “fascists” and others “socialists,” a practice that separates rather than unites us in the democratic quest for a common good. Using what logicians call ad hominem arguments (attacking a person or a group of people) is a prevalent fallacy that widens and intensifies the divisions that currently exist. I suggest that one common element in the kind of universal education we need in a democracy is a basic course in logic, no less important than mathematics and grammar in primary and secondary education. Logic is essential for critical thinking, just as mathematics and grammar are required for calculating and communicating. Rather than a separate course, I have found that integrating the study of logic in all the courses I teach and applying it to whatever is being studied is the best way to show how natural and how important it is. Here is a link to a short handout that I generally distribute to all participants at the beginning a course: https://www.agorapodcasts.com/logical-reasoning.html. The basic nature of rational argument and acquaintance with the so-called “informal fallacies” are especially helpful for the kind of education that is crucial for democracy.
Another short handout I often distribute in my courses is called “Why Dialogue?” https://www.agorapodcasts.com/why-dialogue.html. Rather than stipulate what content should be taught or should not be taught, as cultural warriors are now trying to do, I think that universal education can best be fostered by explaining and practicing genuine dialogue. To do that, it helps to begin with what dialogue is not. Dialogue is not (1) conversation, (2) discussion, or (3) debate. The most important difference between dialogue and these other forms of oral exchange is its primary dedication to what is common or universal. Conversation often depends on the tastes and inclinations of the participants without an agenda or clear objective. Discussion and debate, by contrast, are dedicated to presenting and defending a specific position or point of view, usually determined by the context or the group being represented. Unlike these other forms of verbal activity, dialogue makes no prior judgment about the outcome of the process. It is genuine inquiry that seeks to understand the nature and activity of whatever subject matter is being considered. It searches for truth rather than taking it as given at the outset of the inquiry. Participants in a dialogue are free to change their mind in the course of the exchange.
If I were building a utopia, I would include free education for all from pre-school through professional school, graduate school, or vocational school, depending on individual talents and preferences. The expense of such education could be offset by including a two-year requirement that all citizens participate in public service, analogous to the military draft into which I was required to enroll at age eighteen. Rather than restricting such service to the military, participants could choose other fields such as medicine, agriculture, law enforcement, communication, transportation, construction, or education. However, I am not building a utopia. I am simply proposing that we rethink the education in which all citizens are currently required to engage (through secondary school) and make sure that it fosters the kind of critical thinking that is necessary to prepare citizens to participate in genuine democracy.
Values education has often been avoided in public systems because of the error of thinking that specific values, often religious values, should be part of that process. However, if dialogue and dialectic replace the kind of propaganda and indoctrination that people rightly shun, values education in public schools should be no more objectionable than mathematics or grammar. In all of those cases we focus on how to think, not on what to think. All citizens should be expected to participate in that process, and it should be universally prescribed as part of free public education.