For decades now, public discussion about education has been erroneously fixated on economics. Schools, the argument goes, are critical for the development of human capital. Their most important function is to create a highly skilled workforce which can in turn produce economic growth, international competitiveness, and individual prosperity. This is the economic imperative of education.
But there is another rationale for public education, one that dominated discussion on the subject for most of our history, and one which, as Tuesday’s cataclysm made clear, is in need of an immediate and profound reinvigoration. I am speaking about the democratic imperative of education.
It may be surprising to some that United States was the first nation on earth to establish a large-scale system of free, public education. Public schools as we think of them today first sprung up in Massachusetts in the early 1800s, and by the end of Reconstruction, every state in the union had a comprehensive system of public schools. While initially consisting mostly of elementary schools, by the turn of the twentieth-century, public high schools were also becoming widespread, so much so that throughout most of the twentieth century, the U.S. had the highest high school graduation rate of any nation. For a country notoriously averse to social welfare programs, the commitment to and enthusiasm for public schooling in the U.S. seemed like an astounding anomaly to foreign observers, but to a nation fiercely committed to democracy and self-rule, it only seemed natural.
The Democratic Imperative for Education
Thomas Jefferson. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.
The intellectual father of the democratic imperative was Thomas Jefferson, who repeatedly tried to persuade the Virginia state legislature to establish a free system of public education, but to no avail. More than any other figure, Jefferson was responsible for outlining the necessity of mass education in a democratic republic committed to individual liberty and freedom. “If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be,” he famously wrote to a friend in 1816. Jefferson throughout his life was concerned with the preservation of individual liberty. The political institutions of the early American state were designed to protect that liberty, but Jefferson understood that those institutions would only function properly if the citizenry were reasonably enlightened. Distrustful of elites, Jefferson argued that “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories,”—but, he cautioned—“to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree.” Public education, Jefferson argued, was necessary to educate citizens about their rights and duties and equip them with the capacity to select the wisest and most enlightened men as their leaders.
A few decades later, Horace Mann, the founding father of public education in mid-19th-century Massachusetts, expounded upon the democratic imperative in his own campaigns, arguing impassionedly for a sprawling network of public schools to preserve American democracy. Writing at a time when European nations were seeing their own experiments with democracy crumble, and when the United States’ own political system was straining under the weight of repeated clashes over slavery, Mann argued that it was only through wide-ranging political and moral education that the people would ever have the thoughtful, reasonable, and conscientious leaders needed to preserve the great American experiment in self-rule. “In the possession of…intelligence, elective legislators will never far surpass their electors. By a natural law, like that which regulates the equilibrium of fluids, elector and elected tend to the same level,” Mann wrote in his 12th Report to the Massachusetts Board of Education—a profound treatise on American democracy. He went on to predict that in the absence of a well-informed, rational, and conscientious public, democracy would devolve into a “mad-house,” a raging, plundering mob that would self-destruct in a fit of drunken fury:
In a republican government, legislators are a mirror reflecting the moral countenance of their constituents. And hence it is, that the establishment of a republican government, without well-appointed and efficient means for the universal education of the people, is the most rash and fool-hardy experiment ever tried by man. Its fatal results may not be immediately developed, they may not follow as the thunder follows the lightning; for time is an element in maturing them, and the calamity is too great to be prepared in a day: but, like the slow-accumulating avalanche, they will grow more terrific by delay, and at length, though it may be at a late hour, will overwhelm with ruin whatever lies athwart their path. It may be an easy thing to make a republic; but it is a very laborious thing to make republicans; and woe to the republic that rests upon no better foundations than ignorance, selfishness, and passion!
Education and the Election
Woe indeed. On Tuesday, the American people astoundingly elected a deranged and delusional demagogue whose disdain for democratic institutions and ideals was on unabashed display for the better part of 17 months. At various points during the year, our future president threatened to jail his political opponents, ban entire religions, use federal law enforcement powers to settle political scores and harass black citizens, deploy the military without the consent of Congress, and curtail the freedom of the press. He obsessively idolized tyrants like Vladamir Putin, Kim Jong-Un, and Saddam Hussein, and when asked for his views on the U.S. Constitution, he belied his ignorance by declaring himself a supporter of Article XII. (The U.S. Constitution has only 7 articles). By almost any measure, Donald Trump’s rhetoric represented a wanton, pyromaniacal assault on the democratic ideals and institutional guard-posts that not only make America a shining exemplar of freedom throughout the world, but also first and foremost to protect citizens’ liberty. His campaign offered a grand thesis that democracy had failed, and that only the election of an all-powerful, all-knowing strongman could restore prosperity and human happiness.
Much has been made about the stark educational divide in this election, and for good reason. Exit polls revealed that voters with a college degree favored Hillary Clinton by a margin of 49% to 45%, and voters with a postgraduate degree favored her by even wider margins, 58% to 37%. Meanwhile, voters with a high school degree or less favored Donald Trump 51% to 45%. Does this mean that Tuesday’s catastrophe could have been avoided if more people had had access to college? Not necessarily, for these statistics don’t reveal the whole story. In fact, when breaking down the results by race, it appears that that the educational divide isn’t quite what it seems. Among white voters only, Donald Trump actually prevailed among college graduates, 49% to 45%. Moreover, among minority voters, Hillary Clinton carried college graduates by a slimmer margin (71% to 23%) than she carried people with no college degree (75% to 20%).
Thus, regardless of how you look at the numbers, many highly educated voters failed to recognize Donald Trump’s threat to American democratic republicanism. Jefferson believed in his time that three years of formal education for common citizens would suffice for the preservation of liberty. According to these exit polls, however, not even sixteen years was enough.
The Great Failure of Education
In brief, the great American education system failed. It failed tremendously, and in ways that make the economic imperative of schooling seem immaterial. It failed to produce an enlightened discourse about public policy from any of the candidates. It failed even more grievously to check the rise of a wannabe dictator. Decades of educational neglect have left us in this situation. The blame falls partly on schools, but it also falls squarely on other socializing institutions (e.g. the family, popular culture) which all have the power to promote a society of civic-minded rational discourse but too often abdicate that responsibility.
What this election made clear is that the American people, and their leaders at the local, state, and federal levels, must recommit themselves decisively and passionately to the democratic imperative of education. This means more than just requiring students to take a semester of U.S. Government, or endure a year of American History, as is the norm is many high schools. Both of those subjects certainly deserve more attention. But even more importantly, it also means a greater emphasis on the liberal arts in general—those subjects like Literature, Philosophy, Mathematics, and History that teach students to think rationally, creatively, deliberatively, and logically in the search for Truth (with a capital T). By embracing the economic imperative of education so wholeheartedly, American schools have neglected their most sacred duty, the cultivation of a citizenry committed to democratic ideals, institutions, and practices. When citizens abandon rationality, and their leaders reflect this same casual disregard towards Truth, politics becomes more about unbridling human passions than promoting reasoned deliberation in the search for a more perfect union. A post-election editorial in The Des Moines Register anxiously reflected upon the new breed of irrational politics this election portends:
At the very beginning, Trump’s campaign was fueled largely by anger. That’s not all bad…[But] early in the primary process, it became clear that Trump’s supporters weren’t making the customary transition from anger to thoughtful problem solving. They didn’t become fully engaged in the political process by evaluating all of the proposed solutions put forward by the Republican candidates. They didn’t sift through the finer points of foreign and domestic policy issues, or even take a critical look at the candidates’ plans for fixing what ails America.
Instead, they aligned themselves with the one candidate who didn’t burden them with such expectations and who instead relied on meaningless applause lines that required no intellectual heavy lifting on the part of either the candidate or the voter. It’s much easier, after all, to change “USA!” than to determine what exactly constitutes fair trade practices. It’s easier to change “Build the wall!” than to figure out what meaningful immigration reform looks like. And it’s more emotionally satisfying to change “Lock her up!” without having to consider the implications of imprisoning politicians for “crimes” unspecified and uncharged.
It is clear that this election was decided for some on the basis of emotional arousal and the crude instincts of human nature. Schools were constructed to overcome these impulses and cultivate a refined, collective rationality in their place. “The unrestrained passions of men are not only homicidal, but suicidal; and a community without a conscience would soon extinguish itself,” Horace Mann warned in his crusade for public schooling. Whether this election ultimately turns out to be a national suicide remains to be seen, but American citizens and policymakers have an urgent responsibility to recommit themselves to the democratic imperative while they can.