Democray and Education: A Natural Symbiosis

Some two hundred and fifty years ago Edmund Burke offered a view of government that became the basis for much of modern conservative thought.  Though Burke vigorously opposed tyranny, he was also skeptical of democracy.  He favored a kind of benign oligarchy, in which government is led by an innately superior group of individuals who sagely represent the interests of the nation.  The rest of the citizenry, “common” people, do not have, in Burke’s mind, the ability to govern or even to select their governors.  As he looked around at eighteenth century England, Burke no doubt saw validation of this civic vision.

In the England of Burke’s day, basic literacy skills eluded the vast number of people. Most of those who comprised the ruling class at the time thought this was a good thing. The British MP, Davies Giddy, for example advocated for continued illiteracy of the poor.  To educate this class of people, Giddy admonished Parliament, would teach them “to despise their lot in life”.  With access to books and troubling ideas the poor might no longer be “contented servants”.  They might even, heaven forbid, become “insolent to their superiors.”*

Of course, the English did eventually educate their poor.  And with the increase in education, the idea of shutting the lower classes out of the electoral process was abandoned.

A similar association between the development of democracy and the rise in educational achievement occurred in the United States.  Not only did electoral representation increase with a rise in national literacy, but economic opportunity likewise improved. That is, until very recently.  In the 1990’s the nation saw a curious reversal in what had previously been a steady increase in college graduation rates.  Not only was there an absolute drop in the percentage of young people graduating from college, but there was also a decline relative to other developed nations.

In 2008 The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education tied the declining college graduation rates to affordability.  The cost of college went up, and, because of a decline in wealth, the ability of people to pay for college went down.  So today, high school graduates are often faced with a severe choice: incur onerous debt or forgo college completely.

Given the nation’s relative decline in educational achievement, one might expect a kind of call to arms in the U.S, a marshaling of national will to regain educational ascendancy.  However, exactly the opposite has occurred.  Increasingly, one hears the Burkean notion that maybe not everyone is suited for college.  It is suggested that college be reserved for the select few who are endowed by nature with superior ability.

Where would this lead?  If a rise in education correlates with a rise in democratic participation, what would a decline in education signify?  On what path would the citizenry be led with this line of thinking?  Toward the oligarchic stratification of the eighteenth century?

There’s a saying that goes something like this:  junk in, junk out.  Apply that line of reasoning to any electorate.  If a nation fails to educate its young, then it fails to give its citizens the tools with which to govern themselves.  And this shortfall easily becomes the death knell of democracy.  The wily few, those with wit and ambition, with guile and style, will hoodwink the rest of us and we will be too dull to see through their artful speech and practiced legerdemain.

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Quality Schools for All

(Adapted from another site; originally published in 2012)

It’s natural to want the best for our children. So, when the New York Times runs articles about school zoning in New York City, I am somewhat sympathetic to parents who insist that their children (and therefore their neighborhoods) be included in the most desirable districts. At the same time, I am aghast at the construct of these arguments. Seemingly absent from the discussion is an awareness that it is intrinsically immoral to splice neighborhoods so that real estate values and social distinctions are reinforced.

An oft-cited rationale for gerrymandered school districts is that the middle class will stay only if its children are allowed to attend “good” public schools. Implicit in this rationale are a number of assumptions: there are not enough good schools in the system to go around; real estate values are directly related to school values; and school zoning gives the middle class some control (through their political agents) over the quality of education available to their children.

I would have little grounds for challenging these arguments if the schools in question were private and the citizens who used the private schools paid taxes into a general fund for public education. But the coveted schools are not private; they are publicly funded. The funds are not derived from neighborhoods; they are derived from city, state and federal governments.

If equity were the principle that governed school attendance, then there would not be a system which locked children into “good” and “bad” districts. Privileged parents would not be able to secure their children quality education by moving into a good district; underprivileged parents would not be forced to send their children into crime-ridden, under-performing schools.

By law, every child is entitled to free public education. The education is free in the sense that no tuition is charged, but it is not truly “free” education. Children are often not free to attend any school, but are strictly confined to a neighborhood school. In a free system, a child would be given school choice (not intended here as a euphemism for charter schools); the free market would prevail. In that case, children would presumably flee from “bad” public schools and swamp “good” public schools.

As it is, passions run high when middle class parents are faced with the prospect of losing a place in a “good” school. What does it say about some schools that parents argue so forcefully to keep their children out? It’s a civic disgrace that such discussions continue, year after year. Generation after generation parents are forced to operate in a system of rationing, with winners and losers.

Why can’t everyone be a winner?

There will always be distinctions of class and money between people. Schools are the one place where society can smooth some of those distinctions, can level the playing field so every child has a chance at a bright future. The current educational system in New York, and many cities, does not advance this goal. As long as the expectations of an elite middle class are subsidized by public funds, social and economic stratification will be reinforced, not mitigated.

The antiquated and iniquitous school districting model should be abolished. Children, and parents, should be allowed to vote with their feet. As cities adjusts to this new dynamic, perhaps the motivation will arise to make all schools “good”, instead of just those few schools that serve the  middle class elite.