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This article is a brilliant essay by Bard College President Leon Botstein about the democratic and civic purposes of education.
It begins thus:
The initial motivations for the movement challenging the monopoly of public schools were ultimately ones of prejudice: White parents did not want their children to attend schools that were attended by blacks. This logic was then sanitized by appeals to religious liberty, insofar as parents fleeing integration attached themselves to religious movements. Evangelicals and observant Jews did not want their children to go to schools that idealized acculturation and assimilation into a secular society whose character promoted “godlessness.” The constituencies that wanted to circumvent integration allied themselves with those who resisted the separation of church and state. And no doubt, since school quality is dependent on local property taxes, the poorer the neighborhood, the worse the schools, making a mockery of the idea that public education was an instrument of social mobility for the disadvantaged. As the quality and extent of a person’s education increasingly determined his or her employment and income, the failures of public education became increasingly glaring, making the defense of public schools implausible.
The end result of these forces has been the elevation of privatization and the abandonment of the ideal of the common public school. Privatization and diversification have become the dominant objectives of school reform.
This is a bizarre turn of events. The nice way of looking at this development is to concede, “Well, privatization is a way we can actually confront the failings of the public schools.” I agree that American schools are not what they might be. But they never were. The reconciliation of excellence and equity was never achieved in the United States, and certainly not after the Second World War, when the rate of high school attendance climbed to 75 percent. But high academic standards had not been their primary purpose. Their purpose was basic literacy (essential for a now-extinct manufacturing economy) and the creation of a common national identity out of diverse groups. Following the glass-half-empty, half-full image, one could argue that the achievements of post-World War II public education were remarkable.
The standards of American schools haven’t fallen if one considers that only after the end of the Second World War did the rate of high school completion surpass 50 percent. Before that, only a minority earned a high school diploma. So the project of attempting to educate 70 percent, 80 percent, perhaps 100 percent of Americans in a single system was never really tried until the 1960s. And even then, when it was about to be actually tried, the public system came under attack, thereby proving that if one wished to make public schools really democratic and excellent, it was going to be very hard indeed.
No other large, heterogeneous industrial nation has ever attempted the American ideal of a unitary democratic school system for all. And now, as the demand for unskilled labor decreases, the minimum standards of education have become higher and more rigorous. But privatization is now popular because many are saying that we ought not attempt to create such a universal democratic system, and that it is a poorly conceived and implausible ideal. Not only that, but the argument goes that since government is widely believed to be notoriously terrible when it comes to providing public goods, it may be better to deliver education through the private sector in a context similar to market competition in commerce.
I happen to think that the privatization of American education and the abandonment of public education is a strike against the very idea of democracy. It favors the rich even more than the recalcitrant inequities created by neighborhoods. And the fact that there is so little opposition to it, particularly among the privileged, is frightening to me. Not surprisingly, if one surveys the philanthropy of hedge-fund owners and Internet millionaires, the favorite charity of the fabled 1 percent is the funding of alternatives to ordinary public schools. That’s the idea every newly minted possessor of great wealth loves: the reduction of taxes—particularly taxes for public education—and the privatization of the American school. It has therefore become fashionable to attack teachers in the public system. Union-bashing is popular. And the unions, in turn, have not distinguished themselves as advocates of educational excellence. But have we ever addressed the question, as a matter of public policy, of who in fact our teachers are? Who now goes into teaching? Who has actually tried to do something to improve the quality of those who take on teaching in public schools as a career? Have we as a nation ever sought to recruit, train, and retain gifted teachers properly?”
Please read it all.