On Education, Dialogue, and the Rebirth of Democracy

Dear Editor:

As I applaud my teacher comrades in Los Angeles, who have bravely gone on strike to protest miserable working conditions—low salaries; overcrowded classrooms; and rapacious corporate charter schools bleeding them of precious resources—let me add another topic to the national dialogue on education, one that’s hardly ever discussed: curriculum.

But even before we get to curriculum, in order to figure out what to teach, we need a new consensus on what the purpose of schooling is. In other words: what kind of people, and what kind of society, do we want our schools to nurture? If your response to these questions is similar to mine, that we ought to nurture a more just, democratic, and peaceful world—and the humanistic behaviors and skill sets to make this happen—then the school system we have now needs a radical transformation.

Despite heroic efforts by educational scholars and reformers in the 20th century to create humane and caring schools, along a Jeffersonian model of educating for democracy, we have slid backwards into a rigid, archaic, 19th century model of schooling. For some strange reason, the official purpose of schooling has narrowed to a selfish, joyless, privatist concern with one thing only: creating better workers for the global economy. Who sent out that memo?

With all the talk of our democracy in crisis (a recent Atlantic magazine cover asked: “Is Democracy Dying?”) why can’t our media or politicians make the simple, commonsensical link between our moribund democracy and a school system that has abandoned the idea of educating better citizens? American schooling now serves a dumbing down function that erodes citizenship by serving only the needs of the market. Business majors (of whom Trump is one) are trained to care about profits over people.

Speaking of Trump, when a person as ill-suited to the presidency as him gets elected, it’s a warning bell that our current method of education has failed. Give it an F. Back in the 60s, when a joyful sense of hope for a better world was percolating, one in five young people studied the humanities: philosophy, literature, and history. Now that number is one and twenty. When you throw out the humanities, out goes empathy, imagination, and critical thinking: the cognitive building blocks of democracy.

Maybe we need a nationwide teachers strike to explore these fundamental questions. An education version of FDR’s famous Bank Holiday of 1933. I hope this letter begins a national conversation on the real purpose of American schooling; something we’ve never actually had. You can help by sharing this letter at a Board of Ed meeting, in a teacher’s room, at a community cafe, or at your local political club.

Stay strong. These are exciting times. It feels like real change is on the way!

John Bredin