I treasure my childhood memories of the 1970s. Life was simpler, then. Growing up in the Hudson River town of Edgewater, a tiny, Mayberry-esque hamlet 7 miles north of Hoboken, neighbors were friendly and said hello to each other. Each day was a magical adventure, unscripted, with choices that included hiking in the Palisades woods behind our home, riding our bikes, pick-up games of stickball in the local schoolyard, and, in a nod to Mark Twain’s fictional Huck Finn a century earlier, cruising the Hudson on our own homemade rafts.
As an educator today, I’m able to reframe these early childhood experiences as blessed examples of freedom, play, the joy of discovery, confidence-building, and yes, a kind of leadership denied today’s youth given the highly regimented, every-second-accounted-for style of modern parenting.
And just as young people (pre-1980), had more freedom to play, discover, create, and invent in the real world, schools were also enjoying a golden age of real reform. This was before the corporate privatizers took over. Before the obsession with standardized tests. Believe it or not, the ideas of actual smart people in the field of education—John Dewey, Paulo Freire, Herb Kohl, Maxine Greene….I could go on—were still taken seriously in those halcyon days.
A common theme in the work of these great thinkers is the link between education and democracy. This noble, civic purpose for schools, endorsed also by Thomas Jefferson, has now been eclipsed by the narrow, selfish concept that education’s primary role is to promote “success in the marketplace.” Notice how ads for colleges mostly stress the job angle, with pictures of young people strutting like peacocks, eager to “get ahead” and land the career of their dreams. Gone are all vestiges of a grand vision in education. No more talk of teaching for a just, humane, and loving world; of helping young people learn to think critically, develop empathy for others, or engage in simple human conversation—all vital capacities to a functioning democracy.
At the same time our schools have repudiated their civic duty, creating an atomized population indifferent to democracy, so our culture has moved away from the unifying “water cooler moments” of the seventies, when millions tuned into an episode of “All in the Family” or “60 Minutes,” or listened with joy to a Motown song on the radio, disintegrating (post-2000) into a mind-numbing plethora of niche cultural options, like those zillions of supposedly “binge-worthy” TV series. No wonder people have their heads down, burrowed like zombies into their Linus blanket Smartphones.
A first step to solving these problems will be ending the corporate domination of politics, education, and culture, so we can restore their civic and humane elements. To help save our democracy, my wife and I have been exploring this issue in our nonprofit TV show “Public Voice Salon.” We welcome your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.