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I appreciate Danielle Allen’s essay on the complicated topic of education and democracy—not to mention what we might mean by democracy. Democracy has dropped out of sight in most of the discourse around education reform. The history of the lawsuit that opens Allen’s piece is a fit commentary. Twenty-three years after the CFE brought suit against the state of New York, thirteen years after the verdict, nothing has changed. I wonder, would any judge today buy CFE’s argument that schools must provide for civic as well as vocational competence?
Democracy rests on respect for fallible judgment.
Allen ties vocational and civic learning together in summarizing Dani Rodrik’s argument that “gross economic inequalities do not result from an inexorable forward march of technology or globalization or from the nature of markets. They are products of policy choices, which are themselves the outcome of politics.” Every teacher and student needs to keep this argument in mind.
We have “chosen” inequality. And our schools—including the ways we assess them, their students, and their teachers—reflect choices that make inequality inevitable. We ignore the fact that democracy is not an instinct but rather a practice demanding training and motivation, and we thereby enable education reform that does everything but design schools for learning about, reflecting on, and realizing democracy. Curricula, pedagogy, and school structures make it harder for young people—and the adults in their lives—to learn that sustaining even a flawed democracy takes hard and thoughtful work. Instead schools cover up the essence of politics: the processes by which we make choices between what I want and what you want.
For a ruling class to include us all, we need to think about what a ruling-class education should look like. Private schools that see themselves as training the future elite already do this. For example, unlike public schools, they build time into teachers’ days for both formal and informal discourse with students and colleagues. In some independent schools, the faculty is seriously involved, even decisive, in choices about pedagogy, curriculum, scheduling, and other factors affecting teaching and learning. Charter chains rank the worst on this score: there, decision-making is even further removed from constituents than at most urban neighborhood schools.
Thinking about politics as a way of “co-creating a way of life” starts in schools. And it is not only Arendt’s idea, but also fundamental to John Dewey’s concept of democracy. In practice, though, schools are less co-created than most institutions, and therefore less democratic. For instance, students can’t legally quit school, but democracy rests on the freedom to say “no” as well as “yes” and to accept the responsibility that comes with such choices. Of course, many students quit in any meaningful sense rather early on. This should be no surprise. We do virtually everything we can to ensure that no human judgment—regardless of the age or status of the person doing the judging—is respected within the four walls of a school. Yet democracy rests, too, on respect for fallible judgment.
Instead we focus on testing in our schools, which puts at risk not only civic education, but also something more basic. Only the rich can afford to immerse their children in creative activities that can’t be shown to increase test scores. But the structures of tests preclude even this improvement. As Jay Rosner of the Princeton Review points out, if we succeeded in doing this—that is, improving the rank order of groups of students, such as low-income blacks, expected to score poorly—the test makers would discard the questions that no longer correlated with the predetermined “appropriate” rank order. Individuals, of course, can outscore their predicted superiors on a given question, but if, in the test-design process, a whole class of students does so, then the test makers assume the question is faulty. Allen thus falls into a familiar trap by using test scores to defend the humanities. These tests measure not aptitude or achievement but social class.
Our current educational paradigm has lost more than the civic agency that every citizen needs in a democracy: it barely recognizes, in the most fundamental sense, what being a person is about. I watch in horror as schools adopt a new fad erroneously called personalized learning, which involves no human contact, no mind connecting with another mind, no back-and-forth—no empathy, curiosity, or questioning of authority. Instead, students interact with software and digital devices tailored to their individual “performance.” There is nothing personal about it, just two machines hooking into each other, one of them a child.
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