Tag Archives: civic mission of the schools

How Children Become American

A couple of weeks ago, I came across a column in the Washington Post addressing the critical role of the nation’s schools in integrating the children of immigrants into American culture.

Public schools are an essential tool for creating citizens–whether those citizens are “home grown” or new arrivals–and I certainly agreed with the points being made.

The idea of citizenship — of members of the republic being responsible for the quality of their own government — made America unique at its founding. Until James Madison made “We, the People” the foundation of the Constitution, other modern nations were full of subjects, rather than citizens. For citizens to choose their new leaders successfully, they needed to become informed electors. Safeguarding America’s fragile experiment required voters, almost exclusively propertied white men, to attend political discussions and read the newspaper.

As the country grew beyond the revolutionary period and the rights of citizenship began to include non-property-owning white men, the country increasingly embraced the idea that all white Americans needed to be well educated to ensure effective self-government. In the decades that followed, the country’s public education system was predicated on producing such citizens. “The children of a republic [must] be fitted for a society as well as for themselves,”said Horace Mann, the founder of the common school movement, in 1842. “As each citizen is to participate in the power over governing others, it is an essential preliminary that he should be imbued with a feeling for the wants, and a sense of rights, of those whom he is to govern.” Only schools could effectively achieve that goal.

As the column notes, when millions of Irish, Italian and Eastern European immigrants arrived in the United States, concerns about “culture change” prompted public school systems to emphasizing teaching about the Constitution, American history, and the obligations of citizens in a democracy.

Students also gained exposure to an increasing number of ways to engage politically. In textbook after textbook, discussion after discussion, students learned to write their representatives, volunteer for causes they cared about, and write pieces for their newspapers about issues that mattered to them. In at least one major American city, Boston, most students took at least five classes on how to be the type of citizen who bettered democracy.

How times have changed!

As the article concedes, today we no longer have a shared notion of what constitutes good citizenship. And we certainly don’t teach our children.

Students in many states take no civics classes. Worse, as American schools have abandoned civics, American  lawmakers have largely abandoned any commitment to public education– funding vouchers and other privatization efforts.

And it matters.

Americans increasingly access different news sites and blogs, read different books (when they read at all), patronize different entertainment options, profess different religions–the life experiences we share have diminished pretty dramatically. Public schools are one of the last remaining “street corners,” where children from different backgrounds learn together. (Given residential segregation, even public school classrooms are less inclusive of difference than is optimal, but public schools beat most other venues.)

State voucher programs disproportionately send children to religious schools, where attendees share a particular religious background. There are no requirements that such schools teach civics, and no way to know whether or how they teach what it means to be an American.

If the knowledge displayed by my undergraduate students is representative, they don’t teach anything about the Constitution and embarrassingly little about the country’s history, good or bad.

The cited article argues that the schools can and should produce informed American citizens. Obviously, I agree–this is a drum I’ve been beating for a very long time.

But first, we need to reaffirm our commitment to public education. Among other things, that means funding public schools and their teachers adequately. It means terminating the voucher programs that siphon money from those public schools, and doing much more to regulate and monitor charter schools (which are public schools.)

As Benjamin Barber has written, America’s public schools are constitutive of the public.

They are essential.

Diversity and Distrust Revisited

Thanks primarily to the wackier GOP candidates for President (okay, that’s virtually all of them), we’re seeing a recurrence of socially divisive arguments about “political correctness,” abortion, religion and immigration–and an elevation, in unfortunate and not-so-veiled forms, of America’s racist impulses.

I was pondering our current unlovely public discourse, with its rejection of “otherness,” when my eyes fell on my bookshelf, and on Stephen Macedo’s 2000 book, Diversity and Distrust. The book was a meditation on the important civic role played by public schools in multi-ethnic societies like ours. I leafed through it to see where I’d highlighted observations (something that’s harder to do on a Kindle app), and I thought I’d share a few of them:

American public schools have been, in many ways, where the tension between diversity and the felt need to promote shared values has played out most dramatically. This institution has, from its inception, been the principal direct public instrument for creating a shared political culture amid religious, racial, ethnic and class diversity.

..some of the the most basic and widely discussed conflicts around public schools have been the consequence of religious opposition to basic civic ideals.

The [common/public school] was meant to pursue a novel set of civic ends: consolidation under public aegises was essential to the institution’s civic agenda.

The proponents of many orthodoxies, especially perhaps integral and totalistic belief systems, will not be happy with educational institutions that include all of the children within a pluralistic community. We cannot pursue shared civic ends without making it harder for the proponents of some moral and religious doctrines to perpetuate their views.

Macedo’s book was a full-throated–and persuasive– defense of the importance of public education in a diverse democratic country.

In Indiana, we’ve turned our backs on the civic mission of the schools, bowing to the demands of those who value particularist dogma, privatization, interest group politics and profits above the need to create and perpetuate a common American culture based upon our particular (and yes, in that sense “exceptional”) historical and legal commitments.