With the election of Donald Trump, and his pick of Betsy DeVos for secretary of education, it appears the new administration may take a very business-minded approach to education reform. Terms like “efficiencies,” “rate of return on investment” and “choice” will likely dominate the public discourse.
Many will welcome this change.
It is true that achievement gaps persist, international rankings continue to stagnate, and controversies over curriculum and teaching methods abound. Why not call in the professionals? Why not let the captains of industry clean things up?
Perhaps they can. The real question is: Can they do so while preserving the democratic principles upon which the public schools were founded?
There has long existed a tension in American public education between the ideals of democratic self-governance and the aims of economic empowerment. Thomas Jefferson’s Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, the first bill to propose a free and public elementary system in the United States, was premised on the belief that “an educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”
A half-century later, Horace Mann, the architect of the common school movement, argued for a public education that would be “the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” Mann eventually prevailed where Jefferson could not, primarily because his arguments were economically persuasive: Smarter workers mean better returns.
It cannot be denied that an important aim of education is its ability to grease the wheels of social and economic success. Equally, there is little doubt that there are inefficiencies in the system that contribute to waste and are in need of correction.
But it is equally important to understand that the historical (and ongoing) struggles to provide equal education to women, minorities and the disabled demonstrate that public education has been about more than just providing access to the educational conditions needed to secure a good job; it is also about the democratic need to value human dignity in furtherance of democracy.
Public education in a democracy is much more than just an instrumental means to an economic end. It is also a moral pillar upon which the entire structure of democracy rests. It’s true American education has not always lived up to its ideals, but it remains an enduring institution capable of great good.
Those aiming to reform the system, be they businessmen or educators, must recognize that the American public school is an experiment tied to democracy itself, and that the imperatives of business are not the same as those of education. As John Dewey once wrote, “If humanity has made some headway in realizing that the ultimate value of every institution is its distinctively human effect — its effect upon conscious experience — we may well believe that this lesson has been learned largely through dealings with the young.”
Let us hope that the Trump administration recognizes this dual purpose. Let us hope it believes that democratic public education can and does teach us to live together cooperatively, to value human dignity, to cherish the free and open practice of inquiry, and to provide a means for social and economic advancement.
Mike Bannen has been a teacher in the Kansas City area for the past 17 years and is a doctoral candidate in Social & Cultural Studies in Education at the University of Kansas.