1. Archive

Democracy as the framework for education reform

Each week until the election, we will present a book or group of bboks dealing with a crucial campaign issue. Today we focus on the wuestion of education.

AN ARISTOCRACY OF EVERYONE: The Politics of Education and the Future of America, by Benjamin R. Barber, Ballantine, $20.

Although education generally falls under the jurisdiction of the states, presidential candidates have traditionally made education a priority issue in their campaigns.

Four years ago President Bush pledged that he would be the "education president." This election year he is touting a school voucher plan that would give low- and middle-income families a $1,000 scholarship to help send them to the schools of their choice _ public, private or religious.

Pointing to his educational reforms in Arkansas in the '80s, Gov. Bill Clinton says he wants to work with states to develop similar public school choice programs. He does not favor using public funds to pay for private education. He also wants to make a college education or apprenticeship available to everyone, regardless of income, by having the students repay the cost of their education after graduation by giving two or three years of community service.

Despite the candidates' assurances that they are concerned about education, however, the truth is that most presidents, with the exception of Thomas Jefferson, founder of the University of Virginia, have done precious little to improve America's educational system, a system perpetually in "crisis."

In the '50s, after the Soviets sent up Sputnik, there was talk of crisis in our science education. In the '60s when school authority was challenged, there was again talk of crisis. In the '70s, when educational scores took a nose dive and reading ability deteriorated, there was still another crisis declared. In the '80s when there were reports of a growing illiteracy that put the nation at risk, we were again told there was a crisis.

"And today, as the nation grows less and less competitive with its economic rivals . . . as more young black men are ending up in jail than in college . . . as 30 percent of the nation's children are dropping out of school before receiving a high school diploma, as media-manufactured hysteria over "political correctness' and compulsory multiculturalism turns every pedagogical debate into a terminal ideological struggle, a yet more desperate "crisis' arises," writes Benjamin Barber in An Aristocracy of Everyone.

But crisis, by definition cannot be chronic, Barber points out. "On tenth hearing, the alarm bells inspire depair rather than action. Tired out by our repeated crises, we roll over in bed. A long sleep becomes more and more like death, and a radical awakening is called for. At risk are not only our children," warns Barber who is a political science professor at Rutgers University, "not only our schools, but our democratic institutions."

We talk of crisis in education, but that's all it is, says Barber. Talk. The nation, he says "talks pedagogy but spends its resources elsewhere. It denigrates teachers as unprofessional but refuses them professional wages. Compare the starting salaries of lawyers, doctors, engineers, and teachers, and it becomes obvious why it is that the schools are in crisis."

Barber's book wisely frames the debate about educational reforms in terms of democracy, emphasizing that the most important role of schools in a democratic society is to teach us liberty. He denounces an elitist approach to education as incompatible with our democratic ideals. He also, however, takes to task those who work to expand curricula and admissions policies to be inclusive rather than exclusive but then fail to seek a common ground among the disparate groups brought into the schools.

"So many modern reforms, radical as well as conservative, seem to have lost sight of the public meaning of public education. Multicultural curricula achieve a needed broadening of perspectives and permit many Americans who have felt excluded to achieve a sense of group worth, yet this often is achieved at the cost of what groups share with one another. Voucher schemes enhance parental choice and increase competition among different kinds of schools, yet they thwart common schooling and subordinate education's public ends to private market choices."

One of Barber's own practical suggestions is to teach democracy in our schools and universities by making community service part of the curricula. At Rutgers he developed an experimental plan that requires students to perform some community service as part of their civic education.

Democratic education does not have to mean an abandonment of excellence, says Barber. "Many Americans have been persuaded that in trying to educate everyone, they will only manage to nurture mediocrity. But mediocrity is an evasion of freedom, not its product. If our schools are mediocre, it is because we have failed as educators to raise our children to commonly high standards, not because we have succeeded as democrats in offering them standards that are too common."

_ Margo Hammond

For further reading

EDUCATIONAL RENAISSANCE: Our Schools at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, by Marvin Cetron and Margaret Gayle, St. Martin's Press, $14.95.

Here are authors who are optimistic about America's schools. They describe the successes of over 300 of our nation's individual school systems, offer portraits of many local school leaders who have made a difference and provide educational and demographic profiles of each state.