What does an education for democracy look like?

I’ve been reading a good bit lately about the importance of education for democracy, most recently via the new Patheos post from my colleague John Fea.  As is often the case, John roots his analysis of our current state of affairs in its comparison to the vision of the founding fathers in the early republic.  Broadly speaking, the narrative John sketches is that we have moved from an education for democracy to an education for utility (or for jobs).   Our contemporary discourse is focused almost exclusively on the purposes of education in procuring paying jobs for individuals and securing economic health for the nation.  Of this current state of affairs, John notes the following:

But is the kind of training necessary for a service-oriented capitalist economy to function the same kind of training necessary for a democracy to flourish? It would seem that the study of history, literature, philosophy, chemistry, politics, anthropology, biology, religion, rhetoric, and economics is essential for producing the kind of informed citizen necessary for a democracy to thrive. Democracy requires what the late Christopher Lasch called “the lost art of argument”—the ability to engage unfamiliar ideas and enter “imaginatively into our opponent’s arguments, if only for the purpose of refuting them.” The liberal arts teach this kind of civil dialogue. The founders knew what they were talking about.

Some of what John is saying is echoed in Andrew Delbanco’s book, which I discussed a couple of days ago and have made my way through a bit further.  The virtue of Delbanco’s book is to push John’s analysis even further in to the past, noting the high value that the Puritans put on education as a means of developing the whole person.  In other words, the writers of the early republic had inherited what was essentially a religious ideal.  We seek education fundamentally out of an ethical commitment to others and out of a religious commitment to a higher calling.

despite its history of misuse and abuse, there is something worth conserving in the claim, as Newman put it, that education “implies an action upon our mental nature, and the formation of a character.” 18 College, more than brain-training for this or that functional task, should be concerned with character— the attenuated modern word for what the founders of our first colleges would have called soul or heart. Although we may no longer agree on the attributes of virtue as codified in biblical commandments or, for that matter, in Enlightenment precepts (Jefferson thought the aim of education was to produce citizens capable of “temperate liberty”), students still come to college not yet fully formed as social beings, and may still be deterred from sheer self-interest toward a life of enlarged sympathy and civic responsibility.

Delbanco, Andrew (2012-03-22). College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be (Kindle Locations 733-739). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.

Delbanco argues that the uniquely American insight about a college education–a gift as unique and perhaps more important than jazz or Hollywood–is that this ideal of a transformative education is not limited to an elite but should in principle be available to all.  This is why the American system of general education at the tertiary level is nearly unique in the modern world.

The question, however, is whether this ideal has ever been realized in practice.  The answer is obviously no.  College attendance was in fact very limited until very recently, and the kind of education Jefferson and others imagined was primarily achieved through other means than a college education in the populace as a whole–in what we would now call high school or even earlier since even compulsory high school was a post-republican ideal.  Ironically, the very intense conflicts in the United States over the value of college and whether or not college should focus on liberal learning or professional preparation is precisely a consequence of the efforts toward its democratization.  The conflict between “practical” education for the masses and liberal education for the elite is a very long an old argument, one that has animated discussions about education throughout the twentieth century.  Think of the conflict between DuBois and Booker T. Washington  over what kind of education was most likely to secure freedom for the average AFrican American.

The more democratic that American education has become, the more the questions about what exactly we are preparing the average student for has been driven home. This is why both a liberal President like Barak Obama and conservative CEOs agree that what’s most important is education for a job.  Those of us in the liberal arts like John Fea and I disagree.  We show ourselves to be participants in a very old and long standing debate in American education, one as yet unresolved though proponents of a liberal education have been knocked to the mat pretty often lately.

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One thought on “What does an education for democracy look like?

  1. Pingback: What College Should Be: Andrew Delbanco’s Errand in to the Wilderness | Read, Write, Now

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