Public Education. What should we 'know' and how might we know? And Why?

I am a citizen with no formal education in the field of education, and I have just spent 9 hours with 35 – 40 educators who are obviously passionate about their vocation and its place in the community and in the universe.  I am almost overwhelmed.  Sometimes it is good to be 'almost overwhelmed', so my thanks to every participant.  It was a great day.

The venue has been the “Twin Peaks” research symposium of the Alberta Teachers’ Association.  The participants – leading educational researchers and proponents of research from eight different countries (Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, Iceland, the U.K., Canada, the U.S.A., Australia) and Education International.  About 90% of the participants appeared to be evenly split between teachers’ federations and academe, with a scattering of government insiders, and me.

I expect that a number of my posts in the near future will refer directly – or allude -- to what I (think I) heard in the course of these 9 hours.

This post is a prelude to others.  The immediate question is, why does the community care?  Or, perhaps more precisely, why should the community care?

My own bias is for life in a civil democratic community or society.  I would not leave the sustenance of such a community to chance.  Such a community needs to be sustained and perpetuated, particularly (but not only) by drawing children and youth into an understanding of and, hopefully, a commitment to the value of living in such a community.  In the absence of many other great social institutions that formerly helped mightily to convey the meaning of democracy (cohesive and trusted mass media, universal military service, State-Church connections, and so on), education may now be the only significant community-wide institution capable of performing the role.

Do we care about maintaining a strong sense among our citizens that, together, they are single public, with shared aspirations, some important common project(s), and some essential building blocks for the maintenance of the community?  Perhaps the public is no longer important:  perhaps democracy is no longer important.  Perhaps my bias is romantic and outdated.  But, if democracy continues to be important and vital (which I believe it to be), if we care about this common project, then is an organized education system any part of this project?  Perhaps, even if we value democracy, we need not be concerned about any particular form of education:  perhaps we can rely on it to be self-organizing.  Perhaps, in the interests of positive freedom, it is enough that the government provide a grant (voucher) to parents, sufficient for the purchase of private education.

Or, perhaps we are not willing to leave the future of democracy to chance and the market.  Perhaps we want a ubiquitous institution that is created and functions to be a deliberate, consistent and persistent model of a civil democratic society.  Perhaps we want a system of education that is universally accessible, without pre-condition of any kind.  Perhaps we want children (students) to understand a preference for inclusion, and to learn discrimination from the perspective of a prior preference for inclusion.  Perhaps we want students to rub shoulders, from moment to moment and from day to day, with students (and teachers) of every condition and circumstance.

For me, personally, it is superficial to define public school education as the system that is state mandated, or the beneficiary of compulsory attendance laws, or tax supported.

The essence of public school education is that it is a deliberate model of a civil democratic society, universally accessible without pre-condition of any kind.  It manifests a preference for inclusion and it includes, not to achieve superficial homogeneity but in recognition of the reality that the community is stronger if it wrestles with, celebrates, and is constantly being transformed by, diversity.  Public school education is accessible (and strives to be inclusive) in the classroom, in the staff room and in the voting booth.  Accessibility is, always and everywhere, both a right and a responsibility.  Accessibility and inclusion carry with them implications for respect, justice, personal and community agency, and character (integrity).

One of the important implications of this is that public school education is much more than the program of studies and the curriculum.  Public school education is, or ought to be, a model to students on the playground, in the hallways, in student assemblies, and otherwise.

There are certainly some people who believe that when we ‘have’ democracy we can’t lose it, so it doesn’t need to be tended.  There are certainly some optimists who believe that the direction of democracy is ‘ever upward’:  that it can never slide backward, or be twisted and turned downward.  Others believe that, for democracy, ‘what will be, will be’.  It is common to believe that maintaining democracy is more the work of elected politicians and public servants than it is the work of citizens.  (There are many Americans who failed to vote in the recent Presidential election, and then expressed regret that they had not.)  Some people feel privileged that the political system is giving them what they need, so they may safely stand above the fray.  They may feel they don’t need to vote because they are getting what they want and will likely continue to do so.

All of us need to remember that democracy is not a condition:  it is not something that we ‘have’.  It is not the outcome of a process, like the car that emerges at the end of the assembly line.  Democracy is an activity, the process itself -- on-going, never-ending, sometimes tedious and frustrating and only occasionally very satisfying.  But democracy is not merely instrumental.  The genius of democracy is that it is process (means) married to intention.  And, if the work itself is only occasionally very satisfying, the rewards are great.  Democracy is the work of making a house a home -- cleaning, improving, making safe, beautifying, offering hospitality, acting justly, being fair, showing compassion.  Public school education is also the work of making a house a home, of our students learning and living and then pro-creating the community in which they live – now and in the future.


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