As Public Education Goes, So Goes the Nation


In the Winter 1960 issue of Internationalist Socialist Review, Marxist apologist George Ward marked the one-hundredth birthday of renowned philosopher and educational reformer John Dewey by noting Dewey’s uncompromising belief that as public education goes, so goes the nation.

In Dewey’s pragmatist epistemology, whole civilizations rise and fall in direct proportion to how well they prepare their young for the rigors of citizenship in a democratic society. To that end, Dewey advocated for what was then an avant-garde philosophy of classroom instruction – a philosophy shot through with two theses.

First, Dewey posited democracy as a way of life, both individually and in the whole: “Democracy is much broader than a special political form, a method of conducting government, of making laws and carrying on governmental administration by means of popular suffrage and elected officers. It is that, of course. But it is something broader and deeper than that. The political and governmental phase of democracy is a means, the best means so far found, for realizing ends that lie in the wide domain of human relationships and the development of human personality.” (“Democracy and Educational Administration”, School and Society, 1937.)

Second, Dewey held a nearly spiritual view that education, like life itself, is dynamic: “Universal suffrage, recurring elections, responsibility of those who are in political power to the voters, and the other factors of democratic government are means that have been found expedient for realizing democracy as the truly human way of living. They are not a final end and a final value … It is a form of idolatry to erect means into the end which they serve. Democratic political forms are simply the best means that human wit has devised up to a special time in history.” (Ibid)

Dewey emphasized that democracy must be safeguarded and intentionally transmitted from generation to generation – that it does not happen on its own and therefore relies upon primary institutions such as home, government, religion and especially public education for its vitality. But the nation is far adrift from John Dewey’s vision of public education as keeper of the democratic narrative. Under the banners “educational reform” and “school choice”, increasingly scarce federal and state funding has become contingent upon benchmarks favoring math and science to the neglect of civic responsibility. Partially driving this bias is the recent phenomenon known as market-based education. In this corporate-style paradigm, public school districts are “marketized” – retooled to function as privatized, for-profit “branches” generally overseen not by a local school but a CEO and/or small management team stilted toward the “hard sciences”.

The darling of political conservatives despite mixed outcomes, market-based instructional theory calls for a proliferation of charter schools; value-added (test-based) productivity metrics; expanded use of vouchers; and performance-based salaries for educators. There is a plethora of sound reasons why this model is anathema to students’ learning in general and civic awareness and participation in particular, but two serve to make the point:

1. Public schools are not the great failure we suppose. In a large-scale 2013-2104 study conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (Stanford University) 17% of charter schools showed academic improvements over their public cohorts, 46% were on par with area public schools and 37% were rated as performing below;

2. There is growing evidence that market-driven education produces market-driven students. Surveys done in Cincinnati and Houston public schools (2011) are typical of other major cities’ market-based experiments in which math/science scores rose and social studies/reading outcomes dropped.

But even without the reams of studies indicating the continuing need, it should be patently obvious public education is the last best hope for how to be an American in the 21st Century. For all the many upsides of an increasingly multicultural, multiracial and multilingual America, we need more than ever a robust “laboratory” for the creation of a truly modern democratic republic.

The ongoing tack toward educational balkanization is symptomatic of a country in the throes of an identity crisis brought about in part by a decrease in economic and military prowess abroad and increase in political polarization and wealth disparity at home.

The children being reared in this environment are not served by a deconstructionist approach to the one binding institution left standing in postmodern America.

Don Rollins is a juvenile court program coordinator and Unitarian Universalist minister living in Jackson, Ohio. Email

From The Progressive Populist, September 1, 2014

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