Are We Still Making Citizens?

Are We Still Making Citizens?

Democracy requires a commitment to the public good. But for a long time now, our citizens have been taught to see themselves as only private actors.

This article was published in Democracy: A Journal of Ideas in the spring of 2015. Read online here
by Leon Botstein

Education—as well as its political consequences and place in society—is not a subject about which I know much beyond the experience of working in education. I am to education what a volunteer combat officer is to war (in contrast to an officer who attended West Point to study the art, science, and history of war). I have fought in many types of wars—an appropriate metaphor given the conditions in which education is expected to take place and the goals it is supposed to achieve. What I know comes from the field of battle.

What that experience has taught me is that the purpose, challenge, and substance of education in a democracy are defined by two questions: How ought we to live, side by side, not as lone individuals but as citizens? And how can we, through education, help individuals answer that question? Answering these questions is hard, particularly in the United States, where many seem to view citizenship as a burden and even an unfortunate necessity. The rampant distrust of government and the public sector has become overwhelming. We sidestep the question and defend education in purely economic terms, linking education to work and productivity. Nonetheless, citizenship is more than economic; it is a defining political fact of life, one that even in its neglect can’t be dismissed. And active citizenship, embraced with some measure of critical enthusiasm, may be an indispensable foundation of justice, freedom, and civility.

Hannah Arendt’s view of education in America was based on an imagined comparison with her own biography. Her generation of European émigrés, who came to the United States during the years surrounding the Second World War, developed a love affair with the political ideal of America, if not with America itself. America was a nation in which citizenship could be acquired by anyone; citizenship (and therefore patriotism in its most palatable form) was defined by loyalty to a form of government and the rule of law, not blood or soil. Among those things distinctly American that émigrés—notably Hans Weil (author of a book on education admired by Arendt) and Christian W. Mackauer, one of my teachers (and that of Anthony Grafton) at the University of Chicago—liked most was the fact that the American public school system, by any reasonable comparison to the systems of their former homelands, was fundamentally not authoritarian. A child, so the American progressive educators who held sway in the 1930s and ’40s believed, should be able to express him- or herself as an individual from the very start.

Learning was achieved not by rote, or by spoon-feeding a set of standardized materials; learning emerged out of active trial and error—by doing. For example, in one of the legendary progressive elementary schools founded in the 1930s, very young children were taught to operate a manual letterpress (placed prominently in the classroom), setting moveable type in order to motivate a love of books, the desire to read, and a sense of the beauty of words by designing and printing their own writing. This approach, sadly, has been under attack for decades. That kind of learning does not happen as much anymore in public school systems, having given way to teaching as repetitive drilling, based on crude, reductive textbook accounts of traditional subject matter linked to so-called “high-stakes” standardized testing.

But in contrast, during the Progressive Era, teachers believed not in today’s Common Core, but in something called a highly individualized “child-centered curriculum.” The purpose was the development of curiosity and skills, and cultivating the need to know. As part of this pedagogical ideal, the child, who knew nothing and could do nothing, was nevertheless entitled to express him- or herself; it was believed that only though active exploration and making mistakes would questions be inspired, ignorance discovered, the motivation to pursue knowledge heightened, and ideas, methods, and information be remembered. For all their snobbery about America as a land of unkultur, the thoughtful (if somewhat sentimental) intellectuals among the European refugees recognized the value of American pedagogy, if for no other reason than its potential merit as an instrument of political education for the sake of citizen engagement in a free society.

These Europeans encountered America at a time when there was considerable hypocrisy about demographic diversity, particularly on the matter of race. Nevertheless, in the midst of segregation and institutionalized racism in the 1940s and early ’50s, and in large measure because of it, white America appeared quite diverse and tolerant from a European point of view. The country seemed intent on harmonizing the “melting pot” of immigrant white-skinned citizens through public schooling.

From the émigré perspective, the attraction of the anti-authoritarian and egalitarian character of American education was therefore twofold. First, there was the premium placed on independence of thought, particularly as each child grew older. Second, and more importantly, independent judgment and the will to express it—the effects of a successful progressive education—were valued in terms of how well one learned to live as a citizen. A good education was neither purely cognitive nor solely based on subject matter or skill, but linked in both instances to legitimating the right of each individual to express judgment. The nation by its very self-definition was pluralistic and diverse; citizens—in the best sense of Rousseau—were not born. They had to be made. The Progressives understood that therefore the right kind of public education—a modern version of Horace Mann’s mid-nineteenth-century nonsectarian “common school”—was needed. Education was the experience that could transform private individuals with diverse faiths and origins into equal citizens in a democracy.

The American Way of Learning

What the European émigrés discovered was a reality that partially resembled these principles. They saw from the outside, as it were, how vital the connection is between how we structure our schools and our capacity to maintain a functioning pluralist democracy. John Dewey, America’s greatest thinker on education since Mann, guided the ideology of public education. For Dewey, the justification for the proper pedagogy was not primarily political; his conception of teaching and learning derived largely from an epistemological conceit within Pragmatism. But for the European émigrés, the contrast between the school systems from which they came and the school system in the country in which they arrived—the virtue and attraction of American educational practice—was significant in terms of its political consequences.

In those years, the defining factor in the American system was the idea of a single, unitary public school system in which everybody enrolled. All citizens went to the same sort of schools through to the end of secondary school. Private schools were an elite phenomenon and relatively insignificant. Most European public systems, by contrast, were intentionally segregated by ability, creating distinct groups beginning at age 11. The state, using examinations, divided the school population into varying categories, each of which maintained a different track. The majority of citizens never completed school beyond elementary school. Some percentage went on to vocational schooling. A very small segment of the population went, as adolescents, either to a humanistic academic high school (Gymnasium) or to a less prestigious practical and science-oriented high school (Realschule) and received a secondary-school diploma. A Matura or Abitur, the diploma from these two types of secondary schools, permitted an elite student to enroll in the university.

Consequently, the unitary public school system that kept all children together until college and that built citizens of character, devoted to democratic values, was viewed by the émigré generation as a marvel. American education appeared to fit the idea that the nation and democracy were tied to a homogeneity of rights, and that diverse constituencies could not only obtain equal legal status but through education achieve the means to realize it in economic and social terms. Citizenship via a nominally nondiscriminatory and standard process accessible to all irrespective of birth, religion, ethnicity, or even language was unheard of in Europe, but it—and the concrete advantages education added—seemed possible in America.

Higher education was no less eye-opening. Undergraduates delayed specialization and studied more than one subject. They were, from the start, asked to do far more writing that called for the expression of their own arguments and judgments. What was equally shocking to a European was the way in which the American university system seemed immensely flexible and open to new ideas. There was not a rigid hierarchy with one professor running each “faculty.” Young scholars did not have to wait for their elders to retire or die. The university was able to create new fields and new positions. Not only was there less hierarchy and formality, but in graduate education there was even less deference to authority than in the public school system. The dissenter, rebel, and ambitious entrepreneur were prized more than in Europe. In terms of graduate education and academic career advancement, American university practice still stands in contrast to that of Europe.

That was the good news. The bad news was that the academic standards by which the American common school system operated seemed horrifically low. The price paid by the democratic culture of the American school system, the émigré observers concluded, was the low level of shared culture achieved at the end of secondary public education. Freshmen could not read or write properly, and they possessed little understanding of literature, art, philosophy, or history. The thinly veiled (at best) snobbery of the mid-century émigré scholars simply exploded when their members (such as Werner Jaeger, Leo Strauss, and Kurt Wolff) came to teach American college students.

Outside of the realms of science and engineering, the Americans—students and professors alike—seemed provincial, naive, and disoriented (consider, for example, the depictions in Nabokov’s 1957 Pnin, a thinly disguised account of his years at Wellesley College). They seemed to get little right and displayed astonishing cultural ignorance. This merited condescension. What they had to say did not engage the grand historical intellectual tradition, and, from the point of view of the émigrés, Americans in the academy were materialistic and tone-deaf to vulgarity. And so a few of the émigrés (Jacob Klein at St. John’s and Heinrich Blücher at Bard) allied themselves with the opponents of the Progressive movement, including Robert Maynard Hutchins and Stringfellow Barr. They favored core general educational requirements and limits to the free elective system, since they perceived a need to introduce American students to the noble traditions of learning and culture that seemed to hold little place in the curriculum of the American public school. For the émigrés, the absence of knowledge or cultural understanding was the result of a distorted progressive emphasis on a misleading separation of content from method.

Since the 1930s, when a majority of Americans began to attend high school, a similar concern has arisen with increasing intensity. The notion that public schools fail to provide sufficient basic knowledge surfaces every few decades. The result has been a series of “back-to-basics” curricular movements. After the shock of Sputnik, the pride of place in progressive pedagogy assigned to ways of learning—to method—began to be challenged fundamentally. The focus in public policy, particularly in the 1980s, shifted to testing for content; in the past decade, the emphasis has been on science. Educational reformers now seek to define what all people ought to know, and when the proper subject matter should be taught and learned. However admirable the connection between progressive public schooling and democracy was supposed to be, the fatal flaw in American education was that people were encouraged to think for themselves, but they knew nothing. So what could they think about?

The overemphasis on method notwithstanding, the progressive legacy should not be forgotten or shortchanged. Its stress on nurturing independent thought, self-confidence, entrepreneurial and innovative ambition, and above all the ability to negotiate in a shared school setting with peers from different classes, religious groups, and ethnicities remains the right objective. Ironically, the fact that the quality of political discourse has declined over the very decades in our recent past that have witnessed the erosion of confidence in progressive pedagogy should inspire us, as a society, to redouble our efforts to forge the connection between American education and American democracy that defined the Progressive movement and captivated the refugees from European fascism.

Can the Common Public School Survive?

The mid-twentieth-century perspective on American education shared by Arendt and her contemporaries is only partially relevant to the situation we now face. Until 1980 and the election of Ronald Reagan, no one took seriously the prospect of dismantling the public school system and challenging its virtual monopoly throughout the 50 states. Now we do. One of the consequences of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision was the creation of a charter school movement in the South as a means to evade integration. The popularization and legitimization of the idea that the American public school system has failed and therefore ought to be deregulated and differentiated, largely through privatization, gathered momentum not only from the legal defeat of segregation but also from the revulsion at the counterculture of the late 1960s and early ’70s that inspired the “culture wars” of the late twentieth century, with which we still contend.

We are now caught in the throes of an anti-government movement that is 60 years old and that started with an attack, fueled by a fear of racial integration, on the notion that all children should attend a public school. Race and class interests, and the growth of suburbia as a refuge from integrated inner-city school systems, came to a head in the late 1960s. The 1968 teachers’ strike in New York City was a watershed in the decline of confidence in the historic role of public schooling as a key to fostering citizenship.

This article appeared in Democracy: A Journal for Ideas