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Making Good Citizens: Education and Civil Society

Making Good Citizens: Education and Civil Society

by Diane Ravitch

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Americans have reason to be concerned about the condition of American democracy at the start of the twenty-first century. Surveys show that civic participation has declined, cynicism about government has increased, and young people have a weak grasp of the principles that underlie our constitutional system. Crucial questions must be answered: How serious is the


Americans have reason to be concerned about the condition of American democracy at the start of the twenty-first century. Surveys show that civic participation has declined, cynicism about government has increased, and young people have a weak grasp of the principles that underlie our constitutional system. Crucial questions must be answered: How serious is the situation? What role do schools play in shaping civic behavior? Are current education reform initiatives—such as multiculturalism and school choice—counterproductive? How can schools contribute toward reversing the trend?
This volume brings together leading thinkers from a variety of disciplines to probe the relation between a healthy democracy and education. Their original and provocative discussions cut across a range of important topics: the cultivation of democratic values, the formation of social capital in schools and communities, political conflict in a pluralist society, the place of religion in public life, the enduring problems of racial inequality. Gathering together the most current research and thinking on education and civil society, this is a book that deserves the attention of everyone who cares about the quality and future of American democracy.

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
In this timely book, Ravitch and Viteritti, professors at New York University and coeditors of New Schools for a New Century, explore the link between education and citizenship through a series of essays by contributors from a broad spectrum of educational institutions. Some of the essays are research-oriented, filled with charts and data from various studies, while others are less technical. All consider some aspect of the role of education in shaping students for civic responsibility. For example, is it wrong to stress patriotism to American students? Should our top priority be teaching students the importance of being a U.S. citizen, or should we instead stress that they are citizens of the globe? If the number of Americans who volunteer for civic and political causes is decreasing, is U.S. education to blame? And how can teachers instill values such as honesty when students see that in politics and entertainment corruption often is rewarded? There's something here for everyone, from the academic interested in data to the common citizen wondering what, if anything, is wrong with American education. The essays are well written and thought-provoking. For most collections. Terry Christner, Hutchinson P.L., KS Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Chapter One

and Democracy

Diane Ravitch

Writing in 1787, Noah Webster said that the subject of education was "trite" and that it had already been "exhausted by the ablest writers, both among the ancients and moderns." He doubted that he had anything to add to the speculations of those who had preceded him, but add he did to that "exhausted" subject, and at great length. What attracted his attention and has continued to capture the attention of countless writers and thinkers since then was the prospect that education could shape tender minds, and even more important, that education could be consciously employed to shape society.

    Throughout our national history, educators, public officials, pressure groups, and concerned citizens have struggled for the power to decide what children in school should learn and how they should be taught. Sometimes they struggled because they were sincerely interested in improving education, but often the combatants in education politics have had a singular, overarching goal: they have fought for their vision of schooling because it embodied their ideology and their goals for the future of society.

    From the earliest days of our nation, educational theorists have contended that their ideas—and only their ideas—were best suited for future citizens in a democracy. In the throes of a debate about education, it is always best to scrutinize carefully the differing definitions of both education and democracy, and the likely fit between them. Of one thing we can bereliably sure: those who have a vision of schooling usually have a vision, too, of a particular kind of social order.

    Noah Webster was the first educator who saw the potential in schooling and textbooks as instruments to create a new American society. Although there were no public schools in the post-Revolution era, Webster was certainly a founding father of American public education; he clearly saw the value to the state in using the schools and textbooks to promote a strong sense of national identity. The education of youth, he advised, was more consequential to the state than making laws or preaching the gospel. He believed that the new nation needed, above all, a common language; he advanced the cause of cultural nationalism by writing schoolbooks and a dictionary of the American language, with its own distinctive American pronunciations. Webster's famous blue-backed speller sold in the tens of millions; designed as a vehicle of a common language, it taught many Americans how to spell and speak, how to overcome the regionalisms that divided members of the new nation. Always attentive to his royalties, Webster was also the father of copyright law in America. Form the child, Webster urged, and you will ultimately form the nation, its government, and the character of its civil society. As a relentless booster of popular education, Webster contributed mightily to the American experiment in democracy, even though he became a bitter foe of democratic rule and universal suffrage as he grew older.

    While Webster was writing textbooks for the nation's rudimentary schools, his contemporary, Thomas Jefferson, submitted legislation in 1779 to create a public school system in Virginia; his proposals were not passed. Jefferson believed that those in power were likely to succumb to the temptation to become tyrants and that the best safeguard against tyranny was mass education. Jefferson wrote, "I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education." He was especially keen for young people to study history, because if they knew the experience of other ages, they would be "enabled to know ambition under all its shapes, and prompt to exert their natural powers to defeat its purposes." The success of democratic government, he believed, depended on an informed public, which could protect its rights against those who might usurp them. Jefferson described the schools and their curriculum not as instruments of organized social control but as mechanisms by which citizens could arm themselves with literacy and knowledge and defend themselves against the predictable incursions of a powerful government.

    Clearly, Webster and Jefferson held quite different views about the role of education in a democratic society. Webster wanted to educate youth to determine the future character of the state; Jefferson wanted to educate youth so that the people could protect their freedoms against the potential intrusions of the state. Over time, the shadow of these two theoretical positions grew larger. In the first half of the twentieth century, education theorists were drawn to Webster's idea that the schools could be used as a tool for social engineering, and that individual needs must be subordinated to large social goals. Policy makers were drawn to Webster's views, to the possibility that they could engage in social planning by shaping education policy; parents, religious groups, and other actors in civil society were far likelier to prefer Jefferson's pluralistic views, which recognized that individuals and groups in a democratic society must remain free to make their own choices, not serve as instruments for someone else's social plans.

    If Webster and Jefferson appear to be at different ends of the ideological spectrum in their views about the relation of schooling to democracy, Horace Mann was an intermediate figure who tried to harmonize both individual purposes and social goals but inevitably was closer to Webster than Jefferson. Like Webster, Mann believed that the training of the schoolroom would eventually ripen into the "institutions and fortunes" of the state. In 1837 Mann became secretary of the Massachusetts state board of education, where for twelve years he argued that popular education was integrally connected to freedom and democratic government. The schools, he maintained, must distribute intelligence broadly throughout the population. Mann understood the value of investing in human capital. As people gained knowledge, he argued, they would gain the power to develop their talents and to advance the frontiers of science, commerce, law, and the arts. As knowledge was more equably diffused, the entire society and economy would grow. Intellectual education, he said, would remove the causes of poverty and spread abundance.

    Mann today is best known as the father of the American common school—that is, the idea that the state should maintain free public schools in every community, to which all children are sent to learn together, presumably obliterating differences of class and social condition. Less well known is Mann's acknowledgment that parents who were dissatisfied with the quality of their local public schools were "bound by the highest obligations, to provide surer and better means for the education of their children."

    Only recently has there been close attention to the antidemocratic aspects of Mann's views or to the passionate anti-Catholicism of the common school movement. Mann's nonsectarianism, we now recognize, was nondenominational Protestantism. He did not object to the Bible in the schools, or to other religious practices, so long as they did not advance a specific religion. Those who did not wish to have the principles of nondenominational Protestantism inculcated in their children by the state objected to Mann's common school. Other prominent leaders of the common school movement, some of whom were state superintendents in the Midwest and South, were outright anti-Catholic bigots, associated with the Know-Nothing Party. Critics of the common school movement claimed that it was not democratic to compel parents to send their children to schools that rejected their parents' values, and that democracy implied not centralization but a greater diversity of educational agencies.

    In spite of its critics, the common school movement was propelled by a great sense of moral and political rectitude, as well as by the popularity of nativism and anti-Catholicism, and it scored victories in state after state in the mid-nineteenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States had a popular public school system, with free, nearly universal elementary education and with high schools available to a steadily increasing percentage of young people.

    At the opening of the twentieth century, it was generally accepted that public education should be provided by the state at public expense and that the purposes of democracy were served best by offering a common academic education to children for as long as they were willing and able to stay in school. Mann's idea that intellectual education was the foundation of democratic education seemed firmly established; most youngsters, for example, studied a foreign language, even when they were not required to do so, and Latin was a staple of the high school curriculum in big cities, small towns, and even rural areas.

    The early years of the twentieth century, however, saw a redefinition of the relation between education and democracy. A new class of educational experts, associated with the newly created schools of pedagogy, advocated a sociological analysis of education. Working in tandem with social workers, progressive school reformers decreed that the highest goal for a democratic school system was social efficiency.

    Although schooling in the nineteenth century had been characterized by a great deal of organizational diversity, the advocates of public schooling in the early years of the twentieth century insisted that there must be a bright line between public and private schooling. Leaders of the new pedagogical profession identified professionalism with the extension of the power of the state in public schooling. Ellwood P. Cubberley of Stanford University, the leading historian of education for many years, taught generations of teachers and administrators that government control of schooling was a sure indicator of a nation's democratic character. He treated disparagingly the various forms of nonpublic and quasi-public schooling that had characterized American education in the nineteenth century. In his textbooks about education, Cubberley asserted that a nation's educational progress could be measured by the extent to which control of its schools had passed from church to state, from private to public, and from laymen to professionals. The most highly evolved nations, he suggested, were those in which there was "state control of the whole range of education, to enable the State to promote intellectual and moral and social progress along lines useful to the State." Like Noah Webster, Cubberley envisaged the school system as an engine of social control, an agency that could plan social progress, and assign children to their future roles. In Cubberley's model a democratic school system was one in which the state, acting through its expert professional staff, exercised complete control over the schools.

    Progressive reformers in the early decades of the twentieth century supported industrial education as the very best means to achieve social efficiency. In 1906 the Massachusetts Commission on Industrial and Technical Education recommended industrial and vocational education in the public schools, as well as industrial schools that were completely separate from the regular school system. The experts said that industrial education would benefit children, who would be ready for work; employers, who would have a ready supply of trained labor; and the nation, which would enjoy prosperity. The commission concluded that the vast majority of children needed training for jobs, not a liberal education.

    In the same year, the National Society for the Promotion of Industrial Education was formed to lobby for the cause. So popular was industrial education that one educator likened its spread to a "mental epidemic," not unlike religious revivals or Klondike gold fever. A historian wrote later of this period that "bankers, businessmen, industrialists, philanthropists, social workers, educators, all jumped on the bandwagon. Few movements in the history of American education have taken so sudden and so powerful a hold on the minds of school reformers."

    Advocates of industrial education insisted that it was wasteful to expose most children to an academic education. They believed that schools should train students for the work that they would eventually do as adults. Because most children would grow up to become farmers, laborers, industrial workers, and housewives, they said, schools should train them for these roles. In the first two decades of the century, the industrial-education movement lobbied successfully at the state and federal levels to get vocational programs into the curriculum and to ensure that students were "guided" into practical programs as early as the seventh or eighth grade. So successful was the movement that advocates persuaded the U.S. Congress to pass the first major piece of federal legislation for the schools, the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917 for vocational and industrial education.

    The most important triumph for the industrial-education movement was the general acceptance of curricular differentiation in junior high schools and high schools. School reformers insisted that the academic curriculum was not appropriate for all children, because most children—especially the children of immigrants and of African Americans—lacked the intellectual capacity to study subjects like algebra and chemistry.

    In a democracy, the school reformers said, students should get the curriculum that was suited to the needs of society, in line with their own individual capacities. To meet this goal, many districts offered several different curricula, intended to train workers for agriculture, business, clerical jobs, domestic service, industrial work, and household management. The standard academic curriculum, once considered appropriate for anyone who advanced to high school, was redefined as the college-preparatory curriculum, suitable only for the small minority of students who intended to go to college.

    This was an important and even dramatic change of goals in American education. Progressive reformers rejected the once-traditional idea that all students should get an intellectual education to prepare them for citizenship in a democratic society. The reformers claimed that this notion was not only antiquated but antidemocratic. They insisted that a democratic society needed men and women who were equipped for their future vocational roles; the mission of the public schools in a democratic society, they said, was to train students to perform their expected roles. In that way, society would function efficiently, and the schools would not waste resources by overeducating young people who were likely to become barbers, clerks, laundresses, or farmers.

    It was just about the time that the industrial education movement was reaching its apogee that the eminent philosopher John Dewey published his landmark book Democracy and Education in 1916. Dewey was quite critical of the zeal for industrial education that was then popular. He pointed out that any effort to train youngsters for a specific occupation was bound to be self-defeating, because as new industries emerged and old ones disappeared, individuals who had been trained for a specific trade would be left behind with obsolete skills. He saw too that industrial and vocational education was likely to represent an acceptance of the status quo, merely perpetuating existing inequities in society.

    Dewey's warnings about the likely negative consequences of industrial and vocational education had little effect; indeed, they were ignored, probably because the movement was so far advanced that it could not be stopped or even slowed. For most reformers, industrial and vocational education seemed like natural alternatives to the academic curriculum, which they viewed as elitist and sterile, as did Dewey.

    Dewey's views about the meaning of democracy and the nature of education, however, became part of the common wisdom among education reformers, and they continue to influence educational thought today. Dewey wrote that "a democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience." As he defined it, the more individuals participate in shared interests, the more that they must refer their actions to those of others, the more numerous and more varied are their contacts with others who are different from themselves, the more democratic is society. The widening of interests, Dewey said, was the result of the development of travel, commerce, manufacture, and new means of communication. These changes produced exchanges that inevitably must break down the barriers of class, race, and nationality. In Dewey's conception of democracy, then, the particularities of neighborhood, region, religion, ethnicity, race, and other distinctive features of communal life are isolating factors, all of which may be expected to dissolve as individuals interact and share their concerns.

    Dewey's conception of democracy was essentially antipluralist. His views stand in sharp contrast to those of the philosopher Horace Kallen, who praised cultural pluralism in a much-discussed article in 1915. Kallen reacted against the coercive assimilationist policies of his era, preferring instead that public policy should encourage distinctive cultural groups; he called for "a democracy of nationalities." He wanted America to become a nation of nations and suggested the metaphor of an orchestra composed of many different groups, each playing its own instrument. Dewey, however, did not admire groups that had interests of their own, suggesting that they became too selfish, too devoted to protecting their own interests. He was fearful of "the antisocial spirit" of any group that had "interests 'of its own' which shut it out from full interaction with other groups." Such a spirit, he worried, promoted "isolation and exclusiveness," which tended to preserve past customs rather than stimulating the sort of exchanges that broke down selfishness and traditional customs.

    Educators could quite reasonably conclude after reading Dewey that any schools serving a particular group—such as parochial schools or single-sex schools—were undemocratic because of their isolating effects. Dewey's definition of democracy, on the other hand, was quite supportive of the comprehensive school, the large school that incorporates all kinds of programs and curricula under one roof. Because these views gained currency when many cities were undertaking school construction programs in the 1920s, they lent support to the creation of larger schools with multiple programs.

    But what should schools do to advance democratic society, aside from trying to bring everyone under a single administrative umbrella? What should their educational program be? This was far more difficult for the conscientious educator to discern, for it was easier to understand what Dewey was against rather than what he favored. Certainly his view of democracy implied that individuals should join in shared activities to the greatest extent possible. Beyond that, his followers understood that life is growth, education is growth, and growth is its own justification. Dewey believed that students should engage in "orderly and ordered activity," but he was eclectic or at least "catholic" with a small c about what they should study.

    He wrote, for example, that it was absurd for educators to try to establish what they believed to be the proper objects of education, just as it would be absurd for the farmer "to set up an ideal of farming irrespective of conditions." Whether farmers or educators, both were responsible for carrying out certain activities from minute to minute and hour to hour rather than accepting aims imposed from without by external authority. Dewey claimed that "education as such has no aims."

    Yet the comparison between education and farming was odd, even bizarre, and it showed the weakness of Dewey's argument and its tendency to confuse educators about the relation between their methods and their purposes. Farmers must know in advance what they intend to grow; if they wish to be successful, they must pay heed to agricultural science. They must plan ahead, based on their goals, and use the methods likeliest to advance those goals. When their crops come in, they must carefully measure their results to know which seeds and methods were most productive. Any farmer who did not know what crop he wanted to grow, under what conditions it was likely to grow, and which methods were most successful, would surely be a poor farmer. And certainly farming has clear aims; no one says that people farm to improve their personality or to get exercise or to commune with nature. They farm to grow crops; if they don't achieve this aim, they won't achieve any of the others and they won't even be farmers. Why then must education be without aims?

    Ultimately, Dewey believed that anything might be studied in ways that made it valuable, especially if students understood its social significance. He wrote that it was not possible "to establish a hierarchy of values among studies. It is futile to attempt to arrange them in an order, beginning with one having least worth and going on to that of maximum value.... Since education is not a means to living, but is identical with the operation of living a life which is fruitful and inherently significant, the only ultimate value which can be set up is just the process of living itself." This view led Dewey to conclude that there was no reason to favor a course in zoology over a course in laundry work; he said that either could be narrow and confining, and either could be a source of understanding and illumination about social relationships. This was true in theory, but in practice the children who were studying zoology were learning about the principles of science, while the children in the laundry work course were learning to wash and press clothes.

Because he believed that no subject was of intrinsic value, Dewey's ideas undercut the academic curriculum at the very moment that it was under attack by advocates of industrial education, vocational education, and social efficiency. If everything that might be studied was of equal value, whether zoology or laundry work, whether geometry or sewing, then why struggle to preserve equal access to algebra, chemistry, foreign language, and other subjects? This may not have been Dewey's intention, but it was in fact what happened in the 1920s and 1930s.

    The work of creating new curriculum tracks and assigning students to them was facilitated by the invention of the group intelligence test during World War I. At that time, the nation's most prominent educational psychologists offered their services to the military; they devised group tests that made it possible to quickly determine which recruits were officer material and which were not. The tests were successfully used to assign nearly two million men.


Excerpted from Making Good Citizens by Diane Ravitch and Joseph P. Viteritti. Copyright © 2001 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.

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