The phrase “education for democracy” jumps off the page, but sinks back into the page because confusion and disagreements obscure its meaning. Rancorous arguments rage regarding the content and worthy goals of American education for democracy.
Authors of our founding documents believed an educated citizen base is essential to a free democratic society. Founders of Wabash College and public education in Indiana believed civilization and democracy require the “liberal arts” (literally, skills of freedom) to enable people to govern themselves individually and as a nation. In frontier homespun terms, Jack and Jill learned their numbers (quantitative skills) and their letters (communication skills). Everything is much more complex now. What is the knowledge currently necessary for an individual to govern oneself and to govern a free democracy?
Compelling core concepts are part of social studies, government and civics classes — innate value of each individual, equal rights, just balance of powers, and rule of law.
Aspirations, goals and values worthy of free individuals and societies are topics for philosophy, ethics, religion, poets and the arts.
Understanding ourselves and human motivations and actions are part of psychology, economics, history, sociology and anthropology.
The physical world and how we can manage it wisely are investigated in the sciences of physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics.
Numbers and letters are foundational. However, content and methods are increasing in size and complexity at warp speed. Our schools, libraries and laboratories harvest the wisdom of the ages. Constructive responses to the question regarding the content and worthy goals for a democracy are evolving painfully and at a snail’s pace. Deconstruction is everywhere; creative reconstruction is rare.
Constricting education for a monoculture created either within an identity group’s bubble or by a powerful tyrant able to enforce uniformity is seductive. The result is not education, but indoctrination, producing puppets, not free people or abundant life.
The expanse of information available to us and scope of what we must learn are greater now than ever, like rays reaching outward and inward from innumerable points on the circumference of an inflating balloon. At the same time, the ability of individuals to learn, handle freedoms, and govern free democracies is crumbling under the force of multiple pressures and tyrannies.
Reasons for confusion and debate about education are evident. Increase in knowledge forces us to refine our perspectives and practices. Migrations fleeing wars, encroaching deserts and poverty increase cultural diversity, fueled by a basic human yearning for the American dream of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. Global economic and production changes increase inequality, unemployment and class divisions. Lively presence of new cultural norms, beliefs and practices disturb long accepted commitments.
Internecine wars reduce effectiveness of our infrastructure of mediating institutions — government, schools, churches, social groups. We must create leaders at every level who will unify our interwoven mediating institutions for difficult negotiations and greater agreement regarding what education for democracy means, now and in the future.
One person suggested the jazz band a good analogy for our democracy, in which each player is a soloist. Together they create interesting and lively music. From the many voices and cultures currently existing among us, we must produce the education for our democracy in which each is a soloist, none is ignored, and out of many we are one.
Raymond B. Williams, Crawfordsville, LaFollette Distinguished Professor in the Humanities emeritus, contributed this guest column.