In a recent essay, Robert Reich asked a supremely important question: how do we educate for the common good? His answer echoed my own belief–reiterated constantly on this blog and elsewhere– that we need to do a much, much better job of civic education.
I think about those 19 children who were murdered in their classroom on Tuesday, and feel the need to go back to basics — to the common good. Given the the difficulty of enacting sensible laws to reduce gun violence — which reflects in part the deepening split between Americans who believe in democracy and those who are throwing in their lot with Trump authoritarians — the question I keep coming back to is: what can we can do to rekindle a sense of common good?
One of the most important initiatives would be to restart civic education in our schools.
Reich anticipates the nay-sayers, who will undoubtedly point out that our public schools are under a fierce and unremitting attack from the Right, putting school boards, educators, and students “in the crosshairs of culture warriors.” But he suggests that– paradoxically– “this might be exactly the right time to push for civic education.”
Why is the time right? And why does Reich link civic education to the common good? What’s wrong with the status quo?
Among other things, the essay points to what is a hot-button issue for me: the widely-accepted belief that education is basically a consumer good–that it is indistinguishable from job training.
Today, most people view education as a personal (or family) investment in future earnings. That’s one reason so much of the cost of college is now put on students and their families, and why so many young people graduate with crippling college loans. (When education is seen as a personal investment yielding private returns, there’s no reason why anyone other than the “investor” should pay for it.)
As regular readers of this blog know, that equation of education with an investment in future earnings drives me absolutely up the wall. Not only is genuine education a far broader benefit to the individual, it is–as Reich writes–a public good that builds the capacity of the nation to govern itself.
Franklin and America’s other founders knew how easily emperors and kings could mislead the public. The survival of the new republic required citizens imbued, in the language of the time, with civic virtue. “Ignorance and despotism seem made for each other,” Jefferson warned. But if the new nation could “enlighten the people generally . . . tyranny and the oppressions of mind and body will vanish, like evil spirits at the dawn of day.”
Reich traced the history of public education, and the civic motivations of those who insisted upon its importance:
The person most credited with founding American public schooling, Massachusetts educator Horace Mann, directly linked public education to democracy. “A republican form of government, without intelligence in the people,” he wrote, “must be, on a vast scale, what a mad-house, without superintendent or keepers, would be on a small one.” Mann believed it important that public schools educate all children together, “in common.” The mix of ethnicities, races, and social classes in the same schools would help children learn the habits and attitudes of citizenship. The goal extended through higher education as well. Charles W. Eliot, who became president of Harvard in 1869, believed “the best solution to the problem of national order lay in the education of individuals to the ideals of service, stewardship, and cooperation.”
The essay concludes with what Reich calls the six elements of civics education. I particularly liked numbers 5 and 6:
Such an education must encourage civic virtue. It should explain and illustrate the profound differences between doing whatever it takes to win, and acting for the common good; between getting as much as one can get for oneself, and giving back to society; between seeking personal celebrity, wealth, or power, and helping build a better society for all. And why the latter choices are morally necessary.
Finally, civic virtue must be practiced. Two years of required public service would give young people an opportunity to learn civic responsibility by serving the common good directly. It should be a duty of citizenship.
A concerted emphasis on civic virtue might eventually change the nature of America’s social incentives, which now are disproportionately weighted toward rewarding greed and celebrity. And–again, as regular readers know, I have long been an advocate for a year or two of mandatory public service.
As Reich concedes, there’s no guarantee that improving and focusing on civic education will lead to more civil and informed discourse, or make us more able to enact sensible legislation.
But it sure couldn’t hurt.