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date: 22 September 2018

Public Schooling and Democracy in the United States

Summary and Keywords

Public schools are intricately connected to the stability and vitality of our democracy in the United States. The important relationship between public schooling and democracy began as a foundational idea in our fledgling republic, and it grew slowly over the course of our country’s history. Along the way, the relationship has been tested and challenged, encountering significant problems and limitations over time, including some that continue today. Despite these struggles and the many ways in which we’ve failed to fully fulfill the relationship, it has become a key one for maintaining the strength of our society and our political system.

Unlike a monarchy and other forms of government, it is difficult to maintain a democracy. Democracies take work; they rely upon the ongoing effort of elected officials and citizens, because they cannot run themselves or rely on just one person to lead. While democracy may be a highly desirable political system, its benefits are not always self-evident to children, and the pursuant skills and work it requires do not come naturally to most people. This is the rather precarious position of democracy; in order to maintain it, we have to educate children about its benefits and rationale while also equipping them with the skills and dispositions they need in order to for them to perpetuate it well. This is why we must link education and democracy.

Democracy requires informed and active voters who seek information to make wise decisions on behalf of themselves and the common good. Such voters must understand their own rights and freedoms, as well as those of others, as they deliberate together to reach mutually agreeable policies and practices. They must be equipped to engage in free and critical inquiry about the world and the problems surrounding them. And, they need the imagination and creativity to construct, revise, add to, and share the story of democracy with others, including the next generation.

The relationship between public schooling and democracy is best understood and fulfilled when it is not just a unidirectional one, where public schools support democracy, but rather when it moves in both directions, with the formal and cultural elements of democracy shaping the governance, content, and practices of schools. In this way, democracy is not just the end of public schooling, but also the means by which we achieve it.

Keywords: democracy, education, public good, dissent, citizenship education, common schools, Horace Mann, John Dewey, Thomas Jefferson

Important historical moments, ideas, and figures that have enhanced the relationship between public schooling and democracy will be examined, rather than historical times when the relationship was weak or challenged. This is not to suggest that those times were unimportant; to the contrary, they often provoked the very improvements that will be emphasized. A focus on key factors that strengthened the relationship will help illuminate how the ways we understand public schools, their oversight, and their mission today were shaped over time.

The relationship between public schooling and democracy is best understood and fulfilled when it is not just public schools supporting democracy unidirectionally, but rather when the relationship moves in both directions, with the formal and cultural elements of democracy shaping the governance, content, and practices of schools. Thus, democracy is not just a primary end of public schooling, but also the means by which we achieve it. The focus here will be on the connection between public schools and democracy in the United States, but its history and significance may offer aspiring and established democracies elsewhere important insights into how that relationship should be forged and nurtured.

Defining Democracy

Interestingly, given the widespread practice of democracy around the world, many people don’t know how to define it or what constitutes it but rather just endorse piecemeal elements like “rule by the majority” or celebratory mottos like “live free or die.” In order to delineate the relationship between public schools and democracy, we must first understand what democracy means. There are many political theories of democracy (civic republicanism, communitarian, participatory, deliberative, and more) that each bear normative visions of how it should work as a formal process and as a cultural way of life. Formally, they lay out systems of elected officials and dictate governance structures, explaining how the state and government should work. Culturally, political theories of democracy describe the desired behaviors of citizens, including what they value and how they interact to embody democratic ways of life.

Some versions of democracy demand a tighter connection to schools than others do, such as deliberative democracy, which relies heavily on active citizen engagement and communication skills that are best cultivated in educational settings. Alternatively, liberal democracy has a less intimate connection to schools because its focus is on individuals freely pursuing their own visions of the good life. Unlike deliberative democracy, which rests on citizens educated in skills of collaboration, deliberation, negotiation, and persuasion, liberal democracy does not require extensive education beyond exposure to an array of views of the good life, development of autonomy, and acquisition of minimum civic skills.

Rather than a description of all the small but significant differences in theories of democracy and their resulting expectations of or relationship to schools, key elements will be highlighted that extend across many different conceptions of democracy in order to illustrate the shared and overarching components of their relationships with public schools. Employing this broader notion of democracy to delineate its relationship to public schooling no only offers a general understanding of the relationship, but also leaves it open to ongoing changes in democratic theory and practice.

To begin to construct a general notion of democracy, let’s start with common perceptions. One way that many people define democracy is as a formal process of participatory government where the majority rules. Under this view, a club leader might announce, “Let’s be democratic and take a vote among all of our members for which food we should serve at our next event.” This suggestion encourages all members to participate because they have an interest in the outcome and allows that outcome to be determined by the greatest number of votes. But this definition cannot be sufficient, for we know that there are societies or organizations where these conditions of participation and majority rule are met and yet they would not count as democratic because the members choose unjust acts or uphold values that counter other elements of democracy. Roger Soder, a scholar of democratic education, provides this troubling but telling example: a lynch mob may form where all members participate together to decide that a lynching should occur. Even though everyone worked together and the majority were of the same opinion, these criteria alone do not make the lynch mob democratic (Soder, 2001, p. 184).

Some people might define democracy by focusing more on the cultural aspects of democracy as a way of life, where people work well together and collaborate. But this definition is also insufficient. To demonstrate, consider again the lynch mob example. Surely, the group may have worked very well together, collaborating to carry out their selected goal of murder, but that hardly makes such a group democratic given the heinous nature of the act they commit. While the formal and cultural components of democracy are important, there must be more to it, including how those components come together and the values, rights, and freedoms that guide them, often as a part of their constitution.

Indeed, the American form of democracy is more than just majority rule, participatory government, and a spirit of collaboration. In fact, historically, Americans, including many of the country’s Founders (especially John Adams and Alexander Hamilton), feared pure rule by the masses, believing that ignorant or immoral people could not be trusted to make wise or just decisions (Adams, 1765). Instead, we have a republic, with freely elected officials who represent and look out for the opinions of the masses and seek to secure the common good as they are vested to make policy. At the same time, individual citizens are free to express themselves and seek out alternative information, lifestyles, ideologies, or groups as they pursue their visions of the good life, as long as these don’t infringe on the rights or well-being of others. Importantly, democracies, through their constitutions and the charge of their elected officials, not only protect the interests of the majority but also ensure the rights of the minority, including fairness and equal opportunity—key principles of justice in our country.

A lynch mob, then, is not democratic because it infringes on the rights of the minority, failing to uphold the freedoms and values of the constitution and the common good, for surely propagating murder could destroy the well-being of our society. To summarize, democracy is formally a representative system aimed at self-rule, where the constitution moderates supporting the freedom of individuals through elected officials who make laws and encourage certain ways of life, while checking that freedom in light of the rights of minorities and the common good. Citizens within that democracy have the opportunity to not only freely vote on their elected representatives, but also to play a part in public political life and to run for office themselves, subject only to a few restrictions, such as age limits. Culturally, democracy is best facilitated when citizens actively participate in the formal process through making informed votes and working in collaboration with others.

Democracy has multiple realms, including public, civil, and private spheres. The public sphere is largely the space of government, where democracy formally works as a process to enact and carry out laws and policies aligned with self-rule. The public sphere must be transparent and accountable to citizens, who should have knowledge of the people and laws that govern them and the ability to change them if they are found unacceptable. Civil society is the space where we engage in associations with others, often through organizations that form around some shared interest or problem. It is often in this sphere that the cultural work of democracy takes place as we deliberate, debate, and collaborate together to pursue our interests and solve collective problems that impact the common good. Finally, the private sphere is where we interact with those with whom we are most directly related, often by blood or other ties, and pursue our own interests, often by invoking our ability to choose and make purchases as part of the capitalist free market economy that corresponds with our political system.

Democracies also involve the consent of the governed. In other words, the citizens must assess the laws and practices to which they are subject and recognize them as just in order for democracy to operate smoothly. While not always made overt, consent should be given freely and without coercion from the state or elected leaders. In order to give consent, citizens need to be educated in how democracy works and the laws and processes they must follow, and also develop the skills to question, critique, and dissent so that when they do give their consent it is informed and uncoerced. It is this consent that keeps the democracy stable because expressing our endorsement of its practices and its guiding conception of justice legitimates the public realm.

We often arrive at our consent, however, within the civil realm where we debate about policies, officials, and issues with our citizen peers or in the private realm where our personal values, religious views, and ideologies influence the ways in which we give our consent to the government. Within all three realms, democracies protect the free flow of information so that citizens can be informed as much as possible and can be exposed to alternative views as they arrive at their conclusions regarding the legitimacy of the laws and people that govern them. This is, in part, why democracies have the right to free press and try not to censor people or ideas. Another reason is because it allows us to fulfill our liberty by saying, reading, learning, and believing what we choose.

Democracy Gives Rise to the Need for Public Schooling

Unlike a monarchy and most other forms of government, it is difficult to maintain a democracy. Democracies take work; they rely upon the ongoing efforts of elected officials and citizens, because they cannot run themselves or rely on just one person to lead, as a monarchy can. Even in a democracy, John Dewey warned us years ago, people have a tendency to think of it as existing somewhere else, typically in Washington DC, or the state capitol, rather than something composed of many citizens working together locally in certain ways (Dewey, 1976a). Many of those cultural ways of life and the commitment to persistent work within a democracy must be taught to citizens. But democratic leaders also need education. It is challenging to find good leaders who are not corrupt or out for their own interests, but rather are wise, morally good, effective, and committed to the common good. We have to educate them in order to strengthen those attributes.

While democracy may be a highly desirable political system, its benefits are not always self-evident to children, and the pursuant skills and work it requires do not come naturally to most people. This is the rather precarious position of democracy; in order to perpetuate it, we have to educate children about its benefits and rationale while also equipping them with the skills and dispositions they need to maintain it well and question and revise it when it’s not working well. This is a central reason why we must link education and democracy. If our schools operate on behalf of democracy, then they will produce quality citizens who in turn support the future of democracy. To phrase this slightly differently, when we think about how we define democracy, we discover a bit of a paradox. While democracy cherishes a proliferation of worldviews and the individual liberty to think and act as one desires, democracy as a notion itself must be relatively pinned down, agreed upon, and held as a shared worldview by those who live within it in order for them to legitimate the system and get along together. But we also know that democracy is not self-sustaining; rather, we need schools that teach kids how to participate in public and civil life by acquiring certain skills that don’t come naturally or ready-made. Democracies need schools in order to reproduce themselves, for we don’t intuitively simultaneously uphold a democratic worldview, know how to act as citizens, care for the common good, or respect the rights and decisions of others. There is nothing inherent about democracy in human nature or ways of life, even if democracy does ultimately improve our shared living.

What, then, are some of the things that democracy relies upon schools to teach or nurture? Democracy requires informed and active voters who seek information to make wise decisions on behalf of themselves and the common good. Such voters must understand their own rights and freedoms, as well as those of others, as they deliberate together to reach mutually agreeable policies and practices. They must be equipped to engage in free and critical inquiry about the world and the problems surrounding them, including the ability to weigh their own liberty and happiness against that of authority and the needs of society. And, should the circumstances arise, they must be able to fulfill the same duty of dissenting against political corruption that led to the establishment of American democracy in the first place. In the meantime, they need the imagination and creativity to construct, add to, and share the story of democracy with others, including the next generation.

Now, democracy can be changed over time as people come to value different ways of living, an aspect that affirms not only the need for teaching some democratic skills, but also a disposition to adapt to changes and to wisely assess them with the history and values of democracy in mind. For example, one such change is that of the citizens’ proximity to and engagement with elected officials. America’s early democracy focused on small towns and local control, where citizens engaged more directly with their leaders at town hall meetings and in civil society gatherings. Citizens needed skills of direct communication and persuasion to influence their leaders. As the American population grew dramatically and clustered in larger urban areas with greater demographic diversity, government shifted to more state and federal oversight, increasing the distance between citizens and elected officials, thereby requiring new skills of working with fellow citizens in civil society to form coalitions and engage in movements to change leaders or policies. Schools are not able to fully anticipate future changes to democracy like these, so they must equip children with the skills they need to wisely shape and adapt to changes in democracy.

History of the Relationship between Public Schooling and Democracy

How the relationship between public schooling and democracy has developed and changed over time will be considered, including some of the most significant historical eras, thinkers, and changes. The noteworthy contributions of some of our country’s leaders and thinkers are highlighted. The people described should not be seen, however, as single-handedly shaping the relationship between schools and democracy—their connection is far more complex than that. They were rarely the first or the only people to back new ideas and educational reforms related to democracy, but what they did most assuredly contribute were carefully articulated visions of the relationship between schools and democracy that shaped new movements and education in lasting ways.

Schooling in Revolution and Colonial Era America

The earliest American schools were only for the privileged—mostly the male children of white propertied families, while other children were expected to be educated by their parents or in the homes of dame teachers, if at all. Children who attended the few available private schools were largely being groomed to fill future social and economic roles akin to those of their wealthy parents. In this way, school fulfilled an overt role of social reproduction. In rare cases, like Boston Latin, established in 1635 as one of the first formal schools in the United States, privileged children were trained to be the next leaders of our newly developing society. The education schools provided focused on knowledge (such as language and rhetoric) and skills (such as dissenting against unjust leadership or rules) that were deemed necessary to be good, responsible leaders.

Later, Ben Franklin replaced some Latin grammar schools with academies, but these still required considerable wealth in order to afford tuition. In these academies, learning was broken up into disciplines and electives aimed at preparing more well-rounded thinkers. Philips Academy in Exeter and Andover, academies established in that tradition, remain today as schools largely attended by wealthy children, some of whom have notably gone on to significant positions of government leadership, including most recently Senator Judd Gregg and President George W. Bush (notably both of whom crafted significant educational policies during their tenure). Even while Franklin backed these privileged schools, he also saw deliberation among all citizens as an important skill and way of life in a democracy. He and his compatriot, Thomas Jefferson, set aside physical spaces where people could come together to discuss the issues and problems plaguing them. Much later and into today, public schools have continued to serve that physical role. To participate in such deliberations, even in our fledgling republic, required one to be responsible, civil, and informed. Revolution era leaders began to consider how these attributes might be needed among the whole population, not just the wealthy.

It was Jefferson who made the first significant contribution to establishing the relationship between public schooling and democracy. Although he did hold some reservations about whether citizens should be entrusted with self-rule, he placed great faith in education. He proclaimed, “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” (Jefferson, 1899). He proposed three years of free schooling for all boys and girls (notably he used the term “all,” but this encapsulated only whites at the time). Boys who demonstrated great intellectual promise would then move on to additional schooling to help them develop the skills necessary to lead the growing democracy. Although his bill was considered three times in Virginia and defeated, its guiding ideas eventually impacted schools in Virginia and elsewhere, especially in New England and during westward expansion, when some of the core beliefs underlying his bill were enacted. This included the Land Ordinance Act of 1785 and the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which set aside land for public schools. Notably, this designated land was at the heart of the new townships, as schools were guaranteed the 16th region of the township, land located in the center of the township. This allotment and its positioning suggests that public schools were instrumental in the establishment and planning of new communities as a font for informed citizenry.

The relationship between public schooling and democracy was at the heart of Jefferson’s educational plans. He saw public schools as providing a distinct American identity, one that differed from that of its forefathers in England by foregrounding equal opportunity for all people to pursue happiness. Jefferson also sought to educate citizens about their rights and principles of justice central to the Constitution so that they could detect and react when they were being usurped—no doubt the byproduct of having endured rights abuses by the Crown and the resulting revolution. Jefferson also wanted to develop informed voters who could make wise choices. He saw public schools—schools open to a wide array of children and aimed at creating citizens—as necessary to providing the knowledge and skills required for self-rule. And, he charged citizens with actually overseeing and running the schools so that they could further develop their own skills necessary for self-rule.

Common Schools and the Preparation of Common Citizens

While Jefferson’s plans faced considerable roadblocks in implementation, as some Founders were skeptical of the use of schools for all children and of Jefferson’s assertion that citizens should be entrusted with administering them, their spirit and the connection between schooling and democracy was affirmed and implemented en masse during the common school movement of 1840–1880. It was during this period, prompted by guiding ideals in the land ordinances and more recent legislation in New England, that communities began to intentionally set aside land for schools that were to be run and supported by taxpayers in their communities. Because the people locally controlled the schools, the focus of the schools never diverged far from the general values and knowledge of the polity. Given this arrangement, the values and practices of democratic citizens then also shaped the schools, including their aims and practices.

Taking Jefferson’s idea of establishing an American identity in a new direction, these schools were set up to impart a common culture by teaching morality and core subjects like reading, writing, and mathematics. They taught a common curriculum geared toward raising good citizens and undergirded by the central belief that all children deserve an equal opportunity to learn and succeed in life, regardless of their family background or economic circumstances. The idea of equal opportunity was becoming increasingly important as a shared value in democracy, and public schooling became a place where this value was fleshed out and embodied.

Common schools founder Horace Mann made the connection between schools and equal opportunity explicit when he described education as “the great equalizer of the conditions of men.” This idea represents a shift in both who schools serve and in the ends schools are supposed to achieve for children. No longer were schools narrowly focused on protecting the interests of the wealthy, nor on producing informed citizens. Their purpose was to develop a richer sense of democratic citizenship, which was aimed toward a common good, but also prepared children for enacting their individual liberties using the knowledge and skills they acquired in schools. Over the following century, equal opportunity came to operate hand-in-hand with social mobility, and Americans increasingly came to celebrate schools as offering a ladder for the social and economic uplift of individuals.

The common school movement began in the 1820s, but was sharpened and accelerated by Mann, a member of the Massachusetts state legislature who was appointed the secretary of the Board of Education in Massachusetts. Although citizens were initially skeptical of the new expanded educational system—largely because they were concerned that they might be relinquishing some control over their local schools and because they didn’t want to pay taxes for other people’s children to be educated—the schools’ popularity grew, and they spread quickly across New England and southward. In the years after the Civil War, new states were required to guarantee free, nonsectarian education for all children, and land was reserved for such purposes as those states were settled. Eventually, common schools grew into the public elementary school system that we know today. Over time, public schools became part of the public trust and a common good recognized for their contribution to shared associated living and individual advancement.

Originally, common schools were founded in America to teach all children the same academic, moral, and democratic principles, combined as an American way of life. This worked pretty well when most kids came from similar social classes and upbringings. When many immigrants started to arrive, however, common schools faced a considerable challenge. They could no longer teach the same things to everyone because students now had a different set of experiences and held different views of the good life. The growing immigrant population also set off a new set of concerns about the future of democracy, which initiated a backlash in educational approach. Large numbers of new immigrants, many of whom were poor and seen to be immoral, were thought to be a threat to the American identity and way of life. Many of those poor immigrants needed their children to be working, rather than in school, to help make money for the family. As a response, attendance was made mandatory. Elected officials did not want immigrant children to get out of schooling but rather wanted immigrants to be assimilated into American ways. Unlike in earlier years, they did not trust parents to do this, so they took away educational decision-making from those parents and put it in the hands of state authorities. This treatment of immigrants, while it could be said to bring about a shared identity, or e pluribus unum, through schooling, also limits access to viable notions of the good life, which runs counter to democratic ideals. Common schools were aspects of social control insofar as they taught a shared morality and tried to prevent the spread of poverty and immigrant customs. Schools today must remain open to many ways of living and family compositions in order to model democratic commitments.

Widening the Circle of Participation in Schools and in Democracy as a Way of Life during the Progressive Era

At the turn of the 20th century, educational attention was drawn to disciplinary knowledge, as the Committees of Ten and Fifteen were established to increase rigor and content across schools. A short while later, teachers came to the forefront in conversations about schooling, as they sought to proclaim their professionalism and protect it by establishing unions. But most important during the Progressive Era of the 1900s–1930s, our country revised and reaffirmed the relationship between schooling and democracy by placing new emphasis on working together to solve social problems and emphasizing the unique ways that children learn in general.

While education during the revolution and colonial eras catered to the wealthy, and in the common school era focused on the masses, during the Progressive Era, the poor, minority, and young in particular became the intended beneficiaries of schooling. Because of this, the location, practices, and content of schools had to change again. Developmental psychologists and educational theorists began to focus more on the ways children learn about the world around them through their senses and experience, prompted by curiosity, their home lives, and their needs. Importantly, the child was not seen as a distinct individual, but rather as part of society and as someone who should learn how to work with others democratically. Yet, each child was valued for their unique personality and for their potential contributions to associated living. Schools became more interested in eliciting the individual talents of children in supportive and nurturing environments that recognized and, at times, even affirmed the experiences and cultures of their home lives, a practice that countered previous assimilationist approaches. Many teachers today continue the child-centered pedagogies of the Progressive Era, even though they may sometimes conflict with national policies and priorities that are more focused on efficiency and test performance.

The Progressive period also focused on using education to cure social ills and to better society, especially for poor and minority people. Jane Addams’s work at the Hull House in Chicago was perhaps the best example of this. While not a public K–12 school, Hull House provided free classes in the arts and vocational training, as well as free food, for the poor and immigrants. Focusing on these educational beneficiaries reflected the democratic commitment to protect the needs and interests of even minority members and secure the common good for all. Progressive thinker George Counts rendered this rather radical shift toward education as actually improving the social conditions of democracy even more pronounced when he provocatively asked, “Dare the schools build a new social order?”1 This spirit represented a considerable shift in the meaning of public schooling away from the social reproduction of the revolution and colonial eras and the social control of assimilation during the common school movement.

Also in the early 20th century, W. E. B. Dubois worked to expose how African American children were being excluded from many institutions and practices of democracy. He argued that schooling was essential to help these children become full and active citizens, not just manual laborers or low-wage workers. His call further shifted attention toward a new minority group to be served by schools, as well as overtly to the purpose that school should serve in educating them.

Progressive Era philosopher John Dewey perhaps made the biggest impact on articulating the relationship between democracy and schools, which was influenced by his participatory and deliberative view of democracy as a way of life. Problem solving was a very important part of democratic community living for Dewey because it brings people together around a shared concern so that they can work toward making a better life for everyone. In order to model the kind of interactive community he desired, Dewey tried to make schools like small replicas of communities, where students took on different social roles and worked together to solve problems.

Dewey grew up in an era of American rugged individualism, where hard-working masters of industry, like the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts, amassed great deals of money and others were left behind to fend for themselves. Dewey grew to dislike this situation, not simply because it revealed the inequity in capitalism, but because it pitted people against each other rather than working together in cooperation and with concern for other people and the environment, as he believed a good democracy should function. Dewey believed that when people work together, they acquire and build social intelligence, and that such intelligence could be used to the benefit of society and all of its members. Later, in 1937, Dewey commented on the situation in Germany by saying that the wealthy people there had become so powerful that it made true democracy in the best interests of all people impossible. When wealthy industrialists control a democracy, they not only overlook the repressive things they do to working-class people, but foreclose opportunities for the kinds of collective work that benefits everyone.

Dewey saw democracy as a way of life; therefore, he highlighted its cultural elements. He envisioned democracy as a spirit of how one lives, rather than a set of rules or formal government. As such, democracy requires the development of democracy-oriented habits and dispositions. While Dewey was hesitant to pin these down in the midst of changing environments, he acknowledged that some of these might include listening to others, persuasively sharing one’s opinion, and working alongside others toward a common good. Dewey’s democracy required fruitful, open communication between members about their needs and experiences. Such communication also helps to develop group identification and a feeling of “us,” a collective identity that helps to bind us in our shared experiences of life and concern for the common good—a notably different approach to identity than that underlying Jefferson’s school proposal or the assimilationism of the common schools. Dewey, in part responding to foreign wars of the time, argued that we cannot establish these habits by military force, but rather we must develop them through education.

Dewey saw educating for democracy as richly contextual, tied to different communities and their needs and interests. Dewey celebrated democracy because it allows us to achieve growth without having to check ourselves to some figure of authority. And he liked that democracy exposes us to a wide array of people and environments so that our experiences can be more rich and educative. Finally, he liked that democracy requires us to see how our experiences interact with and contribute to those of other people.

He did not believe in a fixed set of values; instead, he believed the community should employ deliberation and inquiry to generate workable consensus around the values that were best for its survival, and that even those values should be held tentatively in light of future changes to democracy and our environment. Because we could not predict the future or the changes in democracy, we needed schools to prepare children to flexibly adapt to their worlds, while retaining some habits that tend to prove most conducive to and supportive of democracy, including proclivities toward the common good, respect, equal opportunity, and collaboration. This more flexible approach was challenged many years later, in 1994, through the national Character Education movement, which gave federal funding to schools to teach particular character traits of good, moral citizens. As a national program, it expressed American desire for citizens who reflected certain qualities that were deemed necessary for democracy to operate well and civilly, but it was more fixed than the ideas for democratic belief and habit that were put forward during the Progressive Era, operating as if the best traits of citizenship could be pinned down once and for all time.

One of Dewey’s most significant contributions to the relationship between schooling and democracy grows out of his assertion that democracy should not just be an end, but also a means. In “Democracy Is Radical,” Dewey explained that even wealthy rulers who are out for their own advancement can set up rules and governments that appear democratic, but he pointed out that the means of deciding on and maintaining those rules and governments also needs to be democratic (1976b). In other words, the way we decide how government works should also be discussed and decided upon by the people, not by a small handful of rulers. Like Jefferson, Dewey believed that the participants in democracy must not be coerced into accepting the laws and practices to which they were subject. They must have the ability to freely consent and to dissent when conditions warrant.

Dewey made the bold claim that no democracy up until that point had ever fully embodied democracy as both an ends and a means. In order to do so, we would need a different type of culture and a different type of education—one that teaches people through lived experiences how to actively be a part of a democratic community and to reach decisions together. This vision shifts the relationship between schools and democracy, requiring them now to not only prepare children for democracy in the future as an end goal, but also to employ democratic means in the schools, making the processes and ways of life in the schools themselves embodiments of democracy. In the end, if we want citizens to be informed voters who know and invoke their liberties wisely with concern for the common good and the rights of others, then the course by which we reach that end must also entail a formative process that puts those goals in action. We must use means of teaching that are aligned with our goals. To teach for democracy, we must teach through democracy.

Mid- and Late-20th-Century Contributions to the Relationship between Public Schooling and Democracy

Over the course of the 20th century, our country struggled to affirm some of the longstanding and widely held democratic values within our school walls. On the heels of two world wars and McCarthyism, schools were increasingly pressured to teach patriotism, sometimes through indoctrinary methods that actually ran counter to democracy as self-rule that is chosen and conducted without coercion and open to a wide array of ideological views. At the same time, some students, because of their race, were also systematically excluded from the equal opportunity to pursue their happiness and vision of the good life until well into the century. And even though that exclusionary wall was broken down by the courts, inequities of school funding and opportunity persist across our schools today, disproportionately impacting not only racial minority students but also students of other poor or minority groups. Significantly, however, during the 1970s in particular, the United States made substantial strides to end discrimination and to make schools more equitable places. Alongside the forced racial integration of schools across the country, Title IX of 1972 heralded an end to sexual discrimination in schools and the Individuals with Disabilities Act of 1975 required the best education possible for children with disabilities at no cost to their parents. These developments formalized the commitment of the democratic state to providing a quality education to all children, and reflected the expectation that each state would make good on its constitutional promise to provide an adequate and equitable common school education to all.

Another important court decision occurred around the same time. In response to a famous case of student dissent against the Vietnam War, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District, and to related cases in the decades that followed, the courts outlined guidelines for students’ free speech in schools. The court decisions sided with allowing students to share their views as long as they don’t distract others from learning or endorse activities that are obscene or harmful (like lewd sexual or drug references). These cases are significant because they pay attention to the rights of children but also highlight their role as developing citizens who need to give their consent, consider alternative views, and challenge dominant views in order to keep democracy strong.

On their heels, “A Nation at Risk” in 1983 elevated national concern for public schools by suggesting that children’s lackluster performance within them was comparable to an act of war on our country. This helped some citizens better appreciate the role of public schools in contributing to democracy as a political system, but most of the focus was on how graduates contribute to the economy and how their academic performance stacked up to international competition. With this focus, some critics argued that “A Nation at Risk” deprived students, teachers, and local communities from having significant voice in their educational experience, curriculum, and aims, shifting instead to greater federal control and standardization that threatened important elements of local democratic education.

This groundbreaking report shifted emphasis from equity to excellence in schools. Later, at the outset of the 21st century, national leaders sought to balance these goals, making efforts to ensure equity for all groups of students from various backgrounds and ability groups alongside improved standards and expectations for excellence through No Child Left Behind. This balance helps us focus on producing more knowledgeable, informed, and prepared graduates among all classes, races, and abilities of people, which better achieves our country’s needs while also better ensuring our democratic commitment to equality and equal opportunity.

As federal power grew since the 1990s through these documents and resulting policies, at times local control was put in jeopardy, especially as the government played a stronger role in determining the goals of schooling—mainly as job preparation and test achievement—and the management structure of schools changed through larger districts and sometimes privatization via vouchers, for-profit charter schools, and more. These changes have tested the relationship between public schools and democracy, in some instances perhaps even supplanting the relationship to the common good with individuals’ private concerns for their own financial success through schooling.

Public Schooling and Democracy Today

In light of this historically developing relationship between public schooling and democracy, how are public schools defined and operating today? Public schools have real (descriptive) and ideal (normative) aspects.2 They have descriptive attributes of form, which include being funded by taxpayer dollars and overseen by local control, as established during the common school era, and being open to all students without stipulation, as increasingly emphasized in practice and law throughout our country’s history. The formalist attributes of taxpayer funding and inclusive enrollment have been met to varying degrees, with many ongoing struggles and inequalities. But emphasizing the formalist aspects of public education and their shortcomings often fails to convey the democratic functions served by the schools in both real and ideal ways—to encapsulate what schools actually do and can do to serve the needs and interests of democracy.

Certain interests served by public schools are private in nature, including the economic goals of some parents and students, which have drawn increasing attention since the 1980s. But ideally, many of the interests are public in nature, aligned with achieving a mutually beneficial way of life, a goal that was most strongly evident in the Progressive Era. Today, public schools are capable of helping citizens to learn how to balance our private interests in using education to our advantage with our obligations to the common good and using our education as citizens on behalf of democracy, yet such learning is significantly hindered by for-profit education, vouchers, and other aspects of personal choice in education that prioritize private interests over common goods and by schools that no longer emphasize citizenship education at all. Schools also have the ability to help us in developing and passing on key values and commitments, such as upholding liberty and interacting civilly, that we have found important to a thriving democracy over time, but they must be willing to set aside the time and resources for such citizenship education in a curriculum that is increasingly narrowed to tested subjects.

High-quality public schools today ideally function as a location and a collection of people united in shared experience and deliberation about public goods. Simultaneously, they inculcate children into ways of life that sustain debate about and growth in the very aspects of the public goods that children learn about and construct within their walls. For example, public schools may choose to foster the types of skills needed to support our nation-state through a competent military and a knowledgeable workforce, while also developing within children the ability to engage in critical discussions about military use and analysis of shifts in workforce needs. Here we continue to see a heavy Progressive Era influence on educating for public goods and solving shared problems but also a liberal commitment to multiple ways of living, including outlooks that are critical of dominant views of the good life or even of democracy itself. Yet in the midst of such potential in schools, many face serious tensions that impede these democratic goals, including privatization of schools and excessive emphasis on testing and competition, which discourage working together to solve shared problems in fully open and accessible ways.

Public schools should teach knowledge about and provide practice in the processes of democracy: skills in deliberation, working across difference, and decision-making as well as longstanding values of democracy, such as liberty and equality (Biesta, 2007, p. 746). Sustaining democracy is a balancing act of rights and responsibilities, where citizens earn positive and negative liberties by virtue of citizenship but must also fulfill duties to their state that protect those liberties for others, which may include serving on juries or in the military. Reflecting the vision of Jefferson and the spirit of student free speech legal decisions, schools today should help students to learn how to balance private and public interests as they enact their rights and respect those of others, especially given how increasingly present those tensions are in schools themselves. Constitutional democracies require the consent of the governed for laws and institutions to be seen as politically legitimate. In order to give consent, students must learn about the laws and practices they are consenting to, as well as be equipped with skills of protest so they can express dissent when they disagree with those laws and practices. By learning these within public schools, children develop appropriate respect for the law as well as a sense of their obligations as citizens.

Democratic societies also rely upon rule by the people and, often, rule by the majority. Insofar as formally public schools mandate equal educational opportunity for all and are free and accessible to all children, they provide the best opportunity for everyone to learn the skills and content necessary to make wise decisions as citizens. Moreover, good public schools acknowledge all members of the nation and their rights, thereby working against the tyranny of the majority and establishing a precedent of concern for the well-being of minorities. This is significant when some forms of public schools today, especially charter schools, have been identified as excluding some minority populations, such as English Language Learners and students with disabilities.

Upholding Dewey’s call for democracy to be both a means and end of schooling today, functionally public schools are not just places that prepare children for public life in the future. Rather, as political philosopher Benjamin Barber explains, “Public schools are not merely schools for the public, but schools of publicness: institutions where we learn what it means to be a public and start down the road toward common national and civic identity” (1998, pp. 225–226). Schools, when working at their very best or ideally, are places of democratic practice in the present. They are places where a wide array of individuals comes together engaged in practices of democracy. They are a place where children learn how to exchange and respond to the ideas of others as they balance their own individual needs with collective needs. They come to see each other as capable of reasonable discourse, developing an important element of trust to guide future deliberations. And they are places where overt discussions about the aspects and quality of democratic life can be discussed and changed. They are places where children learn to be a public.

Hence, today we maintain our historical efforts, especially during waves of immigration, to help Americans bridge their differences so that children develop a sense of “we” as Americans and know how to deliberate and act together across those lines of difference. Thereby, they are better prepared for the diverse world they will encounter upon graduation, which requires such skills to achieve self-rule and prevent the breakdown of democracy. This common identity and ability to work across differences is related to lingering concerns with teaching patriotism in schools. This is not to say that schools today should narrowly teach a totalizing sense of patriotism, but rather that cultivating a commitment to our nation-state and a sense of shared identity can help develop the conditions of pride and affection that help one carry out the task of sustaining our country and our democratic way of life in the future.

In sum, in order to support and embody democracy today, public schools should be, at minimum, open to the public, meaning all children are welcome regardless of background or ability. They should serve the public, meeting societal needs like preparing active citizens to maintain the government or economy. They should be creators of publicness in that they cultivate citizens who know how to collective-mindedly exchange and respond to the ideas of others. And they should sustain democracy by critically reflecting upon democracy, developing skills for participating in it, and enacting democratic-, justice- and freedom-oriented decision-making. In turn, our democratic government and culture should work to ensure that schools continue to be governed in ways that are inclusive of and responsive to the needs and concerns of all citizens, select educational content essential to becoming informed voters, shape practices that instill democratic values and dispositions in children, enable experiences that engage democracy in action, and protect equal opportunity for all.

Further Reading

Adams, J. (1765). A dissertation on the canon and feudal law. Boston Gazette.Find this resource:

Addams, J. (1910). Twenty years at Hull House. New York: Macmillan.Find this resource:

Barber, B. (1998). A passion for democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

Beane, J. A., & Apple, M. W. (2007). The case for democratic schools. In M. W. Apple & J. A. Beane (Eds.), Democratic schools: Lessons in powerful education (2d ed., pp. 1–29). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann Press.Find this resource:

Biesta, G. (2007). Education and the democratic person: Towards a political conception of democratic education. Teachers College Record, 109(3), 740–769.Find this resource:

Callan, E. (1997). Creating citizens. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Find this resource:

Dewey, J. (1976a). Creative democracy: The task before us. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), John Dewey: The later works, 1925–1953 (Vol. 14, pp. 224–230). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. Original work published 1939.Find this resource:

Dewey, J. (1976b). Democracy is radical. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), John Dewey: The later works, 1925–1953 (Vol. 2, pp. 296–299). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. Original work published 1937.Find this resource:

Dewey, J. (1980). Democracy and education. In J. A. Boydston (Ed.), The collected works of John Dewey, 1882–1953: The middle works, 1899–1924 (Vol. 9). Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. Originally published 1916.Find this resource:

Goetzmann, W. H. (2009). Beyond the revolution: A history of American thought from Paine to Pragmatism. Philadelphia, PA: Basic Books.Find this resource:

Goodlad, J. (2004). Education for everyone: Agenda for education in a democracy. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Find this resource:

Gutmann, A. (1999). Democratic education. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Paperbacks.Find this resource:

Jefferson, T. (1893). A bill for the more general diffusion of knowledge, 1779. In P. L. Ford (Ed.), The writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 2, 1776–1781 (pp. 220–229). New York: American Law: Collected Essays.Find this resource:

Jefferson, T. (1899). Letter to W. C. Jarvis, 1820. In P. L. Ford (Ed.), The writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 10, 1816–1826 (pp. 160–161). New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.Find this resource:

Kahne, J., & Middaugh, E. (2009). Democracy for some: The civic opportunity gap in high school. In J. Youniss & P. Levine (Eds.), Engaging young people in civic life (pp. 29–58). Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press.Find this resource:

Levinson, M. (2014). No citizen left behind. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Washington, DC: Department of Education.Find this resource:

Soder, R. (2001). Education for democracy: The foundation for democratic character. In R. Soder, J. I. Goodlad, & T. J. McMannon (Eds.), Developing democratic character in the young (pp. 182–206). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Find this resource:

Westheimer, J., & Kahne, J. (2004). What kind of citizen? The politics of educating for democracy. American Educational Research Journal, 42(2), 237–269.Find this resource:

Wilentz, S. (2005). The rise of American democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. New York: W. W. Norton.Find this resource:


(2.) For more on this distinction, see Kathleen Knight Abowitz, Publics for Public Schools (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Press, 2013), 43.