One of my favorite poli sci interests is democratization, and, when in school, I argued that education, macro and micro, is the single most important factor for democratization. In a previous blog post, I discussed my vision for re-defining higher education in the United States of America, and mentioned I would discuss K-12 education at a later date. I suppose today is that date!
The Founding Fathers of the USA realized the importance of education and set into place a system that assumed free and fair public education to be of vital importance to the new country. Public education’s original form, of course, was very different from what we had today. Not only was it mostly the bastion of wealthier, white boys, but most people didn’t stay in school for the 12-16 years that many of us do today. (I’m unsure of when the state began to require students to stay until age 16/graduation from high school.)
We often think of public education in terms of what it does for us — that, in fact, the USA provides public education because the common citizenry wants it, and that we want it because it’s good for us, as individuals. However, let’s think about it this way: how often does the government enact laws just because we think said laws might be nice? On top of that, how often does the government create such large, highly participatory institutions that cost the state anywhere near as much as education does? On the rare occasion that it does fund such institutions, a large percentage of “small government” proponents usually protests. However, even today, many small government proponents favor increased public education spending and are willing to support bond after bond, parcel tax after parcel tax, to add to public schools’ coffers. (See: Moraga, California and Acalanes Union High School District.)
The state institutionalizes and funds public education because the state views that said education is a necessary prerequisite for a functioning democracy. Any apparatus that even slightly allows citizen input requires at least a modicum of understanding on the citizens’ part. If citizens were unable to understand the effects of their decisions, the institution (whether state, corporate, or other) would be better off without the participants’ input.
So finally, we can address the questions:
What is a good public education?
Determining the quality of public education demands that one must first consider in which type of regime a school exists. Authoritarian and democratic regimes require very different ways of thinking and acting from their citizens, and all other sorts of hybrid regimes have their own needs.
What type of education is necessary for a well-functioning democracy?
This now depends on what type of democracy the state employs. Here in the United States, we have a fairly republican democracy (not an oxymoron!). This means that ordinary citizens do not make the vast majority of public policy decisions. Instead, we have created a de facto “professional politician” — we elect representatives under the assumption that they can manage the day-to-day task of running the apparatus and making public decisions, so we private citizens can be left alone and do whatever else happens to interest us.
That said, “democracy types” even vary from state to state. In my home state, California, we have perhaps the most traditionally “democratic” institution of them all: the statewide referendum. As we’ve seen time and time again over the past half-century, said propositions have tended to cause much more harm than good, whether it’s Prop 13 capping property taxes (essentially screwing the state budget over in recessionary years), Prop 209 (ending affirmative action at public universities and rendering them an even-more-inaccurate representation of the state’s demography), or last month’s special election, in which Californians overwhelmingly voted against the very propositions that were theoretically the last hope for salvaging many of the state’s public services.*
Therefore, while the precise needs of public education vary slightly from state to state in the USA, no matter what state you’re in, the public school system must prepare the student to fully understand:
-How public decision-making works;
-How private decisions affect the public sphere;
-How any given public decision affects other phenomena;
-How to exercise one’s political and personal rights in a way that corresponds with how said citizen wants the state to run, being cognizant of not only the short-term and first-circle repercussions, but the long-term and nationwide effects, as well; and
-How to establish and manage private businesses that maximize efficiency in a responsible, soluble manner, both to increase the tax base as much as possible** and to ensure that citizens are maximizing their capabilities, and thus more content, stable, and less likely to instigate public unrest.
What curriculum maximizes the likelihood that a citizen will fully understand the aforementioned processes?
For this section, I will utilize traditional “school subject” categories and highlight lessons I find especially important for each category.
Math: How to manage personal finances. If consumers fully understood the terms of their low-interest mortgages and too-good-to-be-true credit cards and had acted (or, rather, not acted) upon that information in a rational manner, we would have avoided a significant part of today’s recession. Three hundred million American citizens (minus) two hundred million who don’t fully understand their own finances = disaster just waiting to leak into the public sphere.
English: How to objectively interpret propaganda of all kinds, including advertisements, political statements, pop culture, and any other subjective texts. I, personally, found studying fallacies especially useful during my freshman year of high school.
Social Studies: How to understand all public documents’ texts, whether wills, probate, referendums, laws, Constitutions, etc. Furthermore, learning how to project long- and short-term repercussions of all issues on which the individual citizen must vote.
Science: Foster an appreciation of the scientific method and an innate curiosity that demands the individual will keep seeking, striving, and bettering herself to not only understand the natural world, but also to foster innovation and give all people the lifelong tools to keep furthering society. Moreover, science study should eventually help students that natural science methodologies often work significantly well in non-hard-science fields.
Humanities: Whether literature, foreign language, visual art, music, dance, theater, religion, etc., humanities are roots to the past and help individuals learn empathy and how to relate to each other in a productive and mutually-satisfying way. While some criticize the humanities as “soft,” at the end of the day, democracy does not need overly scientific, hyper-rational automatons, but living, breathing, individuals who broker agreements when coming from multiple points of view, and are able to broker said agreements because they have innate understanding of each others’ fundamental humanity, worth, and grace.
Athletics: Fundamental to create future participants in a state’s agencies of coercion (i.e. military, police, militias, etc.) More important, see: Wall-E’s insight into humans’ future physique. Um, gross.
I’ve probably forgotten many important elements and ideas, but the questions and answers accurately represent my overall picture of how we should craft public education’s curriculum. Coupled with my previous post on how to create and educate teachers, I have provided a fairly thorough guideline of how a democracy, such as the United States, can create a public education system that best serves the needs of the state — and, in my opinion, serves the needs of its people, as well.
*Sadly, I also voted against said propositions, because I had no idea what the hell they were supposed to do. I freaking studied politics, read the Props’ language, and even the pro/con arguments! If I didn’t get the memo that they were designed to balance the budget, how the hell could anyone else? This is an exceptionally annoying and mildly complex issue that I’ll address another day.
Anyway, I attribute California’s political and budgetary masochism to its overly-democratic institutions, but again, that’s probably a post for another day.
**What should taxes pay for? Why is it that I just come up with more interesting questions every time I write about something else?