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A Biden Education Plan to Save Democracy

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Educator John Bredin with students in Newark, NJ
Educator John Bredin with students in Newark, NJ
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Just because Donald Trump was defeated, it doesn't mean the scourge of Trumpism will suddenly disappear. This is no time to rest on our laurels. We have work to do. First, America must come to grips with the fact that over 70 million people voted for a lying, no-nothing, anti-science, autocratic bully. How did this happen? Trump's very emergence on the political scene is both an ominous bellwether and a wakeup call. A warning and a nudge. Unless we make fundamental repairs to the institutions that nourish freedom--yesterday, if not sooner--our grand experiment in democracy may go kaput.

First on the list for a radical, "gut renovation" overhaul is our education system. Over the past five decades, American education has been degraded to the point where--to paraphrase Joe Biden's campaign slogan--it has "lost its soul." Gone is education's once noble civic function as a democratic, public good. Ask the average Joe on the street what the goal of education should be. You'll probably get the banal response: "to get a job."

That's all? Few, if any, will mention anything as grand or soulful or stirring as strengthening democracy; nurturing better, more kind and empathic citizens; or saving the world. It wasn't always like this. Once upon a time, during the rosy dawn of our republic, education took its marching orders from Thomas Jefferson. Here's what the Apostle of Democracy said about why schools matter:

"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."

In other words, ignorance = unfreedom. Period. End of story. Which would appear to be self-evident, no? As self-evident as the "truth" that "all men are created equal," a line that our most intellectual founding father--a true heir of the European Enlightenment--began the Declaration of Independence.

But if Jefferson's linkage of knowledge to freedom is so baked-in-the-cake, plain-as-day obvious, then why did we forget it? And he wasn't the only one who "got" the basic civic role of education. Horace Mann, father of the modern common school, actually said "education is our only political safety." Repeat that ten times--then put it on a t-shirt!

And then there was John Dewey. The title of his most important book, Democracy and Education (1916), pretty much says it all. America's leading 20th-century philosopher, Dewey is known as the godfather of progressive education. His photo in the lobby of Columbia University's Teachers College (where the great sage once taught) is accompanied by his quote: "Education is the fundamental method of social progress and reform." Not as pithy as Mann's statement, but you should also put this on a t-shirt.

Dewey believed education, at its best, is a catalyst for building community and strengthening democratic life. Both of these processes were, in his mind, also deeply interconnected. When you build community, you strengthen the very muscles needed for a healthy democracy. The key design feature of a Deweyan classroom is a democratic circle, where the teacher joins (but doesn't dominate) the conversation. Along with liberal amounts of open and authentic dialogue.

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John Bredin is a writer, educator, and host of the nonprofit TV show Public Voice Salon. The author of 15 books, his essays have appeared in Brooklyn Rail, New York Press, and Huffington Post. He has appeared in two movies, Variations, and (more...)
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