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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 5/26/22

Educating for the common good

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Reprinted from robertreich.substack.com

6 prerequisites for learning about one's duties to society

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.

I know, I know: Public schools are under attack from the right. Political battles have left school boards, educators, and students in the crosshairs of culture warriors. Which is why, paradoxically, this might be exactly the right time to push for civic education.


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If you're as old as I am, you may remember courses in civic education. They were required in most high schools during the 1950s and early 1960s. Mine weren't terribly inspiring (my teacher in 9th grade civics was so obsessed by the "menace of communism," as she called it, that she repeatedly showed us maps on which the U.S.S.R. and China - covering most of the land mass of Eastern Europe and Asia - were colored bright red, and she warned that the rest of the world was next). But merely having a time and place to consider the duties of citizenship was itself useful and important.

Three decades later, after the Vietnam War had torn the nation apart, most high school courses in civic education were abandoned in favor of curricula emphasizing the skills necessary to "get ahead." When I was secretary of labor, Bill Clinton and I often appeared at schools and community colleges, telling students that "what you earn depends on what you learn." It was a catchy phrase designed to convince young people they should stay in school so they could get higher wages afterward.

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.)

But education is not just a personal investment. It's a public good. It builds the capacity of the nation to govern itself.

At the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, a woman was said to have asked Benjamin Franklin what sort of government the delegates had created for the people. He replied, "A republic, madam, if you can keep it." 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."

Some towns during the colonial era ran public grammar schools, but only for a few weeks in the winter when family farms didn't require their children's labor. After the Revolution, many reformers advocated free public education as a means to protect democracy. Jedediah Peck of upstate New York typified the reform movement. "In all countries where education is confined to a few people," he warned, "we always find arbitrary governments and abject slavery." Peck convinced the New York legislature to create a comprehensive system of public education.

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."

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Robert Reich, former U.S. Secretary of Labor and Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley, has a new film, "Inequality for All," to be released September 27. He blogs at www.robertreich.org.

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