It is no secret that we face many daunting challenges in our world right now, and those challenges exist at every level, from the local to the international. As members of a democracy, we often focus on the rights that we have as citizens, but we sometimes forget that with those rights come responsibilities. We have the responsibility to try to make sense of the issues we face, to engage in discussion about them, and to participate in the democratic process of decision-making in whatever way we can.
These three responsibilities, familiarity with and comprehension of current problems, ability to engage in productive discussion of those problems, and willingness to help solve them through collective action, require a particular set of skills. Those skills, in turn, are most efficiently and effectively learned by means of public education.
Thomas Jefferson recognized the vital role of education in a functioning democracy and argued forcefully for a public system. In a 1789 letter to Richard Price, he wrote, “whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government; that, whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights.” Jefferson elaborated on his ideas about education in his Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he stated, “Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe their minds must be improved to a certain degree.”
Thus, both our history and our current challenges indicate the need for a well-informed citizenry capable of participation in the democratic process. But that process has been radically altered in recent decades by the introduction of the internet, and even more significantly, of social networking sites.
According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project survey from 2012, there was a huge jump in political activity on these sites between 2008 and 2012, with 34% of adults using online methods to contact government officials or contribute to a public forum. In general, the Pew Center found that in 2012, 39% of adults engaged in some kind of political or civic activity on a social networking site.
This online political activity trend, which one can only assume has continued to increase since 2012, has substantive implications that tie into the crucial role of public education. Most importantly, online activity requires the ability to read analytically and to write clearly and succinctly. The need for excellent reading comprehension, productive written discussion, and problem-solving skills is vital.
These are the skills that the U.S. public school system can and should inculcate in our young people. The public schools are uniquely situated for that purpose for the following reasons:
1. As units of local, state, and the federal government, they are directly tied to the democracy. The public school is therefore a natural and appropriate venue for civic preparation, and as indicated, our founding fathers saw them as vital to that purpose.
2. As taxpayer-funded institutions, they must accept and do their best to educate all students, regardless of the students’ ability levels or socioeconomic status. Thus,
unlike private schools that can pick and choose, the public schools are truly democratic in their make-up.
3. In conjunction with that, the student bodies of public schools tend to be more heterogeneous. This means that they are places where students are more likely to encounter students of different backgrounds who have different perspectives. Classes in which the students come from a wide variety of cultures and family situations offer greater opportunities for learning how to collaborate effectively to find common ground in order to solve problems.
Investment in public education is therefore investment in the future of the nation as a functioning democracy. Our current political climate is one of polarization and discord. The public schools, if properly funded and supported, can provide the basic skills and attitudes to overcome those tendencies and prompt our future citizens to engage with each other in productive civil discourse, both online and in person. If we leave this task to private institutions, we run the risk of creating a two-tiered society, in which only those who can afford it receive the necessary instruction to, as Jefferson put it, improve their minds to the extent that the government can be entrusted to their care. We are a nation of government of the people, for the people, and by the people – ALL the people – and our public education system is in a position to ensure that Lincoln’s words are not an empty promise.
Nancy Rehm, a retired teacher from Biglerville High School, is a guest columnist for the Democracy for America education task force.