Taking the Public Out of Education

The perverse notion that American democracy can survive without its public schools by Benjamin R. Barber

There is a deep sense in which the phrase “public education” is redundant: Education is public, above all in a democracy. To think of it any other way is to rob it of its essential meaning.

For education is an essential public good addressed to young citizens-to-be as members of a community.

Education not only speaks to the public, it is the means by which a public is forged. It is how individuals are transformed into responsible participants in the communities of the classroom, the neighborhood, the town, the nation and (in schools that recognize the new interdependence of our times) the world to which they belong.

Early Grounding

The essentially public character of education in a democracy was evident at America’s founding, when Federalists and anti-Federalists alike agreed that the success of the new experimental Constitution depended as much on the character and competence of the citizenry as on the clarity and farsightedness of the Constitution. James Madison had made clear in his initial opposition to a written Bill of Rights that for him such declarations were little more than paper — “parchment parapets” from which liberty could hardly be expected to be effectively defended.

Well before the adoption of the new Constitution, John Adams of Massachusetts had insisted on public schooling for all boys in anticipation of their role as citizens of the commonwealth of Massachusetts, and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia had placed greater weight on his founding of the University of Virginia than on his presidency. (Jefferson noted the former achievement on the epitaph he composed for his tombstone at Monticello, but ignored the latter.)

For Jefferson, the invisible logic that wove together the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Declaration of Religious Freedom (also noted on his tombstone) and education for all citizens needed to be made visible. Jefferson seemed more obsessed by the building, staffing and curriculum of the new University of Virginia whose business he could follow through a telescope from his perch at Monticello than he had been in his celebrated acquisition of Louisiana and other achievements as president of the United States. It was apparent to him that the quality of citizens would have more to do with the ultimate success of the new republic than the quality of presidents, and that public education was the key to the quality of the citizenry.

For most of American history, this powerful linkage between democracy, public citizenship and public education for all formed the cornerstone of schooling. Common schools, land-grant colleges and the urban public schools that became nurseries of assimilation for the waves of immigrants who came to America between the Civil War and World War I embodied the idea of public education for democracy that undergirded the American experiment in multicultural liberty from the outset.

A Disturbing Mindset

For these reasons, there is something deeply disturbing, even perverse, about current political rhetoric that has seized on privatizing (de-publicizing) America’s schools. For to take the public out of education is to take the common out of the commonwealth. It is to undermine the function of schooling as what Alexis de Tocqueville sagely called the arduous “apprenticeship of liberty.” It is to forget that liberty must be learned, that while we are, to be sure, “born free” we are also born as private individuals whose God-given rights are abstractions until realized through engaged and competent citizenship.

Stated simply: born free in theory, but free in reality only when we become citizens. We are not born citizens but acquire the rights and responsibilities that comprise citizenship only through Tocqueville’s long and arduous apprenticeship for which public education is the chief instrument.

It is of course not hard to understand the sources of the current drive for school privatization. They are to be found in the neo-liberal ideology and preoccupation with market solutions that have dominated American political thinking at least since the years of the Reagan and Thatcher administrations in the United States and the United Kingdom. If democracy itself is to be privatized, why not privatize democracy’s chief public goods like education?

Neo-liberalism in fact envisions privatization as a magic bullet that will correct all the putative abuses of welfare state bureaucratism. Privatizing the res publica (literally, the “things of the public” on whose promotion the republican ideal rests) of the democratic/republican state will bring to an end the paternalistic étatism that, neo-liberals contend, has led to rigidity and gargantuism in government and supine dependency among citizens.

Against the alleged arrogance of social democracy that proposed governments could do most everything, neo-liberals embrace a new arrogance of laissez-faire proposing that government can do nothing and markets will achieve everything. Markets will empower individuals to make social choices and will replace bureaucratic rigidity with the flexibility of individual decision making. Thanks to what the 18th-century political economist Adam Smith called the invisible hand, private market choices will produce the equivalent of a public good — public goods now construed as a mere aggregate of private goods.

Neo-liberalism’s two ascendant principles are the priority of markets (government is part of the problem rather than the solution while markets can solve the problems government creates) and the substitution of consumers for citizens (democracy is defined less by common public choice than by private market decisions). Voting with dollars or euros or yen is the equivalent of (but better than) voting with ballots. Consumers are in a literal sense citizens, so there is no further need for actual citizens.

With these principles in place, it is easy to understand how neo-liberals come to believe that democracy itself is the same thing as market democracy and the spread of markets and the ideology of privatization associated with it is the same thing as the spread of democracy. In Russia in 1989 after the collapse of the Soviet regime, for example, it was easy for many Westerners to think that privatizing communism’s state industries was tantamount to establishing a democratic regime. More recently in Iraq, proconsul Paul Bremer announced that Iraq would have a privatized energy and industrial sector as well as market-dominated media outlets in the apparent conviction this was the same thing as establishing the foundations for democracy.

Market Forces

This neo-liberal or market historical context is vital to understanding the argument against public education today. Although there are specific pedagogical and motivational arguments associated with them, the marketization of education and the privatization of schooling today are rationalized primarily in terms of the more general philosophy of neo-liberalism. What begins as an assault on bureaucratic rigidity becomes an assault on government. What is conceived as an assault on government becomes a confrontation with all things public (the res publica). And the assault on government and things public ultimately turns into a rejection of democracy itself — a people’s right to govern themselves publicly, to distinguish public from private goods, to establish the conditions for the development of public citizens and public responsibility necessary to the pursuit of common justice and common happiness.

Once public goods are put in question, public education is necessarily suspect. Education is in truth only one among many public goods at risk in today’s climate of distrust of democracy. Transportation and housing have been subjected to privatization, though they are typically public goods. Mass communications and the public airways, treated in the 1934 Federal Communications Act as a public utility in which the government had a duty to protect the public interest, were transformed by the Federal Communications Act of 1996, passed with the support of a Democratic president, into private goods best nurtured by an environment of deregulation and markets.

The fact that the consequences have been the shrinking of choice and the concentration of power over communications and media into fewer and fewer hands has not changed that. Even incarceration, the taking away of citizens’ liberties as a sanction against criminal behavior that was once the prerogative of the sovereign (whether monarch or people), has been privatized. Today, more than one sixth of prisoners in the United States are held in for-profit prisons run by private corporations. Some no doubt are contemplating the outsourcing of the executioner’s role.

In education, the voucher movement and the overt assault on public K-12 schools are only the most obvious of a systematic assault on the public and nonprofit character of both elementary, secondary and higher education. Although it rationalizes its confrontation with public education in terms of mobilizing parents and empowering minority communities to abandon crumbling public schools, it actually is but one part of a more systematic market attack on education — not just K-12 but education unions, teachers and higher education as well. How else to make sense of U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige’s venomous libel of the National Education Association as a “terrorist organization,” a remark that President Bush did not see fit to qualify, let alone denigrate?

For years now, Channel One, a media operation founded and initially operated by school voucher entrepreneur Chris Whittle, has in effect seduced poor public schools without modern video equipment into a devil’s bargain in which the schools get technology (on loan) in return for subjecting their pupils to advertising in the classroom. Every nine minutes of Channel One’s soft news programming carries a mandatory three minutes of hardcore advertising, watched by students in that most legitimizing of all environments, their home classrooms. Students are required to watch or the deal is off.

The purpose here is not of course pedagogy (no one argues watching advertising helps kids learn — what private school would entertain such an idea!), but profits for Channel One and their greedy advertisers, who are happy to pay Super Bowl-level fees to advertise in this highly desirable market. This is typical of privatization schemes, where the rationalizations focus on the alleged benefits to pupils and parents, but the critical payoff goes to profit-making companies. But once profit displaces pedagogy, private interest will displace public good and corporate interests will displace pupil needs. A linkage between them is of course hypothesized, but the bottom line when the two come in conflict is by definition always the bottom line.

Higher education teachers also have had to watch their high principles of intellectual freedom, independent research and critical learning eroded by the malling of student cafeterias, the branding of university logos by cola companies and the privatization and corporatization of research. In seeking to offset rising costs and diminishing state funding, public universities in particular have become vulnerable to the siren call of private corporations: Give up your autonomy and we will deliver you from your penury! And so today, the State University of New Jersey is a Coca Cola school while the University of Maryland is a Pepsi school. Other schools and colleges are asked to choose their brands, and never mind critical thinking or intellectual autonomy. Thus it was just a few years ago that a pupil at a South Carolina high school who had the audacity to wear a protest Pepsi T-shirt on that school’s Coca-Cola Day was suspended by a principal for whom profit was more important than principle.

Essential Qualities

No wonder some parents and teachers of goodwill who recognize the public character of education in theory are nonetheless ready to throw in the towel in practice. But can Americans afford to abandon the battle to preserve education’s essentially public character? Just imagine an America without public schools, one where better students are skimmed by more expensive private schools, leaving “leper colony” style vestigial schools that while no longer public have become private (but not equal) dumping grounds for the very poor, for students without motivated parents, for special education hard cases and other “losers” who, in the prevailing marketplace philosophy, more or less deserve what they get (or don’t get).

Imagine an ever more multicultural nation in which the school population is already majority non-white and in which California (soon to be followed by Florida, New York and other states) already comprises a majority of minorities. Imagine an immigrant nation, whose greatest strength is its diversity, suddenly without the institutional and pedagogical capacity to assimilate its newcomers or to create commonality in the midst of so much diversity. It would be time to scratch the nation’s motto e pluribus unum from its coins as a nation of diversity stumbled into division and dissension. It would establish an anarchic society (another term for unadulterated markets) where the very meaning of what it is to be an American recedes to the vanishing point.

Not so long ago, with the public schools still intact, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was worrying about multiculturalism’s inherent tendencies to fragmentation and division in his anxious book The Disuniting of America. Still more recently, in his work Republic.com, Cass Sunstein, a professor of jurisprudence at the University of Chicago Law School, warned of the fractious tendencies of the Internet on which (in contrast to radio and television networks that create a common media environment) Americans seek to find their own kind and avoid the strangers with whom they must contend if democracy is to work. But now imagine taking public schooling out of the already divisive equation: any potential for integration, harmonization or just plain democratic interaction disappears.

Democracy’s Future

The lesson seems obvious: We cannot do without public schools. A nation of fractious individuals schooled in avoidance ceases to be a nation. A democracy of consumers focused on their private interests ceases to be a democracy. A community of multicultural fragments celebrating only difference ceases to be a community. A republic of privately schooled narcissists blind to what they share ceases to have res public and hence is no longer a republic.

Public education is redundant: To be civilized is to understand the nature of commonality, to be learned is to grasp the rights and responsibilities of liberty, to be educated is comprehend the meaning of citizenship. If liberal education is education in the arts of liberty, then there can be no liberal education without public education.

Finally, the future of liberal education is the same thing as the future of public education, which is, in turn, the same thing as the future of democracy. America as a commercial society of individual consumers may survive the destruction of public schooling. America as a democratic republic cannot.

Benjamin Barber is the Gershon and Carol Kekst professor of civil society and a director of the Democracy Collaborative at the University of Maryland. He can be reached at 1841 Broadway, Suite 1008, New York, NY 10023. E-mail: bbarber@civworld.org. His books include the 20th anniversary edition of Strong Democracy and Fear’s Empire: War, Terrorism and Democracy.