Feature

The Apprenticeship of Liberty: Schools for Democracy

America’s public schools own a central civic mission toward a common good by BENJAMIN R. BARBER


In fighting to maintain the quality of the three R’s of education and vocational training to keep our workers competitive in an increasingly global economy dominated by what Robert Reich has called "symbolic analyst professionals," we need to recall that education also has a central civic mission. Our schools are public not just in that they must educate everyone, but in that they must turn a host of "everyones" into a single civic entity that we call a "public."

<p><DIV class=copy>In teaching the public, we must teach what "public" means and make possible common ground, public goods and a sense of the public weal. Public schooling and the public weal are intimately bound together.

When Thomas Jefferson came to consider what he would like to have inscribed on his tombstone, he omitted all mention of his two-term presidency and his other great political achievements. Instead, he memorialized only three crucial features of his biography: his authorship of the Declaration of Independence, his composition of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom and his founding of the University of Virginia.

Without public education for all citizens, Jefferson did not see how there could be a democracy at all. For without citizens there could be no republic and without education there would be no citizens.


Jeffersonian Logic
In pairing the Declaration and the Virginia statute of rights with the founding of the University of Virginia, Jefferson’s epitaph disclosed the hidden logic that linked rights to responsibilities, American independence and democratic self-sufficiency with an educated citizenry. Bills of rights are, said James Madison, parchment parapets from which no defense of liberty can be sustained. If there was to be a common American people capable of pursuing a common American good, there had to be common schools.

Although he boasted in the Declaration of Independence that men were "born free," Jefferson knew well enough that liberty is acquired and that citizens are educated to a responsibility that comes to no man or woman naturally. Without citizens, democracy is a hollow shell. Without public schools and universities, there can be no citizens.

This is a strain of thought that persisted from America’s colonial days when John Adams of Massachusetts boasted that the commonwealth’s schools put "literate" England to shame down through the 19th century. Alexis deToqueville spoke movingly of the need in democracies for "an apprenticeship of liberty," what he deemed "the most arduous of all apprenticeships."

The common schools movement informed our 19th century educational practices with a sense of civic mission that left no school or college untouched. Not just the land grant colleges, but nearly every higher educational institution founded in the 18th and 19th centuries--religious as well as secular, private no less than public--counted among its leading founding principles a dedication to training competent and responsible citizens. Rights were understood to be tied to responsibilities, the freedom to live well and prosper was seen as a product of civic obligations discharged with vigor, and the security of the private sector was thought to depend on the robustness of the public sector.

Sometime toward the end of the last century, however, with the professionalization of higher education that came to America’s shores with the German research university model after which Johns Hopkins University was patterned, schools moved away from their civic responsibilities. By the end of World War II, higher education had begun to professionalize and vocationalize and specialize in a manner that occluded its civic and democratic mission.

Meanwhile, junior highs and high schools retained weak social studies curricula, and they lost their purchase on democracy as a pedagogical vocation. Rights and responsibilities were decoupled and citizenship relegated to the occasional boring civics lecture--usually a harangue monumentalizing a mythical founding and a set of stereotypical heroes from George Washington to Abraham Lincoln with whom (at least as they were presented) the increasingly non-white population of public schools could have little sense of common cause. So far had rights wandered from responsibility, that young people who explicitly professed that they deeply cherished the system of trial by jury nonetheless argued that no one should be required to do jury service.

Civic Literacy
If our nation is to repossess its civic soul, it needs to recapture the central civic responsibilities of public schools--indeed of schooling in general, K-12 and university, public and private. This means if American schools are to be defined by the search for literacy, then civic literacy must take its place alongside science, math, English and cultural literacy. It means if education is to support school-to-work initiatives that adapt pedagogy to the needs of the workplace, it also must support school-to-citizen initiatives that adapt pedagogy to the needs of the public square--the civic marketplace of civil society.

Lawyers and doctors are no more likely to make good citizens than dropouts if their training is limited to the narrow and self-interested world defined by vocational preparation and professional instruction. Youngsters preparing to turn their schooling to the purposes of economic competition with Japan and Germany also must be able to turn their schooling to the purposes of civic cooperation with their fellow Americans in making democracy work.

To rejoin education and liberal citizenship requires only that we take "liberal" education seriously. Liberal arts education and civic education share a curriculum of critical reflection and autonomous thought. That is how the liberal arts emerged in the modern era in contrast to the feudal "servile arts".

Promoting Passion
If schooling is to be guided once again by its democratic mission, it needs to be re-endowed with a sense of civic passion. To promote this sense:
  • Public schools must be understood as public not simply because they serve the public, but because they establish us as a public.

    Too much market ideology has left our private and public worlds all topsy-turvy. We have made the president's private life public at the very moment we are demanding, via school vouchers, that our last genuinely public institutions be made private. We need incentives to draw parents back into public schools, not vouchers to lure them out. We need to fix not abandon the inner-city schools that work least well.

  • The public in public schools must be understood as signifying plurality and diversity.

    America is not a private club defined by one group's historical hegemony. Consequently, multicultural education is not discretionary. It defines demographic and pedagogical necessity. If we want youngsters from Los Angeles whose families collectively speak more than 160 languages to be "Americans," we first must acknowledge their diversity and honor their distinctiveness.

    English will only thrive as the first language of America when those for whom it is a second language feel safe enough in their own language and culture to venture into and participate in the dominant culture. For what we share in common is not some singular ethnic, religious or racial unity but respect for our differences. This respect is the secret to our strength as a nation and the key to democratic education.

  • Schools need to be as democratic as the civic ideals they wish to teach, consistent with sound pedagogy.

    This suggests cooperative learning where the facile help the less facile to the benefit of both rather than either tracking (where the quick advance at the expense of the slow) or large, understaffed detracked classes (where the slow advance at the expense of the quick). The goal is not to level down but to secure (in the title of my book on education) "an aristocracy of everyone" in which excellence is the common denominator.

    This goal also suggests systems of secondary and higher education that leave room for a role for students in governance and administration. To be sure, students are a transient constituency and their roles in hiring, curriculum and performance review should necessarily remain extremely limited. But in other domains their participation, minimally on a consultative basis, is not only feasible but beneficial to the children and their educational institutions. Simultaneously, such participation models the democratic culture we presumably wish to teach.

  • Learning, above all civic learning, needs to be experiential as well as purely cognitive.

    Serving others is not just a form of do-goodism or feel-goodism; it is a road to social responsibility and citizenship. When linked closely to classroom learning ("education-based community service"), it offers an ideal setting for bridging the gap between the classroom and the street, between the theory of democracy and its much more obstreperous practice.

    Our schools and colleges are not social agencies but teaching and learning communities: Service is an instrument of civic pedagogy. It is a response to William James' quest for a "moral equivalent of war." In serving the community, the young forge commonality; in acknowledging difference, they bridge division; and in assuming individual responsibility, they nurture social citizenship.

    If it is to serve democratic education, service learning must be a responsibility of everyone not just a requirement for the criminal or the needy. Teaching the young that white-collar felons or blue-collar loan seekers owe their country civic service while the well-off and wealthy do not is a poor way to inculcate the ideals of civic equality.

    Service is a universal entailment of what it means to live in and enjoy the rights of a free society. Loans for those who need them ought to be offered as a reciprocal right of good citizens, a consequence rather than a prerequisite of citizenship. This is the justification for the vital link the Corporation for National and Community Service has established between education vouchers and community service.

Commitment to Democracy
These four revisions of the mission of education, aside from their possible impact on democracy, potentially have a crucial political payoff: They make schools more relevant to the needs of society generally and more pertinent to the concerns of citizens without school-age children. They thus offer burdened taxpayers reasons why they should support the flow of tax dollars to education.

Polls show again and again that citizens object not so much to paying taxes but to the perceived lack of impact of the taxes they pay. They seek not so much lower tax rates but higher payoffs--better results. That our schools are committed not just to educating our children but preparing them to take responsibility for preserving and extending our democracy may make them look like a better bargain.

The rights and freedoms of all Americans depend on the survival of democracy. Only one road leads to democracy: Education. And in a democracy where freedom comes first, the first priority of education must be the apprenticeship of liberty. Tie every school reform to this principle, and not only education but democracy itself will flourish.

Benjamin Barber is the Whitman professor of political science at Rutgers University and director of the Walt Whitman Center for the Culture and Politics of Democracy, Hickman Hall, Douglass Campus, New Brunswick, N.J. 08901-1568. E-mail: bbarber@rci.rutgers.edu. He is the author of Jihad vs. McWorld and the just-published A Place for Us: How to Make Society Civil and Democracy Strong. This essay is adapted from earlier works by the author.