President's Corner

Democracy’s Forge: American Public Schools

by Randall H. Collins

I often wonder whether we truly appreciate our mission. We all know our public schools were founded to inculcate the next generation with the values and the will to continue this great republic. However, do we truly realize the hidden treasure we have in our public schools? Do we grasp the importance of the work we do each day — indeed, our calling? Do we appreciate the mission and the role our schools play in our great democracy?

Without an educated citizenry, we cannot continue to survive as a free country. Public schools are truly democracy’s forge from which each new generation of Americans is wrought.

I have had the opportunity to host several education delegations from the People’s Republic of China. I learned much from each group and gained a more global perspective of how others see us. Without exception, the most pressing question from every Chinese guest was, “How do you instill independence, creativity and optimism in your students?” What they were asking is “How do you create the American spirit?”

I realize no simple answer exists and that it’s the combination of many things, but each of these virtues — independence, creativity and optimism — are inherent in the American public school. This is the hidden treasure of which I speak.

Noted political scientist Benjamin Barber wrote in the May 1998 issue of The School Administrator that public schools aren’t important just because they serve the public “but because they establish us as a public.” When I was growing up, that was true. It was the schools that taught us to become principled citizens. It was the schools that encouraged our involvement in our communities and taught us to care, to be patriotic and to serve the common good.

Have we lost sight of that mission? In our quest for change in the schools, have we weakened the foundations that have worked so well for so many of us for so long?

When I was in school, woven in among the reading, writing and arithmetic were the lessons of democracy. I was encouraged to know my rights and to question things that seemed wrong. I was taught that civil disobedience was the catalyst of liberty. I was encouraged never to accept inequity. I learned the lessons of history that spoke of the price of freedom, the importance of courage and the necessity of compassion and forgiveness.

The public schools in America reflect America itself, all that is good and all that is lacking. While we strive to achieve these successes and break the mold of our 19th-century education model, we must preserve those tenets of civic education that have served us so well.

As superintendents, we can set the tone in each of our systems that will guarantee these tenets are not lost. Our voice, at every opportunity, should be the first to speak to this goal. We must ensure civic education is an inseparable part of the curriculum. We can review our social studies curriculum to be certain its overarching concepts include the fundamentals of a democratic society and that in each grade our students’ understanding of these concepts grows.

Our schools must bring these concepts to life with programs such as service learning, Youth in Government, mock trials and voter registration, to name a few. These will provide a way for our teachers to once again weave lessons of democracy into the curriculum. Nowhere are American public schools mo re appropriately celebrated for their role in democracy and citizenship than in the DVD Liberty’s ApprenticePublic Schools, the Bedrock of Democracy, created by our friends at Farmers Insurance. This should be required viewing for every public school administrator.

There is no better time than now for us to commit our energies, our influence and our enthusiasm to making sure that the promise of American education supports the values on which our great nation was founded. As educators, we not only are important to the survival of our democracy, we are critical.

Randall Collins is AASA president in 2008-09. E-mail: