Public schools: a compromise between the ideals of democracy and the ideals of education

Critics of the public schools do not understand the original nature of public school education, that which was at its beginnings a compromise between the ideals of democracy and the ideals of education. And that this compromise was always heavily weighted in favor of democracy, that which is evidenced by the large place in our public schools given to “democratic” activities, such as sports, band, the lunch room and locker corridor, the student assemblies.

Classrooms, the places of education, were clearly elitest. The best roles here were always given to the best and the brightest. Student majorities in the subject matter classrooms were always left out, always took second place to the work or a small and talented few. The so-called failure of the schools is just that, the failure of learning to ever be democratic. It couln’t be otherwise. Activities such as problem solving, essay writing, reading history and science, and foreign language learning had to be for a few.

The critics of the schools don’t seem to recognize that public education was necessarily flawed by the fact that it was meant to be for literally everyone. That of course couldn’t be.

Probably the original limitations of a truly democratic school were never properly spelled out. Probably because of the enthusiasm of the originators, those who would create, for the very first time, free public education for all. Indeed, why would those innovators want to accompany the magnificent thing they were doing with a serious question as to its actual possibilities? No more than the freeing of the slaves or the serfs needed to be accompanied by a statement that in fact their new freedom was not without serious flaws.

The result is that the schools were and are still not seen as what they always were, an attempt to educate all the citizens of the commonweath with the inevitable watering down of the quality of education that resulted.  Perhaps if the limitations of our public schools were fully understood we would then be closer than ever before to realizing the real possiblities that do remain in the original compromise.

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