Public Education and the Left

The left does not address public education often enough.  When it does, the focus is on financial inequities, racial segregation, or the testing fetish.  These are critical issues, but there is another of even greater significance.  If tomorrow we were to abolish the tests, remove the inequities, and integrate the schools, the educational system itself would not be transformed as it needs to be.  A comprehensive revolutionary vision for American schools — an indispensable part of any such vision for the whole society — requires a radical change in the purpose of education.  Our explicit long-term goal should be a national curriculum whose centerpiece is education for democracy.  The point is to develop a citizenry possessing the social values, political behavior, and sense of community responsibility needed to build a democratic and egalitarian America.

Unfortunately, the left stopped promoting this vision of progressive education over fifty years ago.  Not accidentally, this coincided with the death of John Dewey, its most prominent advocate.  At the same time, McCarthyism was crushing the dream of Dewey and his colleagues to make democracy a reality by establishing a public school curriculum grounded in the daily social experience of young people.  The movement had peaked in the 1930s, when its “social reconstructionist” bloc advocated the use of the schools as instruments of transformation to socialism.  On a more realistic and conventional level, in 1940 the National Education Association issued a 475-page report entitled “Learning the Ways of Democracy,” which was filled with detailed case studies of schools across the country following that path.  After that time, however, it was all downhill as many educators with a fuzzy understanding of what “progressive” meant oversimplified and misapplied the concept, and as factionalism and repression took its toll.

It is time to revive and re-examine the ideas of progressive education, as indeed some educators have begun to do.  This is needed not least because the schools are headed in a diametrically opposite direction.  In his recent book, The Shame of the Nation, Jonathan Kozol describes how segregated ghetto schools have been used as laboratories for what he calls an “ordering regime” of schooling, employing a “rote and drill curriculum” based explicitly on military and corporate models.  “I had visited classes that resembled this in Cuba more than 20 years before,” he says, “but in the Cuban schools the students were allowed to question me. . . . What I saw in Cuban schools was certainly indoctrinational in its intent but could not rival [this] approach in its totalitarian effectiveness” (68).  His most frightening example concerns the widespread use of the “Zero Noise” salute to quiet a disorderly classroom: “[The teacher’s] arm shot out and up in a diagonal in front of him, his hand straight up, his fingers flat.  The young co-teacher did this too.  When they saw their teachers do this, all the children in the classroom did it too” (66).

Socialists thus need to focus more strongly on public education, and we need to fight for reforms within the broader context of a radical vision for the schools.  In that regard, we need not look abroad for models, as has become too much the fashion of late in other policy areas.  Rather, we can look “back to the future” in our own country — the progressive education movement in America — to find the ideas, values, and concrete examples that can inspire a truly democratic vision for our public schools in the twenty-first century.

Michael Engel is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Westfield State College.  His publications include The Struggle for Control of Public Education: Market Ideology vs. Democratic Values.  He lives in Easthampton, Massachusetts.

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