Barack Obama and the Fight for Public Education

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Summer 2009

Source: Harvard Educational Review. Vol. 79, Iss. 2; pg. 385-396. (Summer 2009).
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

In this article, the author calls for a more vital and effective public education system, one guided by the basic democratic principle that all human beings are equal. He argues that to achieve such a system we must reclaim schools from the industrial model of the twentieth century and build classrooms that respond to the broad and complex needs of the actual students who arrive at the schoolhouse door.

Organizing and Changing the Education Framework

In a robust and functional democracy, we would expect schools to reflect the principle that the fullest development of all is the necessary condition for the full development of each, and, conversely, the fullest development of each is necessary for the full development of all.
This expectation has huge implications for educational policy: racial segregation is wrong, class separation unjust, disparate funding immoral. This savage inequality offends the foundational idea that each person is equal and reflects instead the reactionary idea that some of us are more deserving and more valuable than others. A foundational belief in the value of every human is also belied by current "reform" - closing schools, privatizing the public space, testing children relentlessly.


Returning to Education for the People, by the People

The author believes that we should focus our collective efforts on schooling for a participatory democracy, on the production of fully developed human beings who are capable of controlling and transforming their own lives, the development of citizens who can participate fully in our shared public life. Democracies require students to think for themselves, to make judgments based on evidence and argument, to develop minds of their own. We must refuse obedience in favor of teaching initiative, courage, imagination, creativity, and more. These are the qualities to be modeled and nourished, encouraged and defended.

Education in a democracy challenges and reframes all of that: there is space for a curriculum of questioning, for a curriculum of doing and making, for a curriculum of learning from the world, not simply about the world. In classrooms, students would learn - through inquiry, experimentation, invention, and play - the value of empathy, of openness, of dialogue and conversation, of documentation. Classrooms would become galleries and exhibition halls, stages and studios, laboratories and libraries and performance spaces.

The most fundamental purpose of public schooling in a democracy - rather than loyalty to the state or fealty to job training - is teaching citizens to think about the issues that affect their lives and how they might be otherwise. Pressure from government to make schools little outposts of patriotism or from business to align the goals of education with the needs of corporations jeopardizes the democratic foundations of education.

The author calls on each of us to promote an alternative discourse as we simultaneously challenge and assist the Obama administration in envisioning and creating schools that more authentically reflect the ideals of a democracy.

Updated: Sep. 14, 2009
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