Education for Democracy: Back to the Future


NOTE: This essay is the first in a series focused on education reform. Federal, state and local governments currently are contemplating policy and funding changes for education at all levels. These essays are intended to provide some context for these discussions.

The curse of every generation is a loss of memory. The committee reports, task force results and plans of the past are too often overtaken by events and gradually drift from our collective consciousness. We look at the circumstances of today without any appreciation for the origins of what surrounds us. Were our predecessors unaware of the results of their actions? Were their deliberations and decisions reached in a vacuum? What were they thinking?

It’s an easy trap. Today we look at our schools and colleges through the lens of “now” without any appreciation for the lens of “then.” And so it is with education reform. The rhetoric of the day is frightening. If we accept the claims of policy makers in the present, then we are witnessing mass societal failure in educating our students. We are a Nation at Risk that is Academically Adrift as we Decline by Degrees. As a result, we are told we need dramatic change so No Child is Left Behind as we Race to the Top.

Recently, I have been interested in exploring the origins of our approach to education as a nation. Rediscovering the roots of our system has been enlightening for me. I set out to find the error of our ways – to see where we got off track. The revelation for me is that as a nation we have misunderstood the problem. As we focused our attention on the means, we lost sight of our intended end: a strong and stable democracy. That was the real aspiration. We have taken our ideals about the purposes of education and exchanged them for something much less profound.

I found these origins of our purpose in The Truman Report. This is where the system of education as we know it today was imagined. They were intentions quite different than today’s aspirations. In my view, there is an enormous disconnect between what we as a nation set out to do more 65 years ago and our apparent dissatisfaction with the results.

Go back with me to 1946. President Harry S. Truman was leading our country at a time when the wounds of war and the pain of economic collapse were still raw. The GI Bill was adopted in 1944 to accommodate returning veterans and the United Nations was in its infancy. Fears of totalitarianism were pronounced, and global cooperation was high on the agenda. Yet this was a decade before the Russian satellite, Sputnik, circled the globe exacerbating “Cold War” tensions, and several years before the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision began reshaping our expectations regarding equality. It was a time of immense societal change complicated significantly by a changing global landscape.

Into this swirling context, President Truman appointed the first presidential commission to focus on education. He was clearly motivated by the needs of veterans returning from World War II, but his charge also included a much broader agenda for the nation. In his letter of appointment to the commissioners, the President noted,

“It seems particularly important, therefore, that we should now reexamine our system of higher education in terms of its objectives, methods, and facilities; and in the light of the social role it has to play.

“These matters are of such far-reaching national importance that I have decided to appoint a Presidential Commission on Higher Education. This Commission will be composed of outstanding civic and educational leaders and will be charged with an examination of the functions of higher education in our democracy and of the means by which they can best be performed…

“Among the more specific questions with which I hope the Commission will concern itself are: ways and means of expanding educational opportunities for all able young people; the adequacy of curricula, particularly in the fields of international affairs and social understanding; the desirability of establishing a series of intermediate technical institutes; the financial structure of higher education with particular reference to the requirements for the rapid expansion of physical facilities…”

This was a seminal moment not only for higher education, but also for our entire education system. The report of this Commission, chaired by George F. Zook, was entitled Higher Education for American Democracy (1947). The full report in six volumes outlines an agenda for education that is the origin of the system we have today. These are the minutes of the first meeting regarding education in the modern era. Sometimes it reads like prophecy.

The opening words of the report call our attention to the fundamental reasons for education. We would do well to ponder these words for they will reshape our thinking about what we are trying to achieve.

“American society is a democracy: that is, its folkways and institutions, its arts and sciences and religions are based on the principle of equal freedom and equal rights for all its members, regardless of race, faith, sex, occupation, or economic status. The law of the land, providing equal justice for the poor as well as the rich, for the weak as well as the strong, is one instrument by which a democratic society establishes, maintains, and protects this equality among different persons and groups. The other instrument is education, which, as all the leaders in the making of democracy have pointed out again and again, is necessary to give effect to the equality prescribed by law.” (p. 5)

Would we place education at a level on par with the rule of law? Is education a public good or a private good? We will explore these topics in subsequent discussions.

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15 responses to “Education for Democracy: Back to the Future”

  1. Stuart J. Blauw (Class of '51) says:

    I appreciate the insights published by by Dr.Putnam. Even though I am a graduate of long ago, it is refreshing to read the ideas and philosophy of the president of my beloved alma mater.

    Stuart (Stu) Blauw ’54

  2. Stuart J. Blauw (Class of '51) says:

    I appreciate the insights published by by Dr.Putnam. Even though I am a graduate of long ago, it is refreshing to read the ideas and philosophy of the president of my beloved alma mater.

    Stuart (Stu) Blauw ’54.
    P.S. sorry it should read ’51. My seminary graduation was in ’54

  3. You are addressing a topic of considerable interest to many Central Grads. I graduated from Central with a teaching degree, taught for a few years, completed a master’s in education and coordinated serices for students with disabilities at the UI for twelve years, then graduated from the UI law school and for some time have practiced primarily in the area of education and special education law. My special education law blog is published at

  4. Dwight Baker says:

    The word Democracy or a form of it appears in this essay no less than 6 times. America was never envisioned to be a pure Democracy, but rather a Representative Democracy or Republic. I disagree with the comment that the intended end of education is ‘a strong and stable democracy’. In 1947, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote an excellent essay on the purpose of education:

    The Purpose Of Education

    by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,
    Morehouse College Student Paper, The Maroon Tiger

  5. 1981 Grad says:

    Do any educational instutitions concern themselves with preserving our democracy? It seems most univerities these days (Central included) are more concerned about producing “global citizens” and do not care about our democracy, in fact it appears they don’t like democracy and want to see it fail. I fear we won’t have to wait too long and they will have succeeded!

    • I’m not sure what you mean 1981 grad. To me a representative government needs its citizens to be informed about global affairs and able to think critically. From MLK: “Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.” I think that the greatest danger to our current government is the degree to which money and those in power control politics and propagandize us. Truman appears to promote the idea that everyone should be taught to work and to think critically so that all can participate in “democracy.”

  6. Andrew M. Thompson says:

    When asked what the Constitutional Convention had produced by an interested lady, Benjamin Franklin responded, “A Republic, Madam, if you can keep it!”

    We may lose our republic unless we get a grasp on government and its out of control spending. Government does not exist to employ people; rather it exists to deliver those needed functions our founders envisioned, and certainly some they didn’t.

    As we have unionized the operations of government, government has become a vehicle for the aspirations of those special interests rather than governments’ customer, the taxpayer.

    As Greece has shown, and France has demonstrated for years, those special interests, and the employees they represent, are an obstacle to needed reform and fiscal responsibility.

    Lofty ideas about the purpose of education are important; having the federal government take a larger role was never intended by our founders. This was to be a local and state function, directed by those closest to the people.

    Yes, education is vitally important. I’m the grandson, son and husband of public school teachers. But with our country ranked 26th in the world in terms of educational results, we are in a deep world of hurt. People are coalescing around the need for real school choice and reform, whether they are Democrats or Republicans. Whether the special interests (unions) will continue to thwart that reform remains to be seen. We are all “Waiting for Superman.” I’d suggest you review that movie, and view it as a metaphor for all that faces us as a Republic.

  7. Ronald Fadness ('87) says:

    As a local school board member and a parent, I have closely followed the recent discussions of school reform, particularly in Iowa. I look forward to future essays, and would welcome the thoughts of Education faculty as well.

    I found the letter appointing the Truman commission interesting in it’s charge to explore the expansion of educational opportunities “for all able young people.”

    Amidst proclamations of decline and dire predictions for the future, it must be remembered that today’s charge is much greater than that issued by Truman. Schools are now charged with educating every student to an optimum degree of acheivment, including many who were not even in the school population until recent times. Much of today’s “crisis” arises from that additional task.

  8. A thought from Isaac Asimov–“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”

    • Don Huffman says:

      I appreciated seeing both of your responses to comments regarding education in the United States. One of my geneticist friends,Theodosus Dobzhansky [a defector from Russia in the 1930s] stated in a discussion at Central College in 1975 that he felt that anti-intellectualism was likely the prime evil in the United States. He was speaking as one who left Lysenko and the U.S.S.R government which he felt suffered from the same problem, and possibly even more so.
      To a great extent, all of us, especially those of us in educational positions have the responsibility of opposing antiintellectualism. How to do this may be difficult to know in every situation, but without it our educational systems will fail to achieve their goals.

  9. Matt Waldren says:

    “The education of all children, from the moment that they can get along without a mother’s care, shall be in state institutions.”
    ― Karl Marx
    It is because the government runs the education system that the majority of citizens do not even know what type of government in which we live. We are a Representative Republic not a democracy.

    • You are technically correct Matt, but I don’t think the problem is that the government runs the education system. The word democracy is thrown around casually and loosely as a way to describe to the world the power of people being able to vote. You should see what some home-schooled kids think!

  10. David Kosmicki says:

    In the movie “Idiocrasy”, the crops are all watered with gatorade because everyone knows (from the commercials) that electolytes are good. Any unscrupulous self interest(domestic or foreign)finds the ignorant easy prey. Education is clearly in the interest of national security. We need to stop quibbling over semantics and jurisdiction. Education should be available to all who are able. There are many benefits to a nation whose plumbers can quote Shakespeare.

  11. Andrew M. Thompson says:

    Lois: If you check the record, most every year the national spelling bee is won by a home-school student, often from an immigrant family. Putting that aside, we are asked to provide “public education.” We are educating the public, but that doesn’t require that they be run by the government. We should enable parents to select that school which best meets their children’s needs. That could be a wide array of choices, but it is that very choice that ensure the accountability we all seek in education.

    Monopolies fail long term because, like a baseball team that never has a real game, they aren’t likely to continuously improve without real competition. Leaving education up to a monopoly is destined to lead to failure as well.