Education for Democracy: What’s In It For Me?


NOTE: This essay is the second 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.

In his State of the Union address for 2012, President Obama hailed our teachers, noting the tireless effort and self-sacrifice they devote to the education of our children. His nod to teachers was important at a time when many are feeling the effects of shrinking budgets, accusations of incompetence, and shifting expectations as one education reform fad leads to another. We have a lot to consider about education in this country as our public policy choices have yielded less than stellar results for nearly 40 years. That’s a long time to be failing. At times like this I go back to a rather basic question: What are we trying to achieve?

We hear a lot about global economic competitiveness and fears of falling test scores. Significant references are made to the need for job training to prepare highly skilled workers for a knowledge economy. Demands certainly are growing for greater efficiency and productivity in all our educational settings. This perspective was evidenced for me in a simple statement made by the president during his speech:

“We know a good teacher can increase the lifetime income of a classroom by over $250,000.”

I guess that’s the bottom-line now. I’m not sure how such a figure is derived, but what puzzled me more was the sense that our aims for educating the citizens of this nation seem to be focused entirely on personal economic outcomes. Is that what we are trying to achieve? At one level it makes sense given the financial pressures experienced through the Great Recession. Yet I wonder if our current focus on the obvious near-term need for jobs is imperiling our long-term future as a society. Is the tyranny of the urgent crowding out that which is most important to us? Given our rhetoric, one could easily draw the conclusion that the effectiveness of education should be measured by the growth in personal income. Is that the purpose of education?

Let’s go back to first principles and consider whether the purpose of education is a public good or a private good. This is, of course, a false dichotomy. Forcing the question, however, enables us to ponder the balances between individual success and collective well-being.

To explore this issue, I returned to the report of the President’s Commission on Higher Education published in 1947 as “Higher Education for American Democracy.” Known more commonly as the “Truman Report,” it reflects the earliest thinking about the role of education in a democracy in the modern era. The report states:

The first goal in education for democracy is the full, rounded, and continuing development of the person. The discovery, training, and utilization of individual talents is of fundamental importance in a free society. To liberate and perfect the intrinsic powers of every citizen is the central purpose of democracy, and its furtherance of individual self-realization is its greatest glory. (p.9)

Here we establish the importance of individual success. It is essential that a democratic society enables its citizens to unleash creativity, innovate relentlessly, and realize individual fulfillment and accomplishment. We benefit personally and society benefits collectively. So, isn’t it right to focus education on the economic success of individuals? Shouldn’t we assume personal achievement will automatically lead to collective well-being?

The report continues:

If our colleges and universities are to graduate individuals who have learned how to be free, they will have to concern themselves with the development of self-discipline and self-reliance, of ethical principles as a guide for conduct, of sensitivity to injustice and inequality, of insight into human motives and aspirations, of discriminating appreciation of a wide range of human values, of the spirit of democratic compromise and cooperation.

Responsibility for the development of these personal qualities cannot be left as heretofore to some courses or a few departments or scattered extracurricular organizations; it must become a part of every phase of college life. (p. 10)

Personal liberty is a core value deeply rooted in the lives of Americans. Yet, the writers of the “Truman Report” draw our attention to the role of citizenship in our society. Citizens find virtue in interpreting private gain in the context of the public good. Education plays a critical role in sustaining a democracy by modeling and reinforcing the need for us to work together and understand our journey as a people.

The report continues:

Higher education has always attempted to teach young people both spiritual and material values. The classroom has imparted the principle of collective responsibility for liberty – the rule that no one person’s right to freedom can be maintained unless all men [and women] work together to make secure the freedom of all.

But these efforts have not always been effective. All too often the benefits of education have been sought and used for personal and private profit, to the neglect of public and social service.  Yet individual freedom entails communal responsibility. The democratic way of life can endure only as private careers and social obligations are made to mesh, as personal ambition is reconciled with public responsibility. (p. 10)

The vision for education placed before our nation in the “Truman Report” 65 years ago was lofty. It was not a recipe for the creation of personal wealth. It was not a formula for national economic development. It was an assertion that a society rich with democratic values will yield shared success. Accordingly, the role of education is to facilitate the creation and dissemination of knowledge for the public good; to develop the skills needed among citizens for sustaining individual freedom and a collective well-being; and to nurture a shared experience sufficient for ensuring equality and justice. How have we done?

It seems we have a problem. Our vision for building this system of education held in its sights a set of ideals related to a healthy democracy. Despite the challenges of recovering economically from the Great Depression and the horrors of World War II, the focus of our previous generation of leaders was on sustaining the social fabric of this nation. They saw firsthand how badly things can go when a society loses its collective sense of purpose and direction.

Education for democracy is intended to transfer the collective well-being from generation to generation by strengthening the societal framework on which a healthy nation can build sustainable outcomes in growth and development. Decisions in this setting are made for the long-term benefit of a people rich in diversity, but committed to unity. Investments in the future are made at all levels knowing first and foremost that we work for our successors.

These ideals informed the development of our system of education in the 1940s. How did we move from education for democracy to education for personal income? Has our focus on testing and accountability advanced our collective purpose? Is education reform on the right track? More on this next time.

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10 responses to “Education for Democracy: What’s In It For Me?”

  1. Don Huffman says:

    In a sense, when we ask the question of what constitutes “education for democracy,” one might assume that there is actually one best or correct method for achieving this goals. Perhaps we should consider that this goal is in fact a “moving target” which changes with the current needs of the nation or society. There are times when economic considerations are most important. Any society that short-changes education by insufficient funding should expect to suffer the consequences of poor school buildings, poorly planned classrooms, lack of balanced library holdings, or underpaid faculty, etc. For this specific time it is likely that economic improvements/funding should receive prime consideration. In states or cities where public education is led by poorly trained administrators or faculty the prime goal must be to improve the quality of the staff and their training for their professions.
    In areas where athletics and other extracurricular activities thrive and academic considerations are neglected, it is important that changes be made to insure a healthy balance of these sometimes unbalanced programs.
    Most of us have witnessed these types of problems at one or another time in our professional lives.
    My recommendations for “education for democracy” would be for flexibility and priority focused on the areas that are currently most in need of changing.
    For example, in today’s education in China professional educators are convinced that their primary focus of increased funding and on academically demanding education is inevitably driving them toward a “more democratic” society.
    This seems to be correct, but the time may come when they must elect some other prime focus, such as increased attention elementary and secondary education for on the poor rural areas of their country, or perhaps to focus on education which improves the level of civil rights in their society.

  2. We have come a long way since the time of Truman. We know so much more about how the brain develops and how early relationships and trauma affect the brain. I hope that our view of education can include these neuropsychological findings (Dan Siegel, MD is a good resource) and that we strive to educate the whole person in terms of technical skills, relational skills, and mindfulness skills. If we focus just on training for job and economic gain, we do not help people function interpersonally and ethically. These latter functions have to do with developing neocortex functions and limbic and brain stem regulation. Some elementary schools are already having success by teaching these skills in terms of increased academic performance and social functioning.

  3. 1981 Grad says:

    The following quote from the post shows another reason why English needs to be delcared the official language of the US! Not requiring immigrants to learn English, deminishes all chances of the individual having an attitude of concern for communal resposnibility, not to mention the added cost to education! “But these efforts have not always been effective. All too often the benefits of education have been sought and used for personal and private profit, to the neglect of public and social service. Yet individual freedom entails communal responsibility. The democratic way of life can endure only as private careers and social obligations are made to mesh, as personal ambition is reconciled with public responsibility. (p. 10)”

  4. Andrew M. Thompson says:

    When it comes to education, money is the root of all concern. And yet, money doesn’t equal quality unless it’s accompanied by real accountability and standards, and the ability to be selective about faculty at whatever level of education. We count upon consumers to make choices in most every aspect of life, and the result is a cornucopia of choices, and yet, in primary and secondary education, we limit those choices, often to merely one choice: that school to which you’re assigned. So regardless of whether that school performs, the school is guaranteed certain resources. That doesn’t necessarily equate to the best outcome for students and parents, and as the customers, I believe that’s where our focus should lie. We want a liberal education for these children, in a safe environment that recognizes their individual strengths and weaknesses. We should have excellent teachers as much as possible, as that is the #1 factor in student outcomes. So we must have strict standards for evaluating our teachers, not merely limiting ourselves to seniority or the number of advanced degrees. And we should reward those who perform. Fundamentally, students, fellow teachers, principals, and parents are quite aware of those teachers who excel; let’s help empower them to create a more selective process. We owe that to our students and our country.

  5. Greg Garth says:

    As a 1978 Central College graduate, I have seen many things in my 34 plus years in education. If we are truly interested in democratic education, we need the decisions for education to be democratic. There have been many education decisions over the years by people who haven’t been in the trenches. They have been a disaster for students.

    If one wants true education reform it should begin with teacher education. One example would include a mandate that new teachers take at least one guidance counseling class. With more and more students coming to school with difficult backgrounds it is imperative that our new teachers be prepared in how to deal with them.

    I also find it amusing when districts across the country lower their expectations to have more individuals graduate. When schools adopt giving credit for not turning in work and allowing students multiple tries at assessments, students lose their internal motivation to learn and better themselves academically. In addition, this doesn’t prepare students for higher education. Sadly, many administrators across the land have bought in to this plan of educating children.

    Education has to be relished by the general public once again. Whether we want to admit it, there are more difficult students in our classrooms than ever before. Parenting and family support of education is a must and schools need to take the lead if parents can’t do the job. Believe it or not many good teachers leave our profession due to student behaviors. They have a passion to teach, not become social workers.

    Next year will be my last in education. I have cherished the ride. I find it sad that education is under attack from all angles. I believe it’s time to ask how did our views of educations get to the state it’s in today. It needs leaders that have a democratic vision that includes all in planning for what’s best for kids. They are our future and they need to be challenged because the world stage dictates it.

    A democratic land has people in it that are motivated inside to better themselves. They have high expectations and want outcomes for the better good of all. They know that there will be obstacles along the way. It is imperative that we get those principles back in the education discussion. However, education has become a political football and a numbers game.

    • Jennifer Giezendanner says:

      I know a young person who studied social work who then went into teaching. When her contract as a teacher expires, she will return to social work. Teaching young people is an often thankless job with little support from parents. Schools should be supported for their potential educational value, rather than as a daycare solution. Support from parents as well as the rest of society, not just financially, but morally, makes all the difference.

      • I can really relate to what you say Greg and Jennifer. As a psychologist, I work with children, teens and parents. I am often concerned about how our culture (its busyness, materialism, access to drugs, push towards sexualizing everything, and lack of connectedness) and the stress of parents affect the young. Schools are only a piece of the picture and are often unfairly expected to repair the havoc.

  6. Carolyn Wassenaar says:

    I agree that the purpose for education seems to be a moving target, but perhaps we’re confusing long term with shorter term goals or policy level ideals with implementation level practicalities. As a 1973 education graduate of Central College, I have carried with me the ideals and values of ‘the full, rounded, and continuing development of the person’ (p.9) who is then able to contribute and intelligently participate in a society that expects persons to engage in informed decision making. I value continued discourse about education that is not limited to schooling, but where schooling partcipates effectively in the development of the whole person–intellectually, physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. Embedded in the conversation is a commitment to continuous improvement for effective implementation as we explore how the spheres of family, school, government, and church appropriately fulfill their roles.
    I teach students–reading as a content area and a tool (skill). Although my goals contextually change, my ultimate purpose is the development of the whole person. Much easier said than done. . .

  7. Andrew M. Thompson says:

    I don’t believe anyone is “against” education. However, the introduction of unions into education took the emphasis away from a focus on the customers (students and parents) and put it on the needs and demands of the teachers unions. As with any area they’ve entered there was an original need for better pay and benefits perhaps, but over time this union influence has become a stranglehold and an obstacle to meaningful reform. My grandma taught for 37 years and had a nice retirement pre-union (and she was retired for 33 years!

    My wife has taught home school children, at a Catholic School, at the university level and now in the public schools. I’ll let you guess where she has encountered the most frustration. She does not want to be in the union, but is compelled to pay dues. She witnesses unfortunate and unprofessional behavior that goes uncorrected. She has had nails in her tires three times this past year. Tell me again this is all about educating our kids! We have major problems with education. We’re told it’s money, but I would assert that it’s not the money we get, but rather what we get for our money. We must insist upon real reform at the top and bottom. Yes society has changed, some for the better, and some for the worse. But given the millions (or billions) of dollars devoted to education, why does this decline persist? We’ve always been a nation of immigrants, but why has our education ranking worldwide fallen so swiftly? Do you think other nations have no immigration issues? We need real accountability, and the clock is ticking.

    • Carolyn Wassenaar says:

      Well-stated, Andrew–I also do not think anyone is ‘against’ education, but we as a community. . .society. . .nation need to figure out why the return on our investment continues to decline.