I am reluctant to use worn-out phrases like the one in today’s title. But I have used this one before and I want to expand on the ideas that lie behind it, especially as they relate to today’s educational plight.
When I first started college teaching back in the Dark Ages I taught logic at the University of Rhode Island. One of my tasks was to go from Kingston to Providence once a week to teach an adult extension course in logic to hard-working adults who were trying to get a college degree after work. On the way I picked up one of the students who was the Chief of the Jamestown Police and we had some interesting talks driving to Providence and back. He complained a number of times about the format of the New England Town Meetings where citizens met on a fairly regular basis and discussed and voted on the pressing issues of the day. His frustration usually centered around the fact that the people wanted such things as improved police and fire protection but they didn’t want to raise their taxes. In a word, they wanted to hear the tune the piper played, but they didn’t want to pay him.
We still do that on both a state and a national scale, don’t we? We want something for nothing: we want a good educational system but we don’t want to have to pay for it. In Wisconsin recently the citizens of that great state attempted to break up public employee unions on the grounds that it will save them tax money and at the same time they are outspoken in their criticism of the job the public employees do — especially the teachers. Give me a break! Are we really that stupid?
I think it was Churchill who said Democracy is the worst form of government — except for all the others. I gather that he was poking gentle fun at the folks who run around like the creatures in the caucus race in Wonderland trying to figure out how to make things work; Churchill knew that the process, while flawed, is the best humans have come up with. Plato preferred philosopher Kings, but there aren’t many of them around these days. And it’s not clear philosophers would make very good kings anyway!
But it is the case that a well-educated citizenry is of central importance to any democratic system. If the people are not well informed, how can they make intelligent choices? George Eliot dealt with this question in her brilliant novel Felix Holt, Radical at a time when England was struggling with the issue of extending suffrage. How can we expect people who know very little about the world around them, who are daily forced to work with their hands instead of their heads, to make informed decisions? Felix wrestles with this question throughout the novel, and it is a very important question. Our founding fathers wrestled with it as well and I am not sure we have answered it yet.
We had better figure out how to make it work, however, or future historians will conclude that our democracy was a failed experiment. Ours is not a pure democracy, of course, but it requires enlightened, well-educated legislators and leaders — and a citizenry educated well enough to separate the fraud from the friend. As stated, in any democracy the entire experiment hinges on an educated citizenry. Thomas Jefferson knew this, of course, which is why he founded the University of Virginia. If people are unwilling to spend money to have their young well enough educated to become informed voters in a democratic nation then the experiment will indeed have failed. We really must pay the piper.