Democracy and Education

Years ago John Dewey wrote a book about the relationship between democracy and education, making the claim that the former relies upon the latter. Without an educated citizenry democracy cannot survive. I have been harping on the same theme for many years now and am saddened to say that Dewey was spot on. We are seeing his prediction come true, especially of late.

Thousands of qualified American citizens are ready to vote for a demagogue who has openly lied and insulted whole classes of people while making it abundantly clear that he is an autocrat in the mold of Vladamir Putin: he wants to (and thinks he can) run the show by himself. He doesn’t realize that as president he must work with the sitting Congress in order to achieve anything. Given his past performance it is fair to say that if the Congress doesn’t act as he would want them to he will try to bully them into doing so and (if he had his way) fire them if they don’t — like the generals he regards as incompetent. The extent of this man’s ignorance of this democracy which he wants to lead and how it is supposed to work beggers belief.

But the point is that so many of our fellow citizens are prepared to support him and are convinced that he is the only one who can deliver this nation from the depths to which he insists we have plunged. This, in itself, demonstrates the truth of Dewey’s thesis. Given all the indicators employed by a wide variety of disinterested parties, American education is failing and the numbers of those who plan to vote for a candidate supremely unfit for the office is clear indication of that very failure. I have written about this so many times it doesn’t bear repeating. But the truth, no matter how many times repeated, bears serious reflection.

Donald Trump would be America’s tyrant and take this country down a path that leads away from true human freedom, a path that an educated citizenry of a true democracy would avoid at all costs. Our government has already altered its form and now more nearly resembles an oligarchy than it does a republic. The wealthy in this country at present buy and sell politicians like toilet paper. The ordinary citizens, like you or like me, stand in line and vote once every four years for a candidate selected by wealthy corporate interests because they meet with their approval and will do their bidding. But even here intelligence is required to guarantee that the best qualified candidate wins the job.

There is no question the system is failing on all counts. At the roots of this failure is the fact (undeniable, though stoutly denied by many) that our education system fails to teach young people how to use their minds. The evidence is abundant as the trend in our schools has increasingly moved in the direction of job training and away from true education, know-how rather than know-why. Unless or until enough folks get worked up about this fact it will not change. Indeed, the trend will continue and demagogues like Donald Trump will continue to capture and hold America’s attention and even affection. Our democracy will be completely undone.

It all starts in the home before kids go to school. It then proceeds through the grades and into high school and college where increasingly parents and educators have allowed the students to dictate what they will learn and in doing so those parents and educators abandon their primary responsibility and weaken the structure of the political system that supports them. It is ironic, to be sure. But more to the point it is terribly sad.

Hard To Believe

A recent story from the newswires of CNN raises some deep and disturbing issues:

Administrators shut down 24 schools in Augusta County, Virginia, on Friday after a homework assignment on Islam drew fury from parents, CNN reported.

Cheryl LaPorte, a world geography teacher at Riverheads High School, assigned her students homework using a standard workbook on world religions that asked students to copy religious calligraphy.
The assignment read: “Here is the shahada, the Islamic statement of faith, written in Arabic. In the space below, try copying it by hand. This should give you an idea of the artistic complexity of calligraphy.”
The calligraphy translated to, “There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is the messenger of Allah,” according to CNN.
The assignment immediately drew ire from some parents who called for LaPorte’s firing for “violating children’s religious beliefs,” reported The News Leader, a local newspaper. The Virginia Department of Education reviewed the the assignment and found that it did not violate student rights.
The cancellation of school on Friday essentially started the district’s winter break early.
School administrators released a statement to parents saying that while there was no specific threat to students, schools were closed on Friday.
They cited a risk of harm to officials as the reason for the closure. “Some communications posed a risk of harm to school officials,” the school’s statement read, according to WHSV-TV, a local news station. “Others threatened significant protests on or near school property. Those communications are in the hands of the sheriff.”

The threats to teachers and administrators raises the greatest concern. We have truly become a nation of bigots and haters who see no reason not to threaten those who disagree with us. And, of course, there are those running for the highest office in this land who not only encourage this attitude, but give it strong impetus. One might feel these things, but it takes assurance from those around us to actually make those feelings public. And when those around us are led by a few who are regarded as smarter  (and more “successful”) than the rest of us, it becomes all too tempting to give vent to the most hateful feeling that are deep within us. And if this seems a bit of a stretch, please consider that Donald the Trumpet, for one, recently spoke with an interviewer about his relationship with Vladimir Putin whom he admires as a “strong leader” and responded to the question of whether he would approve the killing of journalists with the following dismissal: “He’s running his country and he’s a leader,” . . . Unlike what we have in this country.”

In any event, at a time when we need increased understanding of those who differ from us, the parents who shouted loudly at this class assignment were guaranteeing that they and their children would have little or nothing to do with the religion of Islam. “Don’t confuse me with the facts. My mind is made up.” This sort of attitude tells us many things, but above all else it shows what a difficult, if not impossible, job our teachers have in opening closed minds when the parents of their students resist strongly and threaten grievous bodily harm. It was wise to close the schools until tempers cool off. But the deeper problems will persist.