Guest post: education, democracy and reform
To what end should we reform our public education system?
Education reform season is upon us once again, and not a moment too soon. America’s education statistics, or at least the meaningful ones, are overwhelmingly foreboding. For example, over one million students drop out of high school every year, and that number includes an approximately 50 percent dropout rate among urban schools.
This can only trouble you enough to be a cause for action if you believe that having an educated populace is a good for democratic societies (either in itself or insofar as it contributes to our economic competitiveness or political stability), but I will assume that the majority of us do.
Downward trends in education will probably rankle you further if you believe that it is somehow the responsibility of one’s government to provide this good. This belief is often supported by the thought that a well-educated populace is an indispensable part of a healthy democratic society. But is it?
The existence of a taxpayer funded public education system can be predicated on at least two main arguments: one ethical, one instrumental. The ethical argument runs something like the following. Receiving an education is a right (however we understand the notion of a right) held by all citizens, whether by virtue of their membership in the political community or simply because they are human beings.
If education is a right, it seems that a person would get less than what she deserves (i.e. what is rightfully hers) when she is bereft of an education. And since the government’s primary function is to guarantee the rights of the governed, it follows that the government ought to prevent such situations in the surest way possible-by providing an education to the governed directly.
Many find this argument compelling in one guise or another, but the instrumental argument is likely to have an even broader appeal in pluralistic societies like ours. One version of the instrumental argument is encapsulated by Edward Everett’s well-known quote, “education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army.” The basic point here is simple. The threat to liberty in a given society is found inside rather than outside its borders, and a well-educated society is less susceptible to this threat.
There are some missing premises here. The first is that an uneducated populace is a mere rabble, an unruly mob, or so the thinking goes. And it is a persistent feature of rabbles that they are fickle, susceptible to flattery and fear mongering, and easily swayed by informal fallacies.
These features make such a society particularly likely to collapse into tyranny, totalitarianism, or general ruin. This is because this society has full authority to support whatever policies and public officials it chooses (being democratically governed) while lacking the intellectual competence to avoid supporting policies that are against the interest of its members or that will result in their loss of liberty (being a rabble). On the assumption that occasional internal threats to a society’s wellbeing and liberty are inevitable, either from charismatic but malevolent leaders or from the whims of the rabble itself, this society will eventually give way.
An educated populace, on the other hand, is thought to be less susceptible to these misfortunes. Knowing how to spot bad arguments and being generally unconvinced by such arguments, an educated society is less likely to be duped into surrendering its liberties or following ruinous courses of action. Therefore, insofar as it is in a society’s best interest to take measures that safeguard its liberties, it is in a society’s best interest to educate its members.
The more visible version of the instrumental argument in today’s debate concerns economic competitiveness. According to this argument, a country can only remain competitive in a globalized information economy with a highly educated workforce. This argument, however, rests on the controversial assumption that it is the government’s responsibility to take an active role in ensuring economic competitiveness.
By contrast, the version of the argument we have been considering rests on a presumably less controversial assumption that it is the government’s responsibility to safeguard the liberty of the governed, though one could argue that economic prosperity, liberty, and political stability are interwoven.
To what extent is Everett’s quip a truth?
Is it really the case that educating a person makes them more likely to support wise and liberty-preserving policies (and for the right reasons) as opposed to unwise and liberty-violating policies? If contemporary research in psychology were to demonstrate that the well-documented effects of groupthink and systemic irrationality are largely responsible for our shortcomings as citizens, and that these shortcomings are features of human reasoning irrespective of one’s level of education, would this be grounds for rejecting the central premises of the instrumental argument?
Should we then say that being a rabble has little to do with being uneducated?
Perhaps not, but we should give more thoughtful consideration to just how education contributes to the political wellbeing of a society and what kind of education is best suited to do this. The answer we give to these questions may well guide this country’s much needed reform efforts.
Alex Langlinais is a doctoral student in philosophy at the University of Chicago.