What Kind of Education Is Required in a Democracy?

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Mr. Palaima is Dickson Centennial Professor of Classics at UT-Austin.

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My friend Robert Ivie up at Indiana University offers a course in rhetorical theory called Democratic Deliberation. Its Web site - www.indiana.edu/~ivieweb/deliberative.htm - is worth visiting simply for its choice selection of quotations about democracy.

George Bernard Shaw, as we might expect, was drily ironic: "Democracy is a device that ensures we shall be governed no better than we deserve." H.L. Mencken was wickedly pragmatic: "Only a country that is rich and safe can afford to be a democracy." Winston Churchill uses a delicious turn of phrase to make a point that Aristotle made almost 2,300 years earlier, namely that democracy is not perfect, but other forms of government could be much worse: ". . . democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." And Reinhold Niebuhr is moral and cynical: "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary."

The trouble is, all of them are right.

And so are those thinkers whose take on democracy is most forthrightly anti-democratic, like Thomas Macaulay, who said: "I have long been convinced that institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty or civilization, or both"; and Alexander Hamilton, who claimed "Our real disease is democracy."

I have been thinking about democracy because I have been reading for review my friend Paul Woodruff's latest thoughtful meditation on ancient Greek culture, First Democracy. Woodruff is director of the Plan II Honors Program at University of Texas at Austin and a deeply ethical and engaged citizen scholar. His last book, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue gave us lessons for how to renew the principle of reverence in all aspects of our lives.

In First Democracy, Woodruff explores the wonderful experiment that Athenian democracy was during the nearly three centuries in which it evolved and then existed. One of his main points is that true democracy has never been realized. Even those who live in a democracy have failed to live up to its full challenges and possibilities, because of fear, distrust, lack of nerve, lack of will, apathy, self-interest, hunger for personal power and other reasons.

Woodruff's book is so plainly written and so deep in its implications for our lives that I have found myself frozen in thought and counter-thought about its many perspectives. It has also made me see clearly what is at stake in the topic intellectualism, inside and outside the university.

One major point is clear. Democracy depends on what the ancient Greeks called paideia. This word is often translated as "education," but, as you might expect from my other columns about ancient Greek ideas and realities, this word needs lots of nuancing. In its root sense, it means something like "the process of child-ing" - i.e., all that goes into making sure that a newborn baby will mature into an adult with the abilities of mind, moral sensibilities, self-discipline, habits, sense of cultural history and tradition, and intellectual skills that a member of a society should possess. It is, then, a flexible tool. The regimented, oligarchic-socialist Spartan state practiced one form of paideia. The radically democratic Athenians could and should have used quite another.

The Greeks meant something much different by "education" than we do. Just as they would not recognize our virulent strain of "government-bashing" - ironically, promoted by the government's leaders - or the notion that government is an entity separate from ourselves, so, too, they would find unimaginable how we discuss our "educational system" as something that we can blame others for getting it wrong. And they would find current proposals for improving this system, such as accountability through overloads of standardized testing, counter to what paideia is supposed to achieve.

So it is easy for us to misunderstand what it takes in the way of education, or we might call it preparation or even nurturing, for citizens to make democracy work. Proper democratic paideia incorporates respectful habits of mind and behavior, the ability to speak clearly and persuasively and listen respectfully in public forums, and a commitment to hard work. It takes dedication to the common good and a corresponding willingness to sacrifice personal desires.

Intellectualism is important, too, but it is of a kind that I find mostly missing inside and outside our institutions of education, lower and higher. More about that another time. In the meantime, please think and talk about what you think education should be to make our democracy work, or work again.

Two last thoughts. Woodruff maintains that democracy is messy, but worth the mess. And Alexander Hamilton, to return to Bob Ivie's Web site, thought that "ancient democracies, in which the people themselves deliberated, never possessed one feature of good government." One of them is dead wrong. Guess who?

This article was first published by the Austin American-Statesman and is reprinted with permission.

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Thomas W Hagedorn - 5/5/2005

My comments on this subject have to be restricted pretty much to the early republic and antebellum periods, which most historians acknowledge is the era when the concept of a public school - open to all (whites), paid for totally by the state, supervised by the state, involving significant amounts of time in school, became a reality in New England, the middle states and the Old Northwest. Your mention of Mann and Massachusettts is squarely in the heart of the current historiography. Yet, in 1837, Rev. Samuel Lewis, a Methodist minister who was raised as a Calvinist became the first state superintendent of schools in Ohio. Other ministers were early state superintendents in Michigan (Rev. John Pierce), Kentucky (Rev. John Breckinridge)and Indiana (Rev. Caleb Mills) and ministers and devout lay people were critical in Illinois' drive for public education. These folks had their own networks, and they did not include the easterners and Mann. And as ministers, mostly Calvinist, they certainly did not want to secularize education. Mann fits into a grand narrative of an increasingly secular America, but I think that narrative is flawed when you look at the social and cultural impact of the 2nd Great Awakening on education and other reform movements of this period.

I agree that there was a lessening of religion in the curriculum and texts from colonial days, but if you read the writings of some of the above leaders and look at the texts used by the students, which by and large WERE the curriculum (books were read, sections were memorized and recited in front of the class - see McGuffey's readers), moral education was the primary goal of education, the intellectual and civic aspects were secondary. In fact, when one looks at some of the annual addresses of governors of the Old Northwest states in this period, you read the same language.

Don Adams - 5/5/2005

There is no denying that religion played a prominent role in education early in American history, but to say that it was the primary purpose of education is saying too much. You refer to the first systems of public education, "especially in the Old Northwest," but these were hardly the first or most telling examples of public education in America. The white population of Calfornia in 1848 was less than 5,000, so even to the extent that its schools were dominated by Calvinists -- and I will defer to you on this point, because I simply do not know -- it tells us little about the state of education early in American history.

As for New England, while colonial-era education clearly had religious overtones (even beyond its purely moral aspects, literacy itself was seen as important primarily as a means of accessing scripture), things changed significantly after the revolution. Several signs are telling. As one small indicator, as Daniel Boorstin has noted, the alphabet, which had always been described as running from "Adam to Zaccheus," changed to "Apple to Zany." More significantly, the New England Primer, the primary reader of Puritan New England, was replaced early in the 19th century by Noah Webster's textbooks. Whatever his religious beliefs, Websters's scholastic endeavors were explicitly dedicated to the creation of a distinct and durable American civic culture.

Perhaps most telling of all is the work of Horace Mann, who became superintendent of Massachusset's school system in 1837. Mann was clear about the purpose of education. He called it "the great equalizer in the condition of man," and "the balance wheel of social machinery." To him, education was about the maintenance of social order and the fostering of prosperity in an increasingly urbanized and industrialized nation. Morals were a part of his ideology -- he wrote "Let the common school be expanded to its capabilities...and nine-tenths of the crimes in the penal code would become obsolete" --but religious education in the old Puritan sense was not.

Again, I acknowledge that religion was a prominent influence on colonial education, but there is good reason to argue that this changed after the revolution. Even beyond the philosophizing of men such as Benjamin Rush or Thomas Jefferson, there are clear signs that the increasingly standardized system of education in early American history had moved away from religion and towards a civic-minded curriculum.

Arnold Shcherban - 5/4/2005

No matter whether your education is based in religious kind of morality or in pure culture and science, until the societal structures remain amoral and unjust, until
powerful and rich perpetually celebrate victory over weaker and poorer, regardless of the morality balance,
the overwhelming majority of the students will be forced to abandon learned moral imperatives by life itself...
However, I end this with what I started: the school education, as well as all education, has to be SCIENTIFIC;
then only it has a fair chance to become truly moral!

Thomas W Hagedorn - 5/4/2005

Monographs and textbooks in educational history typically focus on the ideology and plans of Rush, Jefferson, Franklin and Webster. Yet if you look at the first systems of public education, especially in the Old Northwest, Oregon and California, you find a hegemony of Calvinists, almost always Calvinist ministers (Congregational and Presbyterian), devout lay people or ministers that were raised as Calvinists in New England. Their overrepresentation in the leadership is really quite astounding. Their documented intentions and the first schools show that their first goal for education was the moral education of the child, using a pan-Protestant approach in the curriculum, including Bible reading. The intellectual aspects of education were considered important, but secondary to the aim of saving souls. The civic purpose was very important to them and the community, but, as Protestant ministers, this too was secondary to the religious purpose. This might seem out of place to our 21st century minds, but sometimes history just doesn't want to behave. Rush was a great man, somewhat eclectic and interested in many things, but I don't think he had much influence on early education. The Scottish evangelical philoshers were read and taught at Yale and Princeton in a systematic way and most of the push for free public schools came through those colleges.

Don Adams - 5/4/2005

An interesting source which speaks to the apparent tension between faith and reason in the early years of the nation is Benjamin Rush's 1786 work "Thoughts Upon the Mode of Education Proper in a Republic." On the one hand, he states quite clearly that "...the only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in Religion. Without this, there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments."

On the other hand, while he does recommend Christianity as the proper religion for public education, he is not dogmatic about it: "Such is my veneration for every religion that reveals the atributes of the Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments, that I had rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mohammed inculcated upon our youth that see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles." The point, then, is that neither Christianity in particular nor religion in general was the end of education, but rather the means. It was to instill the virtue and morality necessary in a self-governing population.

Even more to the point, Rush makes clear that his proposed system of education was designed to foster reason and service to the state, not theocracy. Schools were to be "nurseries of wise and good men" who understood that "government, like all other sciences, is of a progressive nature. The chains which have bound this science in Europe are happily unloosed in America. Here it is open to investigation and improvement...I conceive that it is possible to analyze and combine power in such a manner as not only to increase the happiness, but to promote the duration of republican forms of government far beyond the terms limited for them by history or the common opinions of mankind..."

Rush was obviously not the spokesman for all Americans, and not everyone would have agreed with him. Nevertheless, he was among the most influential thinkers of his day, and his essay serves as a useful guide to one prominent line of thought in the early years of our nation.

Thomas W Hagedorn - 5/4/2005

No doubt, Jefferson was very interested in education. His efforts for public schools were pretty ineffective for the Commonwealth of Virginia and that is when he turned his attention towards what would become the University of Virginia. One reason for his failure was his insistence on a more secular brand of education than that preferred by the ministers of the day. (See Cameron Addis, Jefferson's Vision for Education - Peter Lang, 2003)

Ironically, even UVA took a religious turn after his death. By the 1840's Rev. Wm. Holmes McGuffey, the prolific author of pietistic readers, moved to UVA, conducted revivals and sybolically helped overturn Jefferson's secular aims for UVA. (Addis gives a good account of this as well)

Concerning the Enlightenment, I guess I lean on Henry May's Enlightenment in America. May describes 4 very different flavors of the Enlightenment. Both May and Mark Noll (America's God) make a case for the Didactic Enlightenment (May's term)/ Scottish Common Sense Realism or the Evangelical Enlightenment (Noll's terms) as the philosophy that dominated American thought from the revolution up to the Civil War. Scottish common sense married faith with reason and was quite adamantly opposed to the more secular or radical Enlightenments (Voltaire/Roussea/Paine/Jefferson/Hume). I think it is important to differentiate between these very different strains of the Enlightenment. When they are fused into one, it is very easy to assume that Enlightenment = Skepticism or Reason alone and that simply was not the case for Scottish common sense. I have found in the field of Education History that this fusion is pretty much the norm, with often less than desirable results.

Oscar Chamberlain - 5/4/2005

"The followers of the Philosophes are nowhere to be found where the rubber meets the road in the tough work of building the foundation for our educational system."

I can't say if this is proof that you are wrong, or the exception that proves the rule, but in Jefferson's first term a committee was set up to provide for schooling for children in the new District of Columbia. Jefferson headed that committee.

The committee is also a reminded of how intimate early Washington was. There was at least one Federalist judge--whose name escapes me for the moment, darn it--on it, too.

One further thought. You are correct that religious motivation was critical to the building of early public school systems in the United States. However, Puritans and their descendants were also touched by the Enlightenment. That's very clear in the case of John Adams.

Thomas W Hagedorn - 5/3/2005

I find little to disagree with in your statement, especially in your definition of progress. I highlighted your use of the word because in the educational history literature (as practiced about 50/50 by educationists and American historians) they seem to use a rational Enlightenment definition of "progress" that elevates faith above reason, or eliminates the utility of faith altogether. I'm not a very sophisticated philosopher, but I think one of the great advances for mankind was the movement away from Scholasticism and the turn (Bacon's?) toward empirical ways of knowing the world to try to improve the human condition instead of simply justifying the existing order of things.

I am a writer, but I have enough contact with the academy that I think scholars should always be careful not to so easily fall into defending orthodox positions. That would be a movement back towards Scholastisicm. The plethora of specialties, the relatively small number of graduate advisers, the insularity of the college environment all seem to make this a threat to "progress".

My particular use of ideology, ideas and philosophy is to write about their impact in American history - at the moment from the period after the founding and up to the Civil War. My approach has been to work backwards. To look at the ideas that predominated,to examine how those ideas were spread and to then study those men who generated them. In the era of the 2nd Great Awakening, realative to education I have found that the people to study are Luther, Melanchton, Calvin, Knox, Thomas Reid, Frances Hutchison, and Adam Smith in Europe and Timothy Dwight, Samuel Stanhope Smith and Lyman Beecher in America. The intellectual descendants and students of these folks started the first public schools and the vast majority of the colleges founded in the era.

The followers of the Philosophes are nowhere to be found where the rubber meets the road in the tough work of building the foundation for our educational system.

Of course, the study of ideas for their own sake, or their possible application or consideration today is a very valid thing to do. For my purposes, to try to search for historic ideological sources of important social movements, I need to study ideas that I can argue changed the course of history. Scottish common sense realism, which worked out a "truce" between faith and reason, ruled the schools and universities between the 1790's and 1860's. (For that matter it dominated the many other reform efforts of this period - anti-slavery, temperance, prison reform, opposition to Indian removal, contributed to the start of the women's rights movement)

chris l pettit - 5/3/2005

or Professor (I apologise for not remembering).

As I stated in the above thread regarding human rights law and international law, I am totally in agreement that there are some morals that should find a place in school curriculum. I do not think that it is a matter of not having morality in curriculum, law is based in morality and morality is pervasive in every aspect of culture, history, and society.

My response to the withdrawal of evangelical support owuld be to emphasize the public funding of education. Maybe if we stopped spending so much money to finance the wealthy, wage war on others, build wasteful weapons, wage a war on drugs that only enhances the moral entrepreneurs without making an ounce of progress, etc, we could actually spend the money on education and get the resources needed. In short, I feel as though making the argument that we need to include the parochials because they supply resources is addressing the problem at the periphery instead of at the core, and actually creates more problems (and power struggles) than it solves.

Ironically, I am just finishing lecturing a course on Theories of Rights and Justice that examines the history and development of rights theory (including education) from the time of the American and French Revolutions until present day. it is based more in law (being a law faculty course), but we touch upon certain core rights, such as the right to education, and the development of them over time. THis issue has come up consistently with regards to the historical and philosophical circumstances surrounding the articulation of different rights theories. It is interesting to look at the Founders' use of the Lockean articulation of rights, and how that articulation developed within the historical progression of the US. It is true that Locke also bases his theory in a system ultimately governed by a supreme deity, but that there is historical evidence that the Founders actually rejected this aspect of the theory, or at the most kept it in the background, instead focusing on specific articulations of rights and justice. THe separation of church and state was a vehement position in relation to how rights were perceived (because of the Founders being versed in Enlightenment philosophy and rationalism), and education was articulated as a public entity (although you are perceptive to accent the communitarian aspects...it is interesting to examine the balance between community influence on education opposed to what is needed for the universalising of the state and international community).

"The concept of progress is not useful to me because it can mean different things for different people. It implies a certain course of history that might conform to one individual's or one group's goals. I prefer the concepts of freedom and competition. A level playing field for all ideas, whether they have a basis in faith or skepticism. Ideas should be allowed to compete and not be prejudged by some censor, who feels they can be evaluated or who disagrees with them and is afraid that may win adherents." This statement is one that I would love to analyze in the context of a Theory of RIghts and Justice course. It seems to depend upon what we define rights as, what we define freedom as, etc. On a practical level, how does one argue that this is at all possible. I mean, Rawls theory of rights is great on a pure theoretical basis, but once one gets to practical application, it gets torn apart because it does not take into consideration pre-existing historical and social inequalities. Does your quote pre-suppose a "level" playing field? What I meant by progress is that humanity is always moving forward, seeking to articulate and further sophisticate and rework old articulations, responding to criticisms (critical analysis) and changing positions that are no longer tenable. Any individuals you can find that still subscribe to Locke's theory as it was first articulated will be laughed out of the building in most respectable circles. You might want to check over at Cliopatria under Dr. Dresner's posting for a further articulation of this idea. This is what I mean by stating that religious ideologies (among others) do have something to offer, as long as it can be based in something other than blind faith and fundamentally flawed assumptions. In order to have a society that continues to progress, there must be a constant re-examination of ideas and theories, and those that are shown to be untenable must be removed from viable public discourse. if they are kept alive by the "true faithful" in their individual lives (or small groups), great, but those ideologies that have no basis in logic, critical thinking, reason, or rationality should not be imposed on others...unless, of course, we find all ideologies (including jihad as a controversial example) and teach them as well. I think once we agree on a concrete definition of progress, we can proceed a bit further on this exploration.

Faith has been married to reason, and continues to be. The thing is, it was a universal faith that did not impose (for the most part) an ideology on others. It might have been "guided" by faith, but it espoused universal beliefs applicable to all, not the forced imposition of certain ideas on others. i understand that one can cite exceptions, as one always can, but I think the general statement rings pretty true.


John Carter - 5/3/2005

Wow. I think I need to go purchase a lottery ticket or something. This is not only the second article today that I have read today on HNN that I would consider among its best; this article was also followed up by insightful, reasoned, and polite back and forth commentary. Thank you for giving me more reasons to come and read! I had almost given up on HNN as politics posed as history and rhetoric posed as commentary. Thank you for your arguments and points, but your professionalism is also most greatly appreciated.

Thomas W Hagedorn - 5/3/2005

There is no question that few of the Founding Fathers were evangelicals. However, American History has supposedly moved beyond the study of a handful of white male political leaders to a broader study of culture and society, to include the "average man". When one does this, he sees that the triumph of reason over faith in the founding generation is a myth. The dominant philosphy was Scottish Common Sense realism, which happily married faith to reason, and the faith was a fairly conservative brand of Calvinism. The more secular and skeptical Founders had to accomodate these beliefs because they were held by the vast majority of the people. James Hutson at the Library of Congress has impressively documented the pervasiveness of Christian influence, even over Jefferson. Mark Noll (America's God) and Henry May (the Enlightenment in America) are quite convincing (for me) about this evangelical Christian hegemony up until at least the time of the Civil War. What colleges were founded by the Unitarians or Universalists or free-thinkers? I can only think of Harvard's "conversion" to Unitarianism. Most other colleges founded up to the Civil War were evangelical enterprises.

The concept of progress is not useful to me because it can mean different things for different people. It implies a certain course of history that might conform to one individual's or one group's goals. I prefer the concepts of freedom and competition. A level playing field for all ideas, whether they have a basis in faith or skepticism. Ideas should be allowed to compete and not be prejudged by some censor, who feels they can be evaluated or who disagrees with them and is afraid that may win adherents.

I am not talking about teaching religious precepts in the public schools. I am saying that there are important moral concepts (not requiring religious belief) that can woven into the texts and curriculum. At a minimum, they schools should not take sides in today's culture wars. I think that they do and it is the secular/liberal side. One only has to look at the annual resolutions of the NEA and peruse primary and secondary textbooks to see that they do.

I am repeating an earlier statement, but the risk of non-accomodation of evangelicals in the public schools is further withdrawal of support, something the public schools can not afford. I know that the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomonation has been making some loud noise about this. Perhaps some movement towards more localism would be good. The elementary schools in Campbridge, Mass certainly are going go have a different cultural base than Amarillo, Texas.

Don Adams - 5/3/2005

You are quite right to call me on my generalization about Indian culture -- of course there are lazy Indians, just as there are brilliant and hard-working Americans. Still, I will stand by my basic assertion: the differences in academic achievement between nations such as India and America has less to do with pedagogy than with cultural norms.

I also agree with you that our school system needs dramatic change -- a longer instructional calender, a curriculum which has not been dumbed down and scrubbed clean of all controversy by radicals from both the right and the left, a teacher's union whiich is as committed to education as it is to employment, the list goes on and on. Nevertheless, at the risk of needless repitition, such changes will not by themselves make up for a student population which is not committed to learning. That is a culural phenomenon, and we will not change it with educational policy.

chris l pettit - 5/3/2005

When making a generality that has such dangerous (radical? can't find the right word) implications, don't you think that you should examine the fact that the "Christian" roots that you speak of only apply to certain FF's...and that many were deists, humanists, what I would call religious scientists...and that this "Christian" definition has as many different facets and interpretations as you would like to find? It goes to show that "virtue" in terms of religion is a highly individualised and subjective exercise.

Incidentally, are we not supposed to be a society that is progressing forward? Examination of the historical ideals is interesting, yet should be taken with a grain of salt and weighed against other factors when addressing the current issues. If an idea can be shown to be based in blind faith and does not stand up to critical analysis, it should not be taught to a child as though it were defensible. That is a matter of mythology for the church and individual families. it has no place in public education. Unless, of course, we are going to require that all students get degrees in comparative religion and immerse themselves in each tradition for the same amount of time in order to get an equal foundation. Having gotten degrees in comparative religion in this manner, I will say that it does help to identify and refute the fallacies inherent in religious arguments...and it would be both objective and educational. but by no means should religious fallacies based in faith find a place in universalised education meant to produce citizens capable of weighing decisions without resorting to ideological positions empty of reason.


Thomas W Hagedorn - 5/3/2005

Since this is the History News Network, I would like to draw back from current prescriptions for nurturing democracy through education and point out the importance of "virtue" to the Founders and their hopes for education. "Virtue" had a double meaning. First, was the classical idea of the self-sacrificing citizen who ignored his own selfish needs to promote the common good. Cincinnatus is a good symbolic example of this ideal. The second meaning is often ignored, due the the biases - past and present - of the academy. From the founding generation up to at least the Civil War (I don't feel qualified to speak to this after the Civil War) the pervasive influence of Christianity meant that personal morality in all its dimensions was also understood by many when "virtue" was discussed. The Founders and the creators of America's first public schools and its first colleges (prior to the Civil War) believed both types of virtue had to be inculcated to all if democracy was to survive. It follows that since virtually all of the school and college founders were evangelical ministers, they placed the second, religious definition as the primary aim of education. The historiography of education places this part of the story in the background, probably because of the influence of marxism and secularism among the key scholars, going as far back as Merle Curti.

If I leave the world of history and try to relate these nineteenth century origins of education to today, I am disturbed by the sometimes divisive atmostphere in primary-secondary education today.

Related to personal morality, public education often seems value-less. There are many common values that we should be able to agree upon, and even just a few more that we, as a society should be able to debate and decide should be taught in our schools. The NEA used to promote character education in the schools (as recently as the 1950's). Some on this list might chafe at my mention of Bill Bennett, but many of the "virtues" in his book could be unobtrusively taught in public schools. Yes, some of these values and virtues are also taught and encouraged in religious settings but that should not eliminate their inclusion in a public school curriculum. Postmodernism has scrubbed a lot of absolutes from the textbooks and curriculum and replaced them with relativism - a sort of leveling of all actions and values.

One example is the discussion of families and the roles of fathers, mothers and children in those families. I believe Dianne Ravitch has published recently on this showing that the traditional "nuclear" family does not appear in elementary texts discussing families. Presumably, this is intended to not offend children who don't live in a nuclear family.

If you spend any time looking at the Gallup Poll and American culture and religion, you will quickly inderstand that religion - primarily Christianity - is very important to significant majorities of Americans. Those Christians who are parents want their values passed on to their children. They and their church are the primary places where that needs to happen. But the public school can also help by reinforcing those values that are not objectionable to secular America. We had this type of arrangement in the early Republic. Perhaps the evangelical Christians can work with the people in the Communitarian movement to make this happen.

The problem with the current state of the public schools is that evangelicals view the schools as hostile to their beliefs. They often feel the public schools undermine what they try to teach their children at church and in the home. They withdraw their children for private schools or home-schooling and they withdraw their financial support from tax levies, which can be devastating.

The church and its members can be a powerful ally for the schools without promoting any particular belief. The public school should be a level playing field for all ideas, whether they be Voltaire's or Luther's. Isn't that a democratic idea?

chris l pettit - 5/3/2005

Sorry to have misread your post...it was a matter of perception...thanks for the clarification. I would however, state that major school reform is needed, as well as the culture within which it takes place. I also think that your comment regarding India is rather simplistic and naive, although it does has some degree of merit in certain areas of discussion. Indians are also committed to leisure, consumption and passive entertainment on a lot of levels (try cricket and Bollywood for examples). Having traveled to and lived in the country, I can tell you that the concerns of everyday citizens are pretty similar to our own. Americans seem too ignorant or unable to discern that, through globalization and other factors, there is no realistic idea of certain "cultures" on a macro level...the difference is ideological and macro (theoretical). THis affects government action, and the way these ideologies are utilized to misinform and miseducate populations, leading to misconceptions regarding others. It is a classical form of power relations and control.

Now to the title of the post. You claim my position is ideological as a whole. I would wholly disagree for a couple of reasons. First, I think we are utilizing different definitions of ideological. I apologise for not clarifying my definitions previously. I maintain a difference between theory and ideology.

Ideology - a social (in whatever form) stance that is ultimately dependent upon the acceptence of a position based in blind faith or that can be shown to be fundamentally flawed (in terms of history, science, whatever) - If the stance depends on a position that is based in something that cannot be demonstrated logically, rationally, scientifically and cannot be examined critically with the tools available to us, instead claiming some "grander" base...it is an ideology. Nationalism, religion, ethnicity, cultural relativism...they are all ideologies of varying degrees. Note that I am not arguing that they are inherently bad in and of themselves (although one can make the argument that at their logical ends, they are negative in that they pre-suppose and support an "us" and "other" that is not scientifically or logically defensible). In certain areas of life, they can be helpful, efficient, and can offer guidance. however, when one is dealing in universalities, human rights, the international community, and education of other human beings, they have no place as they violate the right to be educated and the right to liberty to make ones own decisions based on all available information, not just that which a certain government or ideology decides to make available. One must remember that we are human beings before we split into our invisible, archaic, and highly abstract social groups. In other words...we are humans before Americans. Too many people are confused and seem to think it is the other way around...in itself an indefensible (in terms of logic and critical analysis) position.

Theory - a social (in whatever form) stance that is based in logic, rationality, reason, critical analysis and re-analysis, and empirical study. A theory is not based on an assumption or blind faith. It does not ask others to try and prove a negative. It does not rely on abstractions that are not based in fact or logic.

My theory of education, international law, and human rights is just that, a theory, according to my definition. It can be demonstrated empirically and logically. While no one is perfect, and I will never claim to be free of ideology (I am sure that there are small aspects of the theory that have some basis in ideological influences), the theory itself, in general, is defensible and does not depend on blind faith or fundamentally flawed assumptions. I can empirically demonstrate that every civilisation that I have examined is based in some sort of rights theory (whether fair, just or equitable is dependant upon the role of the observer, the historical and cultural context, and other factors...possibly ideology), and has/had a concept of international law and relationships with other civilisations (even Sparta had diplomatic rules and alliances) even if the concept of international was limited to the next set of islands over (again dependent on historical and cultural circumstance). One can find universal and relatively objective standards that carry from one civilisation and historical period to the next. What differs is their application by different ideological positions.

Why is there a difference now? Because as a society we have advanced through globalization to the point where there exists a true international community of humanity, and the capacity (and empirical proof) now exists to show that it is logically absurd to think of ourselves as Americans or whatever before humans. One can objectively show that physiologically, a child is affected and shaped by the ideological biases that trigger certain switches in the mind and shape their brain development and personality. because of this, it is dangerous and irrational to argue that a child should be subjected to any ideas that are dependent on blind faith and fundamentally flawed assumptions inside a classroom that is meant to educate students in order to make them more intelligent human beings able to make decisions regarding governance, individual action, and democracy. Ideology should be left to the church and family structure (or cult like groups - political parties might fit the bill pretty well). Students should be presented with non-ideological education.

Now, one can make the argument that those in power choosing the education will have themselves an ideological makeup. THis is true, but is why I argue that there have to be groups of highly intelligent, educated, impartial (as much as possible) and non-ideologically inclined individuals that make the decisions regarding education. They cannot be politically inclined or attached, they should my inter-disciplinary scholars. They should not bring their religious affiliations to the table, and should recognize humanity over any abstract denomonations. it is also why I favor a strong independent judiciary over power based legislatures or democracy by a largely ignorant and miseducated public. This goes hand in hand with what the author is stating...that education is key to even being able to claim that a democracy exists or is viable.


Don Adams - 5/2/2005

You say that you value objectivity, and that you believe it is possible to achieve objectivity in education. You also express a commitment to the teaching of international law (among other things) to young students. Do you not see that this is itself an ideological position? It is based strictly on your own notion of what education should achieve, and how best to achieve it. It carries with it no empirical or neutral endorsement. This is not a critical observation; you are entitled to your opinion, and entitled to promote it. My point is simply that since there is no master list from on high about what should and should not be taught in our schools, all choices -- including math and reading -- are inherently ideological. They are expressions of what we believe and what we hope to achieve, not what we have clinically determined to be the "right" objectives and the "right" content. That is the very essence of ideology, and it governs all aspects of education.

As for your comment that I am "sorely mistaken" about the state of education in the United States, you misread my earlier post. I believe that our educational system is in a shambles, and I listed some of the reasons previously. My argument is simply that the problem is not what goes on in shcools, but rather what goes on everywhere else. A nation committed to leisure, consumption, and passive entertainment(never mind a nation of growing poverty, the lone reliable predictor of academic performance) will not produce "educated" students in any meaningful sense no matter what policies are pursued in its schools. Nations such as India do not produce millions of engineers and programmers because their schools are better; they produce them because that is what their culture values, and students are motivated to succeed long before they enter the classroom. The challenge America faces is thus not to reform its schools (although there are of course improvements to be made), but rather to reform the culture within which education takes place.

chris l pettit - 5/2/2005

But allow me to offer a contemporary US example...

When I was living and working with Judge CG Weeramantry in Sri Lanka, I had the honor of working very closely with the ICRC to introduce international law and human rights, universal topics, into primary school curriculums. Empirical studies have found that younger students actually have a greater capacity to understand international law and human rights because they have not yet been corrupted by the societal environments in which they inhabit. Many nations have integrated the ICRC curriculum, and are those nations that show a greater respect for international law and human rights. As much of the US is against the idea of judges being influenced by international law (in South Africa, a vastly superior judiciary, they are required to take international law and the law of other jurisdictions into consideration) and against anything other than our version of rights and international law, children grow up with an ideological influence that is based on fatally flawed assumptions, and oftentimes blind faith.

While you are right to state that education is a big part of society and must act in concert with other parts, you will notice that I never claimed otherwise. What I stated was that education should be objective and universalised...free from ideology. You may want to take the position that this can never be achieved, but at one point we could never reach the moon and could never establish a comprehensive international system. Those who claim that something is unrealistic always end up with egg on their faces. in fact, I can offer several examples of countries where education is not influenced (much) by ideology or bias. The Nordic states are a good start, but even some countries that we would scoff at (or are "undemocratic" like Singapore) have done a pretty admirable job. Religious ideology or positions based on fundamentally flawed assumptions have no place in the education of the nation's youth. If a person wants to subject their child to a fantasy world within the home, I still have problems with that, but can at least understand the argument. But schools should be institutions of learning involving facts, unbiased observations (although your point about the impossibility of objectivity is well taken, the role of the observer is always key...but we can definitely avoid more egregious examples and keep it to a minimum), and places where blind faith and fundamentally flawed assumptions should not be allowed. THis is not to say that there will not be opposing interpretations or viewpoints...for instance, in science there is much that is based in theory that we know exists, but we cannot yet explain...but anything that is taught should be based in fact and be able to be backed up by empirical evidence that is critically examined. Anything that can be demonstrated to be false or based in blind faith and fundamentally flawed assumptions should remain in the realm of family brainwashing, etc, and have no place in academia.

My sister is a teacher, and I do not blame the education system or teachers for the problems...although there are ideological hacks that should not be allowed to peddle there wares on campuses (from both sides of the spectrum). The government and insitutions have a large role to play in the politicizing of education and the fact that children these days are, for the most part, not educated, but rather are indoctrinated. History is one of the worst offenders, especially on the primary and secondary levels.

You are sorely mistaken about the US education system. In addition to being one of the poorest systems among developed nations, we have also fallen behind (in terms of quality) many developing nations...and not just in the maths and sciences. Our students have very little knowledge of other cultures and national histories...geographical skills are at a minimum (can I tell you how many people asked me where Sri Lanka was and where in South Africa I was going...that an individual has no idea who Nelson Mandela is or can't tell me the basic details of Apartheid is a disgrace)...and we don't even know the complete history of our own nation, instead being deluged in nationalistic and patriotic drivel.

Ideologies and political systems cannot be allowed to overcome basic human rights, including the right to education. Because of this, we must endure whenever possible that only ideas that can be empirically defended and critically examined make their way into educational discourse, and those based in mysticism, blind faith, and flawed assumptions remain outside of the educational environment.


Don Adams - 5/2/2005

While you are right to say that Mr. Palaima's article is meant to encourage thought rather than offer solutions, you make a couple of points with which I do not agree.

First, you say "One cannot have a democracy of any sort without a population that is educated without manipulation, ideological prejudice, and subtle forms of mind control and exclusion." Actually, we can, and we have for more than 200 years now. Manipulation and ideological prejudice are permanent features of human societies. They are each fraught with peril, but they are not inherently destructive. They are, in fact, the means by which ideas and belief systems make their way into the public sphere. Arguably democracy's greatest virtue is that it creates an environment in which ideas and beliefs cannot simply be imposed, but rather must compete with rival ideas and beliefs for influence. You say morality has been "hijacked" by religious types; I say that even though I disagree with the religious right on almost every point, they have successfully competed for influence. As James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 10, "The latent causes of faction are sewn into the nature of man." We might wish for objectivity of the sort to which you refer, but we will not get it.

Second, your references to education suggest that you see it exactly as Mr. Palaima says we should not -- as something separate or distinct from the rest of society. Education properly understood is not only or even primarily what goes on inside a classroom. It is a function of family life, pop culture, and all other aspects of society. It is all the rage these days to blame teachers and schools for the "crisis" in education, but the resources a child brings to the classroom are far more important to his or her success than those found in the classroom. Consider the trends in such measures of social health as the poverty rate, the number of children born to single mothers, the rise in child obesity, and the ratio of hours spent reading or doing homework vs. the number of hours spent watching TV or playing video games. These, too, are elements of education in the classic sense to which Mr. Palaima refers, and if we do not account for the role they play
-- that is, as long as we continue to see education as something which takes place on its own in schools -- we will not have the educated population on which our long term success depends.

chris l pettit - 5/2/2005

And seemingly non-ideological. It raises some wonderful points that need to be considered, and the stressing of proper education not ruled by ideological blindness and flawed assumptions is poignant. One cannot have a democracy of any sort without a population that is educated without manipulation, ideological prejudice, and subtle forms of mind control and exclusion. We can argue all we want about solutions, but I do not think the point of the article was to offer any, but simply to get us to think about it. There will still be ideological hacks trying to impose their flawed viewpoints on the population (like teaching creationism or intelligent design) and one of the largest failings of the world is the hijacking of morality by the religious and its insertion into education (to quote Arthur C Clarke), but this article serves to remind us how important education is to democracy (and I would add human rights) and that we cannot achieve anything lasting or quality without first having the education to do so. It is sad that because of ideological insertions into education systems that we now have to distinguish between education and intelligence, for one can have a lot of the former...and none of the latter (see Daniel Pipes, Klinghoffer, and other various ideologues).


Arnold Shcherban - 5/1/2005