Education and Democracy

Holiday marks promise of education, democracy

   Andrew Fiala

Originally published Fresno Bee, 2012-06-30

We may be created equal and endowed with basic rights, but we are not born knowing this. Education is required to help us understand our rights and the legal structure that protects them. Thomas Jefferson once warned, “if a nation expects to be both ignorant and free … it expects what never was and never will be.” As we head toward Independence Day it is important to recall the essential connection between education and democracy.

American schools and universities have the opportunity to change the world. Consider this remarkable fact: The newly elected President of Egypt, Mohammed Morsi, and the Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, were both educated in the United States. Morsi received his Ph.D. from USC. He taught at Cal State Northridge. Two of his children were born in California, which means that they are U.S. citizens. Netanyahu graduated from high school in Philadelphia and later earned degrees from MIT.

This reminds us of the global reach of the American educational system. Not only are we educating our own citizens but also people from across the planet. This is an amazing opportunity to disseminate democratic values.

Since Plato, democracy has been criticized as unstable rule of the ignorant mob. If the masses are uneducated and immoral, democracy can produce negative outcomes. And if the rulers are not properly educated, they become despotic demagogues who pander to the mob. Plato’s solution was anti-democratic. He wanted to educate the best individuals — those of good breeding. This ruling elite would then keep the masses under control through the use of propaganda and force.

The American Founders proposed a different solution: more and better education. Faith in the power of education is a deeply American ideal.

Benjamin Franklin argued that there was nothing more important to the common good than “to train up youth in wisdom and virtue.” He continued: “wise and good men are, in my opinion, the strength of the state.” Franklin even imagined, contrary to the prevailing opinion of his day, that education could be of value for women and blacks. Franklin worked to establish the Philadelphia Academy, a school that played a central role in the intellectual lives of many of the Founding Fathers.

Jefferson wanted the state of Virginia to fund public education for all citizens. The Virginia legislature balked at the expense. But Jefferson persuaded the state to fund the University of Virginia. Jefferson argued that “primary education” should “instruct the mass of our citizens in their rights, interests and duties, as men and citizens.” Higher education was to go further in educating future statesmen, scientists, and business leaders. The university was to “develop the reasoning faculties of our youth, enlarge their minds, cultivate their morals, and instill into them the precepts of virtue and order … rendering them examples of virtue to others, and of happiness within themselves.”

George Washington was also an ardent supporter of education. Washington asked the first U.S. Congress to consider establishing a national university. In his address to that first Congress, Washington stated that among other things, education was essential for “teaching the people themselves to know and to value their own rights.” He went on to say that education teaches citizens “to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness — cherishing the first, avoiding the last.”

The Founders thought that education would produce virtue, wisdom and love of liberty. This would prevent democracy from sinking toward rule of the uneducated, vicious mob. And it would prevent statesmen from becoming demagogues.

For two centuries, Americans have worked hard to improve our educational system. We now have universal and free public primary education. Our schools are less segregated. And our universities are the envy of the world.

But it’s not easy to provide quality education in an incredibly complex society that includes recent and noncitizens. Teachers are supposed to get this diverse group of children to understand their rights and value democratic governance.

Public school teachers are the guardians of the future of democracy. As we contemplate budget cuts and taxes for education, we should ask ourselves how much we are willing to spend in order to educate citizens (and even noncitizens) about the need to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.