Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Can "public" survive a (R)epublican attack?

Every day now there is a news story about education that jerks me to attention. In my home state of Pennsylvania, the new governor announced a budget proposal that cut state funding for higher education by 52%. Funding for local public schools is projected to be significantly lower than last year, a move that will certainly prompt increases in local property taxes even as districts cut teaching positions. Other cost-saving measures are long past scraping flesh off bone. (And cuts for public schools are being proposed at the same time that a new voucher proposal is in the state legislature, a proposal that will further drain public school funding while enabling students to opt out of public schools in favor of parochial schools at taxpayer expense.)

I’ve already figured out what this is about, even as I work against the defunding of public educational opportunities. However, here’s a story I can’t quite figure out -- or maybe I just don’t believe it. The state legislature in Utah has passed a bill that requires schools to teach students that the United States is a compound constitutional republic. This is true and leads me to wonder what they have been teaching.

Apparently, the need for this legislative action is tied to fears (whose?) about indoctrination with respect to pure democracy and socialism. (We apparently have no fears about indoctrination with respect to free market mania or corporate control, both of which seem to me to be more immediate (and more concerning) dangers than either pure democracy or socialism.

As I understand a republican form of government, it can be captured as “majority rule, minority rights” administered by representatives of the people. While I suppose we might quibble about what it really is, I would argue it’s ultimately not a definition to be stipulated but a political stance to be negotiated. Yes, we have a compound constitutional republic, but what does that amount to? We elect representatives following constitutionally-framed procedures and those representatives decide what the majority wants and which minority rights must be honored. And that too is a constantly renegotiated political stance.

While the Founding Fathers (and what about those Founding Mothers anyway?) were pragmatic in their specification of a form of government that was not purely democratic (in both representation and attention to minority concerns), they clearly had democratic aspirations of the kind John Dewey articulated throughout his career. That is, they aspired to a “mode of associated living” marked by communicative competence. While I think it is ducky that students will learn that they live in a constitutional republic, I think it a shame – and an intellectual error -- that they will learn about democracy only as a threat to the American way of life, rather than as a vision that, while admittedly dangerous*, animated the American Revolution and much of American history since that time. (And do I need to mention that socialist and free market economies can exist in constitutional republics, and that more often, as in our case, a nation’s economy is mixed for pragmatic reasons?)

I have the sinking feeling that the defunding of public schools in Pennsylvania at the hands of one of a slew of newly-elected Republican governors is actually very much tied to this legislation in Utah. Both are part of an orchestrated plan to drive a stake through the very concept of “public,” to stipulate what should be negotiated anew with each new political season. Their private interests, their minority rights, are being written into the fabric of governmental and educational possibilities. This should command our attention.

* A nod to Winston Churchill who noted that democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others that had been tried. He appreciated the dangers of “mob rule,” but also the vitality of political structures in which all had a stake.

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