In any society the single most determining factor in how institutions are organized and function is the political and economic situation in which those institutions exist. Schools are a reflection of the society and how it is structured. Generally, schools can serve one of two functions; either they are designed to perpetuate the current system or they act as spawning grounds for dissent, questioning of society, and those who run it. In practice, the latter usually dominates. However, not everyone agrees on what role education and the school system should play in society. Some, like Mann and Conant, would propose that the primary goal of education is to reproduce the existing class structure and the classes required for such a society to continue its existence. Others, such as Jefferson, hoped, in an extremely exclusive way, that education help develop the minds of those citizens who had the leisure time to pursue it so that they could function in a relatively limited form of democratic society. Still others, such as Dewey, believed democracy should extend further than the political realm to all spheres of life, including school and the workplace, and the only way to prepare students for such a democratic society was to model schools in a participatory and democratic way. These key thinkers in educational philosophy and their ideal of schooling help illuminate the social, economic, and political realities at each stage of American education. Indeed, each one of their arguments is reflective of the material conditions at the time and each were attempting to respond, whether reactively or progressively, in a manner that would deal with these constantly changing conditions.
Thomas Jefferson’s ideas of education were rather clear as he wrote frequently about the subject. He believed that in order to fulfill the role of active, aware citizen required in any sort of democratic society, men (with an emphasis on the gender-specific term, along with the exclusion of non-propertied men and men of color) should be liberally educated in order to understand the world, and how society functions, more broadly. Extremely vital in Jefferon’s conception of education is his postulation that democratic localism, or local school control by the community, represents the best method for how schools are to be organized and run. He believed that a sort of basic, three year education should be provided by the local government to all free children but insisted that education beyond that point should be privately funded. Jefferson’s style of education seemed to have very little to say in regards to vocational work, instead focusing on classical literature and traditional subjects in order to train the mental faculties. Armed with the basic necessities needed to be consciously aware of one’s own self-interest and, to a certain extent, the collective good of society, Jefferson believed his model of education would supply the “habit and long training” required for democratic participation by the citizenry (Tozer, p. 37). This would be accomplished by the free exchange of ideas through newspapers where argument and debate would manifest and educated men would rationally decide upon which argument best suited their interests. It is no question that the material conditions present in Jefferson’s particular historical framework played an immense role in shaping his understanding of how education should be organized.
Many of Jefferson’s arguments cannot be understood without a basic understanding of reality in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Formulated around a largely rural, agrarian based economy with little in the way of communications, it would only make sense that Jefferson articulated his idea of extreme localism and autonomy for each and every distinct school district. The industrial revolution was still decades ahead of Jefferson and social relations were largely pre-capitalist; enormous corporations, media consolidation, and globalization were not historical realities that impinged upon society with the same percussive impact they do today. Therefore, Jefferson believed that each individual white male, owning his own plot of land and having the leisure time to pursue a liberal education, would be informed of his own interests and, subsequently, how he should vote for representatives in government. Women were left out in Jefferson’s education ideal since he believed, echoing the dominant ideology at this time, they were naturally inferior beings “governed more by appetites and passions than by reason [and] were less capable of self-governance” (Tozer, p. 35). Similarly, the entire institution of slavery excluded blacks from the educational process during the Jeffersonian era. Males without property with likewise excluded from democratic life. Jefferson’s democracy then, along with his education which fostered it, was highly exclusive. Thus, the larger political economy heavily influenced, and also explains the limitations of, the Jeffersonian education ideal.
The locus of Horace Mann’s educational philosophy was that an “appropriate set of moral values” should be taught to all children in order to “support and sustain industrial development” (Tozer, p.68). His ideal education, a synthesis of various methods but borrowing from the authoritarian Prussian model most heavily, was an attempt to homogenize the enormous influx of immigrant workers. To do this, he believed it would be necessary to “provide [employers] with workers who were not only more productive but also docile, easily managed, and unlikely to resort to strikes or violence” (Tozer, p.76); similarly, he thought education should be used to “disarm the poor of their hostilities towards the rich” (Tozer, p.77). By instituting public education through common schools for the majority of the nation’s children, Mann believed that the inculcation of obedience and discipline, or “modern values,” into working class children should be the primary goal. Thus, his educational ideal would act as a perpetuation, indeed an expansion, of the existing order.
During the Common Era of education, in which Mann played a significant role, industrialization and urbanization were rapidly changing the American scene; city sizes were growing, technology was making it possible for capitalists to bring together prodigious numbers of workers into one spot to labor, and immigrants from all over, but especially Ireland, were crossing the Atlantic to find work. Therefore, Jefferson’s ideal of democratic localism based upon the rural economy was largely fading from palpability. Mann, then, was trying to formulate a policy to "Americanize" the large influx of (often militant) immigrant workers who rejected to the wage slavery imposed upon them by capitalist enterprise. His ideal is a direct response to the changing political economy and he desired to force workers in a direction of obedience in order to expand the nascent industrial capitalism and subdue working class resistance to it. Therefore, his educational ideal was naturally very different than Jefferson's; it had to be state instituted and financed so that it could effectively reach the broader population and indoctrinate them into the newly emerging capitalist society. At the same time the feminization of teaching was becoming prevalent and, since females generally worked for much lower wages than men, females were being hired at a much higher rate and for much less pay. Once again, as with Jefferson, one can hear the echo of the dominant ideology’s sexism through Mann’s idea that women were biologically inclined to act as the “guide and guardian of children of a tender age” (Tozer, p. 75). However, he differs from Jefferson on one important fact; instead of excluding women from education, he pushed for it. But as Tozer et al. explains, “[t]he long term effect…was to reinforce the sexist belief that women were by nature not only fundamentally different from men but deficient in rational faculties” (Tozer, p. 75). To this day, the wages of educators pale in comparison to other professions, a legacy due in large part to the devaluation of occupations normally associated with women.
Dewey theoretical contributions to the philosophy of education are probably the most underutilized, yet ultimately most valuable, aspects of pedagogical development. Dewey’s ideas arise in order to combat social efficiency proponents such as Charles W. Elliot who viewed students as “raw materials” which must go through “factories,” or schools, in which they are to be “shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life” (Tozer, p. 157). In contrast, Dewey’s focus relies upon furthering participatory democracy throughout all realms of society such as the workplace, school, and both the economic and political spheres. Rather than mold students into obedient workers as with traditional educational thought, his primary postulation was that schools should serve as models of participatory democracy; students and teachers alike are to function within a sort of democratic microcosm of the ideal society. Dialogue, debate, and democratic culture were vital factors in Dewey’s educational philosophy and, likewise, in his conception of a democratic society. This “developmental democracy” that he articulated would upset quite a lot of elite educational theoreticians. Dewey was a challenge to those who wished to maintain the existing, undemocratic class structure and the private tyrannies whose real nature are disingenuously hid behind free market dogma. Precisely because of this, Dewey would be largely underutilized in mainstream schooling environments.
The Progressive Era of education is defined by this clash between social efficiency theorists and development democracy theorists. Industrialization and urbanization were rising sharply and elites understood that some sort of publicly funded, far reaching education would have to be implemented if the dominant ideology was to maintain its hegemony. Labor unions and radical workers, especially from the various southern and eastern European nations, were providing a significant challenge to the capitalist political economy. Thus, the elites found the manifestation of their educational ideal in Elliot who wanted less democracy and more obedience. On the other hand, Dewey argued for more democracy which should extend to the industrial arena (and the workplace in general) and empower workers, essentially the socialist position. Therefore, Dewey’s educational philosophy was a direct response, indeed, even a furthering, of the participatory democracy and economic control which millions of workers struggled for throughout this era.
James Bryant Conant’s main educational assertions are that standardized testing was a “foolproof method for ascertaining academic promise,” education should function along meritocratic lines, public schools could serve as “the first bulwark of defense” against official state enemies and inculcate young minds with “greater cultural and social unity” on a seemingly nationalist basis (Tozer, p. 209-13). Conant argued that “school must first prepare talented youth for strategically necessary scientific, professional, and technological occupations” (Tozer, p. 222). Conant largely ignored the extremely varying social and economic backgrounds which may impede or further a student’s academic ability. The university, according to Conant, was an ivory tower where only the most academically successful should have a presence; education should be extremely competitive and only available for those who could make some sort of contribution to the national-security state and corporate interests. The rest of the population should be confined to purely vocational pursuits, a liberal education only hindering their limited minds from acting as docile, passive laborer, consumers, and flag-wavers. Conant’s theory of education follows the line of T.S. Elliot and, to a certain extent, Horace Mann, in developing a fundamentally undemocratic theory of education.
Conant’s educational philosophy can only be understood within an exponentially strengthening American capitalism after World War II and the ensuing Cold War conflict with the Soviet Union. At a time when arms and technological development became a primary goal that consumed an enormous amount of resources, and while American capital was expanding rapidly and pursuing new markets, the reasoning behind Conant’s idea of an elite group of experts dictating how society should be run for the rest of the population becomes rather lucid. Instead of a society based upon Dewey’s model where participatory democracy reigns and the value of jingoism and capitalism to collective society can be challenged, Conant interjects on behalf of the current ruling elite with a meritocratic educational ideal which perpetuates the existing class structure. At a time when two world super powers were colliding for supremacy, the elite in each society hoped to infuse an extreme sense of nationalism and fear of the other within their respective populations. Thus, Conant’s educational philosophy was largely impacted by, and helped to reinforce, the flag-waving, red scare mentality among the American populace. The schools would play a vital role in this ideological transmission.
The superficial democracy represented by philosophers such as Mann, Elliot, and Conant is not only a democracy for the few, it also manifests itself as an oppressive force for the many. Capitalism, the class society it produces, and the various oppressive formats which stem from its competitive and irrational nature, are in opposition to democracy. Democracy entails more than simply voting for a different political representative every few years whose vocation is to maintain the dominant structures of society. True democracy, participation and action involving the masses of society, cannot be realized in a society where profit dominates human motivation. Despite the empty rhetoric and glittering generalities which so profusely emanate from political pundits and multi-national corporations, the promise of democracy has yet to be fulfilled.
A society where the premise is the collective good can only be established through a transformation of the political and economic system. It must be a change which stems from the people whom are oppressed themselves. When Dewey explains that democracy must extend beyond the shallow political sphere, he is absolutely correct; collective decision making by members of society who control their own labor, the means of production, and how those products are distributed is absolutely essential for any sort of functioning democracy. Political democracy is a hollow ideology when the so called free market ingeniously manipulates it in the manner that it does today.
Dewey was also correct when he emphasized that schools should reflect the democratic ideal. A democratic culture inside the schools is vital to preparing students and teachers alike for their immensely important role in a democratic society. Democratic change has always, and will continue to be, a limit on the power of the wealth and the elite in society; if democracy is to be realized, it must remove the conditions in which enormous wealth and power are accumulated in the hands of the few. While Dewey’s development democracy model is a necessity, a truly democratic society and educational system must not only reflect the democratic ideal, it must actively seek to challenge oppression in any form. As Paulo Freire outlines, democracy involves transforming humans as objects who simply respond to their surroundings into humans as subjects who are intricately involved in determining their own destiny. This process undoubtedly involves the engagement of the oppressed in challenging and struggling against the system of oppression which forces itself upon them. Full human liberation, where the power and wealth of the few do not dictate the lives of the many, can only is achieved through a democratic struggle in which collective ownership and participatory decision making is the objective.
The current political, economic, and social factors which may impede one’s ability to actualize a democratic structure in the classroom are multifaceted. Fundamentally, the overarching structure of a society based upon hierarchical control by those with wealth and the power it wields limit democratic decision making by educators and students. An extremely rigid school hierarchy, an often dense an seemingly impenetrable union bureaucracy, limited government resources and the dominant ideology as represented in the corporate controlled media and textbook publishing companies are some of the major limiting factors. The day to day life, along with the material realities of the students whom educators encounter may provide a challenging obstacle as well.
Involving students by allowing them to help make decisions in the classroom and by engaging them with their own interests is a vital step in achieving some semblance of democracy in the classroom. Students must be tied to their educational experience directly and this is facilitated by involving them in constant dialogue and discussion. Both an understanding of their own oppression and the oppression which exists around them is necessary. Developing a democratic culture in the classroom, as Dewey suggests, can have an immense impact on the students that pass through the classroom. In fact, helping to develop that democratic culture will inevitably lead to questions of how society can be further democratized, which should be the goal of any educator in a democratic society. Students who are actively involved in struggles against oppression, and reflection upon that activity, will be more inclined to fight for radical change as they being to decode, comprehend, and articulate the world around them. Giving them the voice, and the power, to articulate their own experiences and their relations with the larger world will give them the power to help propose solutions to the challenges in their own life and the struggles society must overcome collectively.
More importantly, teachers must take up the issue politically as well. Educators, whether they like it or not, are intricately bound up in the political and economic realities of society. Struggling to garner more resources for the schools, decreasing class sizes, fighting against standardized testing, providing equal treatment to all students, and protecting the sanctity of public education are important goals that every teacher should be involved with. To do this, a struggle against a government which favors wars, wealthy bankers, and corporate subsidies over education is essential. Likewise, a struggle to democratize unions so that they become a vehicle for fighting back against attacks on the public sector should be important as well. Educators and students should fight to play a role in shaping curriculum, challenge charter schools and privatization efforts, make the case for the removal of military recruiters from high schools and campuses, exercise their right to participate in budget decisions, combat mandated tests, and do all they can to struggle for a more humane, stimulating learning environment where students are not alienated. This will involve one-on-one battles in specific schools and particular districts; but it also involves linking these struggles with the general trends around the nation and the world. Teacher solidarity and community support are essential features to fostering a democratic learning environment.
Tozer, S., Violas, P., & Senese, G. (2009) School and Society: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. 6th ed. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill.