Sunday, August 30, 2009

Getting Democracy Back: Sara Robinson on Education in a Fascist-Proof Society

As an educator, I’ve written extensively (most recently here) on this blog about my intent concern that American higher education is now failing the nation, as it adopts leadership models drawn from the corporate world. And as it substitutes the values of the corporate business world for the values of higher education—values that higher education has a serious obligation to communicate to students, if we want to keep democracy alive.

I’ve noted that American colleges and universities have a strong obligation to teach students to respect diversity, to collaborate with others across racial, ideological, religious, and national boundaries, to use critical thinking skills to understand the socio-economic and political world, and to draw marginalized communities into social structures. I’ve also noted that American institutions of higher learning—including church-owned ones—benefit largely from public tax dollars precisely because our culture has always understood that, in receiving such public support, universities and colleges covenant themselves to inculcate values necessary to sustain democracy, and to produce leaders for the future.

In my view, the shift to a corporate model of doing business in American higher education is seriously undermining its ability to fulfill this social contract. So I’m very interested to note that Sara Robinson’s recent list of steps concerned citizens need to take to make our society “fascist proof” includes rebuilding our educational system.

Robinson states,

We need to get serious about investing in education. It's well understood now that our broken health care system is right on the bottom of the barrel among industrialized countries; but most of us don't realize that our schools are in the same comparatively wretched shape.
Thomas Jefferson understood that liberal democracy is impossible without a literate, well-informed populace; and the endless parade of teabagger loonitude is precisely the kind of know-nothing nightmare he most feared. . . . .
Don't know much about history -- so the Christian right is busily rewriting it to argue that there's no such thing as a wall between church and state. Don't know much biology -- so fewer than half of all Americans think the theory of evolution explains our origins. Don't know much about the science book -- so we're ready to believe whatever junk science the corporate PR folks can conjure up. Don't know much about the French I took -- which has left the country insular, parochial and unable to work and play well with others in a world it purports to lead.
But the worst failure is that we went through a decades-long patch where we didn't teach civics -- and still don't much, especially in states where it's not part of the standardized tests. Which means that there are tens of millions among us who have absolutely no idea what's in the Bill of Rights, or how a law gets made, or where the limits of state power lie.
It's quite possible that if the conservatives hadn't undermined universal civics education, the right-wing talking heads would have never found an audience. Instead, what we have is a country where most people are getting their basic political education from Rush Limbaugh and Fox News.
If we want our democracy back, that has to change.


We need to focus on restoring our basic liberal institutions. In 2005, Chris Bowers noted that progressive ideology has always been disseminated through four major cultural drivers: the universities (and related intellectual infrastructure); unions; the media; and liberal religious organizations. Knowing this, conservatives set out back in the 1970s to undermine all four of these institutions -- and over time, they've largely succeeded in blunting their historic capacity to disseminate and perpetuate the progressive worldview.

As I’ve noted before, if American higher education expects to have a viable future, if it wants to retain its traditional academic identity and not simply become a propaganda machine for the corporate business community, it needs to take another look at some of the founding figures of modern American higher education, including John Dewey, who made the democracy-education link explicit.

Or at Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of Bethune-Cookman University, who made that link explicit, and then deepened the analysis by applying the link specifically to one historically marginalized community, her African-American community. Bethune’s passion for education was driven by her vision of democracy as a network of social participation in which every voice was needed, and should be welcome. If you want a treat on this late-summer weekend in which it seems we’ve been bombarded for far too long with voices of hate and destruction rather than reason and hope, listen to Bethune’s contribution to NBC’s 23 November 1939 town meeting of the air on the question, What does democracy mean to me?