Are public schools foundational to democracy?

Americans are feeling buffeted by inflation and warring lawmakers. Many ignore news, and are disdainful of even the word “government.”

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Seventh grade students attend history class at Jacksonville Classical Academy in Jacksonville, Florida, April 19.

Periodically, U.S. presidents call in experts to help them think through an issue. In early August, President Joe Biden invited historians to the White House to share their views on American democracy. What he heard was deep concern – about the fraying of public faith in democracy and the rising allure globally of authoritarianism. 

Evidence isn’t hard to find. A 2021 Pew survey found that two-thirds of people in the United States, Italy, Belgium, France, Spain, Greece, South Korea, and Japan felt that their political system needed major changes. Last December, Mr. Biden hosted a Summit for Democracy to “push back on authoritarianism,” saying the “data we’re seeing is largely pointing in the wrong direction.” In a May address to U.S. Naval Academy graduates, Mr. Biden shared that when Chinese leader Xi Jinping called to congratulate him on winning the election, he also asserted that autocracies would eventually rule the world. Democracies can’t keep pace with rapid change, he argued.

Many people would disagree. But in 2022, Americans are feeling buffeted by the pandemic and inflation, warring lawmakers and school boards. Many ignore news, and are disdainful of even the word “government.” How do you help ensure, to quote Abraham Lincoln, that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from this earth”?  

One area to consider is public school – an institution Americans have long said is fundamental to democracy but whose standing may be at a turning point. That’s the subject of our four-part series that kicked off with a recent cover story, available here. Even as some 87% of American students attend them, with the rest in private schools or being home-schooled, strains run deep. Parents of children in poorly run schools are often desperate for alternatives. Dissatisfaction about everything from quality to safety is mounting, and disputes erupt regularly over curriculum and libraries. Civics lessons vary widely. 

Yet there’s plenty happening to counter the trend. Groups like iCivics provide resources for schools nationally, sourced from many perspectives. Legislators and educators in a growing number of states are prioritizing media literacy as a foundational democratic skill, according to Media Literacy Now; a Stanford University study last year found that after giving teachers in Lincoln, Nebraska, six hours of instruction in “civic online reasoning,” their students “grew significantly” in judging online content’s credibility.  

The historians who met with Mr. Biden – including Sean Wilentz (“The Rise of American Democracy”), Anne Applebaum (“Twilight of Democracy”), Jon Meacham (“The Soul of America”), and presidential historian Michael Beschloss – are sharing insights that can inform action. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and retired Justice Stephen Breyer have joined forces at the National Constitution Center to promote civil dialogue. 

Are public schools foundational to democracy? Here’s how the late David McCullough, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning books on U.S. history engaged millions, put it in congressional testimony in 2005:

“The basis of our public school system began ... with the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts ... written by John Adams, in which there is a paragraph unlike anything that had ever been written before, saying that it shall be the duty of the Government to teach everybody, to provide public education for everybody. ... Washington said that real happiness could only come through education. They all said it over and over again, public education is essential.”

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