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Home arrow Education arrow American public education and the responsibility of its citizens : supporting democracy in the age of accountability


Accountability, the Public, and Public Schools

To make my case that citizens have a responsibility to support public schools, I will initially describe democracy and explain its connection to schools. And insofar as my call is in response to the current accountability crisis, I first take a closer look at accountability as an aspect of contemporary schooling and recent shifts in democracy. Finally, recognizing that we typically hold schools accountable to the public, we need to take a closer look at what “the public” is and how it is related to democratic education. I turn to those tasks in this chapter.

Understanding Democracy

Democracy is a formal system of government and an informal way of life in America. Maintaining democracy is one of the most longstanding goals of education. Our changing understanding and practice of democracy, as I will show in this chapter, are also related to the expectations and systems of accountability that we have used over time in our schools. I begin by laying out a participatory view of democracy in order to show how its deep and active sense of the public and public participation can help us rework accountability and the problems it poses today.

There are many different political theories of democracy (civic republicanism, communitarian, participatory, deliberative, and more), which each offer normative visions of how it should work as a formal process and as a cultural way of life. Formally, they lay out systems of elected officials and dictate governance structures, explaining how the state and government should work. Culturally, political theories of democracy describe the desired behaviors of citizens, including what they value and how they interact to embody democratic ways of life. I try to keep many of my larger claims in this book relevant to a wide interpretation of democracy, but I recognize that some of the finer elements of my argument require stronger positioning within a specific theory of democracy.

My views are largely aligned with those of participatory democracy and, while this orientation does tend to uphold particular values across time, I echo the sentiment of one of its key proponents, John Dewey, who says that democracy “has to be constantly discovered, and rediscovered, remade and reorganized"1 Democracy is a contested concept that is not, and never should be, settled. Were it to be pinned down once and for all, it would no longer entail the active and ongoing participation that is integral to its viability. While it will likely continue to uphold certain virtues, aims, and practices, democracy must be continually debated and transformed to shape and respond to changing social and environmental conditions. Because of the changes I described in my introduction, engaging in a discussion of democracy is especially important now. Indeed, holding such a conversation can be one way of actually doing democracy, of bringing people together to sort out key elements of shared social living in the face of reduced citizen voice and participation as well as increased marketization.

Like Dewey, Benjamin Barber, and others in the participatory tradition, I see democracy not merely as government management or administration of a group, but as a way of daily living alongside others with whom we sometimes experience shared consequences and common goods, thereby requiring us to act inclusively and collectively to achieve goals such as clean water, safe communities, or fair elections. A well-functioning democracy is one aimed at growth and fruitful shared living for all. It is achieved through sharing experiences, communicating, and making decisions together. It supports a liberal state, which does not mean alignment with a political party, but rather a form of constitutional government that emphasizes the liberty of its citizens. As such, it upholds values of equal opportunity, freedom, nonrepression, and nondiscrimination2 and it does so with the consent of the governed.

Democracy requires citizens to act in public and private ways aligned with those values by balancing them with requisite duties.3 Citizens work together to solve problems and reach agreements about the public good, sometimes employing elements of a tradition complementary to participatory democracy: deliberative democracy.4 While open to change, some of the longstanding characteristics of citizens in a democracy include trust, exchange, respect for equal justice under law, appreciation for civil discourse, free and open inquiry, knowledge of rights, and recognition of the tension between freedom and order.5

Dewey pointed out decades ago in his essay “Creative Democracy” that we have often assumed democracy will simply continue.6 This is largely because we tend to think of democracy as something that exists somewhere else, typically in Washington, DC, or the state capitol, and is supported by the seasonal voting of dutiful individuals. We don’t think of it as something that actively involves us or our daily lives. We have seen these beliefs increasingly reflected in recent years in the growing disengagement of citizens from government, politics, and political institutions.7 Many of us assume that democracy is established and will continue regardless of whether or not we contribute to it, leaving us comfortable to passively benefit from or suffer from the consequences of democracy.8

In fact, some of us are skeptical that we are even capable of influencing an increasingly large and diverse democracy where political parties, lobbyists, and corporations are major players, while others are cynical regarding the potential benefits of participating in democracy and prefer to voyeuristically watch for failure. Additionally, assuming that democracy will carry on, some citizens may fail to recognize the need for schools to develop democratic dispositions or values in our future generations of citizens. In sum, some of us do not appreciate the active effort required in a participatory democracy. To keep such a democracy healthy, we have to recognize that democracy’s maintenance and improvement depend upon our active participation in shared living, solving problems, upholding common goods, and educating our children.

While the vision I espouse in this book is largely participatory, it also branches over into the different, but complementary, theory of deliberative democracy. As a proponent of participatory democracy, I emphasize democratizing individuals and institutions in nearly all aspects of life, from the workplace to civil society to the home. And as a supporter of deliberative approaches to democracy, I also emphasize using deliberation to form, justify, and legitimate public institutions and policies. But simply expanding or improving deliberation to increase legitimacy does not go far enough; it’s essential to me that deliberation lead to citizen action and inform the views of elected policymakers and other officials whose decisions shape everyday life in democracy. Like other scholars in the budding field of Civic Studies, I turn to deliberative civic engagement to solve social problems.

I employ the work of John Dewey to span these two theories of democracy, participatory and deliberative.9 While more strongly grounded in participatory democracy than deliberative democracy, I bring these two traditions together to call for “expanded citizen participation in public life” in order to transform and improve schools as a public institution central to democracy.10 I recognize that participatory theory is sometimes seen as overly utopian and unrealistic in large and complex modern societies, and assumes that people have the time, interest, and ability to participate. At the end of this book, I will address the importance of idealism and hope in a vision of improved public schools and will ground public support for them in a sense of responsibility that overcomes such roadblocks to participation while still recognizing the significant limitations they impose.

Admittedly, one of the most important groups I address in this book, teachers, are largely unaware of theories of participatory or deliberative democracy. When many of us think of teachers in terms of idealism, we focus merely on stereotypes of their sunny dispositions. Learning about these theories may help guide teachers toward a new understanding of what democracy is and can be, so that they can direct their teaching and the learning of children along the lines of those democratic ideals. Idealism is a source for hope and practice, which may be difficult at times—a far cry from perpetual smiles—but which is always geared toward good social living.

One competing political theory of democracy is that of a liberal democracy acting as a procedural republic that emphasizes free individual choice and refrains from privileging any specific moral or religious life over another. Such a procedural republic promotes fair procedures and protects the rights of individuals to pursue their own vision of the good life, largely unencumbered and with little expected of them in return. This theory underlies the recent political and economic shift toward neoliberalism, with its focus on individual freedoms. While it admirably emphasizes the freedom of individuals to choose whether to participate in shared projects, its individualistic ethos has jeopardized some elements of shared living, including the spirit of community and mutual interest in shared outcomes and consequences. Although emboldened as consumers and individuals pursuing our own desires, citizens are left feeling increasingly disconnected and disempowered politically, unable to inspire ourselves to the sorts of civic participation necessary for preserving shared liberties, or even for pursuing our own desires in more than economic ways.

I contend that such a political theory is not sufficient to sustain democracy or good quality of living alongside others. Instead, we require some minimum level of sharing in self-government that necessitates political community, deliberation, and civic engagement. I call for a formative educational experience and civil society that cultivate habits of democracy that enable such community and deliberation. I do not wish to make naive or nostalgic calls for teaching or requiring extended and specific sets of civic virtues or character education. Rather, I want to recognize the more general need for civic participation, community, and publicness to aid democracy in functioning well, especially as we face times of greater diversity, globalization, and higher mobility among our population, which challenge our ability to work together in small, manageable, community settings. We should be concerned with the public identity and capacities of our citizens to engage in self-government, not just our interests that play out in the private marketplace.11

As I will explain later, my vision of rich and sustained citizen participation in democracy offers a fruitful lens for analyzing the historical development of accountability and its weighty role today. It also sheds light, as I will detail in chapter seven, on how the accountability crisis now is intimately related to a larger crisis of political legitimacy. As I will argue, techniques of deliberation and participation can be engaged to intervene into this history to reshape and redirect it. But first, let’s look more closely at accountability and its changing understanding and role across time.

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