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


The Public

We tend to think of holding schools accountable to the public.35 Understanding the public nature of schooling in a democracy is integral to grasping what it means to hold schools accountable. The public is, at base, the demos of democracy, the people who constitute it and who engage in ruling (kratos) it. The state or government provides the structure through which the public implements its will, and it is guided in its organization and practice by a constitution.36 In the case of schools, it is government infrastructure that oversees the daily operation of public schools. But, when viewed through the lens of a participatory theory of democracy as I outlined earlier, the meaning of “the public” takes on a different and more active sense. This also changes our understanding of the public that holds schools accountable, for the public is no longer an assessor or beneficiary existing somehow outside of accountability systems, but rather an integral part of establishing them and responding to them.

Modern democracies are actually made up of multiple publics, though we tend to group them together as a universal, “the Public,” when talking about them. Kathleen Knight Abowitz clarifies: “The Public, singular, is more a symbol of universal citizenship and political membership than it is a political association of real persons engaged in participatory work on behalf of shared interests”37 The public, then, tends to function more as a catch-all term for a collection of citizens, while a public or publics, as I hope to show, are more active subsets of people who rally together around some shared problem or interest.

These multiple publics of people working together tend to form when people are brought together through similar experiences or problems and have a need for their shared elements to be addressed. The need for an educated population often gives rise to mutual concerns for schooling, and issues with how best to conduct that schooling generate problems that can create publics. These publics are often temporary and shifting, changing when developments in shared experiences or problems unfold. They tend to form around joint problems or issues that come and go, such as deciding where to build a new school or how to support sports teams when a school’s extramural funding has been cut. Arising around and tied to those problems and issues, publics are different from communities, which often have more longstanding relational and proximal ties bringing members together.

Walter Feinberg notes that the people composing publics tend to come from an array of backgrounds, yet are connected by common concerns with their shared fate, care for the interests of others, or desire to seek common principles that enable them to work out differences.38 Dewey adds, “The public consists of all those who are affected by the indirect consequences of transactions to such an extent that it is deemed necessary to have those consequences systematically cared for"39 In the private realm, transactions are confined to intimately related groups and are often shielded from government scrutiny beyond meeting basic constitutional guidelines. A public, however, contains wider intersections of people experiencing direct or indirect consequences impacting their welfare, which may necessitate regulation or intervention by the state while a public forms and works to address them.40

These publics recognize their shared consequences and express them openly, for example, by forming an organization or social movement and crafting a mission statement or platform that captures it. Again, in Dewey’s words, “There can be no public without full publicity in respect to all consequences which concern it"41 For example, facing cuts to music programs at a high school, the Band Boosters may form to publicly defend the importance of music, strengthen current programs, and shore up support for future ones. But forming and articulating oneself as a public can be quite challenging; as Dewey has written, “The prime difficulty, as we have seen, is that of discovering the means by which a scattered, mobile and manifold public may so recognize itself as to define and express its interests"42 But when a group forms that is capable of naming its struggles, its shared consequences, and its interests, it is able to create public ends and public goods.43

In the case of the Band Boosters, parents and music-minded community members may gather together to identify struggles of time, recognition, and funding that may limit music programs in the school, consider how those problems impact multiple stakeholders, and then craft solutions for carving out space for music in the curriculum, generating funding to support music programs, and arranging performances so that the city can be culturally enriched. The group is capable of wielding political power to shift recognition and distribution in ways that are far more significant than, say, an individual parent who, in today’s climate of neoliberalism, may try to influence the situation as a consumer, but who may find that purchasing music equipment or donating money to the music teacher has limited and unsustainable impact.

The creative process of forming publics and public goods occurs through shared deliberation and decision making. As Knight Abowitz says, publics are “formed of problems, existing in conflict, developing in deliberation."44 Interestingly, a public itself is simultaneously created as it creates public ends and public goods through its acts and decisions. David Matthews explains, “Public building is done through collective or public work, and the citizenry that does public work is the public. So the public I am writing about is both the agent doing the work and the entity created by the work"45 Knight Abowitz gets to the heart of defining publics, showing that they exist not as readymade entities, but rather as a way of life that citizens construct. As she explains, publics are active, like a verb, encompassing our ways of transacting and working with others.46 They are “achievements" to use Denis Shirley’s term,47 insofar as they are feats accomplished in our moments of collective work and in the goods we produce.

Because problems are often temporary or shifting, it can be difficult to form sustained or lasting publics. Nonetheless, pursuing the formation of deep and sustained publics—what we might call “mature" publics—is worthwhile, for it can bring stability and ongoing participation to democracy and is more likely to build the political agency necessary to significantly influence the government or other people to their ends. Today, with globalization increasing our mobility, widening our realms of experience, and introducing a greater diversity of people and backgrounds into our social networks and schools, achieving and sustaining publics that work across lines of difference is more and more challenging. At the same time, a competing phenomenon is also emerging: citizens increasingly seek out like-minded people and limit our exposure to differing viewpoints, especially in our use of news and social media.48 This limits our interaction with and understanding of people different from ourselves, preventing us not only from forming more inclusive publics, but also from forming publics that are open to change or growth as well as publics that are informed by vigorous exchange of information and competing views. These groups have a tendency to become increasingly polarized.49

Additionally challenging the establishment of clear and sustained publics, we may struggle to identify and define our problems, especially if those issues are often described—l ike standardized test scores to measure school quality—in overly technical terms or in the unfamiliar and unpersuasive terms of government bureaucrats.50 Without being able to first name and frame our issues and then build our membership from those mutually impacted by consequences, we cannot identify ourselves as a public. Supporting and enhancing these scattered and fledgling publics requires deep and ongoing collaboration and communication that works to determine, solve, and implement solutions to problems. Ongoing deliberation and action, then, can sustain maturing publics by providing new language and ideas to label shared experiences and create a bridge across differences, and by adapting to meet and address new problems while still retaining some shared commitments established earlier. Such ongoing open deliberation can be one tool in combatting group polarization.

Matthews rightly warns that “most people don’t instinctively turn to the schools when they think about solving community problems. Making that connection comes after some reflection—or a crisis. Only those who think of themselves as partners start with the assumption that the school is the hub of the community"51 When publics do form through and because of schools, however, citizens come to appreciate the important location and function of schools. And when those publics mature, they carry with them assumptions of partnership and a belief in the power of the school to impact the well-being of others that make public action more forceful and efficient.

Finally, Knight Abowitz adds,

Publics are everywhere, cannot be avoided, but we often cannot see or point to them. They are plural—publics—but so often we refer to the idea in the universal singular: the public, and what the public wants from its schools.

In addition, the public concept is both real (descriptive, the good and bad empirical facts) and ideal (normative ethical, political principles that should guide our actions). Being accountable and responsive to the public represents a democratic ideal that is hinged to the political legitimacy of the institution of public schooling, but “the public" is also an imperfect, lived reality in our political existence.52

Here, Knight Abowitz helpfully describes the dual nature of the public, highlighting its real and ideal sides, while also getting at the important connection between active public life and political legitimacy, which I will discuss later. Moving forward, I will use “public” throughout this book in the more active sense of citizen connection and work that I’ve defined here.

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